America’s Got Talent held its first in-person audition in the Los Angeles area since the COVID-19 pandemic. On Feb. 4, eager contestants showed up to the Pasadena Convention Center in Pasadena, Calif., ready to put on their best show to score a coveted spot on Season 19 of the NBC reality competition show.
This was the only in-person opportunity that prospective contestants looking to be featured on the upcoming season would get to show off their skills in front of producers.
I went behind the scenes of the audition to get a look at the casting process and how performers put it all on the line for a chance at fame.
The room where it happens
When I arrived at the convention center, the show’s producers had draped the venue with show-branded banners and filled it with its signature star emblems. There was an air of enthusiasm, excitement and focus as I walked alongside performers into the convention center.
I was greeted by a PR rep who filled me in on what was happening — contestants were waiting to be called up to perform for the show’s producers. As they waited, they practiced their acts for cameras that were shooting footage that will be used for the upcoming season when it premieres.
There were hundreds of people packed into a room with numbers stickered onto their clothing that designated their spot in line.
While I didn’t have a chance to witness performers in front of producers during their auditions, the common theme contestants shared with me was they were ready to go and weren’t worried about making mistakes.
America’s Got Talent — and a lot of guts
There’s no limit to the type of people who apply for AGT. I met everyone from 85-year-old magician Jack Noel from Lewes, Del., to nine-year-old Grace Gerszewski from Tomball, Texas.
It was encouraging to see people of all ages auditioning.
“I wanted to show people that even though you're 85, you can still have brand-new dreams. Dream them and go for them and just try to make them happen. That’s my biggest goal, it really is,” Noel told me.
Of her motivations to audition, Gerszewski said, “It’s the biggest stage in the world, it would be so cool to be on it.”
“It means everything because I've been doing it for so long, since I was like two, so I've been dancing for like seven years,” she explained. Her dad, Charlie Gerszewski, was there to cheer her on.
“She makes us proud, she really does,” he said.
To audition for America’s Got Talent, prospective contestants need to be at least 18 years old or have the consent of a parent/guardian and be an American citizen or be in the U.S. legally at the time of initial audition. Contestants cannot currently be a candidate for public office.
People travel from all over the world to audition, like Luke Ligtenberg, who flew into California from Australia to showcase his talent.
“My brother recommended I come over here and I’m here to win, I’m here to be in the land of opportunity and show the world my talent. I think that America’s Got Talent is a great platform for that,” said Ligtenberg, who performed an original song for producers that included him playing the guitar and the didgeridoo, a traditional Australian instrument.
Comedian Cathy Zhao, who lives in San Francisco, shared what she thinks sets her apart from other contestants.
“I'm going to talk about how life sucks living in America … because I got dumped by American guys,” she joked. “I moved here 10 years ago for school.”
She said her routine is unique because of living in two different countries.
“I have living experience both in China and the U.S., so I have a unique perspective to talk about my story and it's gonna be fun. I've been doing [comedy] for five years in English,” she explained.
Then there was rapper Sir Francis Drake, whose birth name is David Safier, but insisted on going by his stage name. His rhymes of choice? Those written by Drake.
“I’m the first European to circumnavigate the globe and what I'm doing is jamming to Drake songs because I'm Sir Francis Drake,” he said.
Returning for a second chance
For some hopefuls who auditioned on Sunday, it wasn’t their first experience with the show.
Jonathan Allen, an opera singer, said he was a finalist on Season 8 and flew in from Albuquerque to audition again.
“I was going through a lot of shit at the time, just out of an abusive relationship, I couldn't do what I wanted to do in life, so I'm out of that and now I just want to spread love and see if I can do it again,” he told me.
When I asked if he’s eligible to participate again, he said, “I don’t know, we’ll see. I have no idea. I’ll let them know when I get in there.”
When I followed up with Allen after his audition, he wasn't able to share what the next steps looked like for him on the show.
Meanwhile, Kim Manning, who lists singing and roller skating among her many talents, was cast to perform on Season 2 in 2007. She told me she was edited out of the show and wanted to return more than a decade after her first appearance to give it another shot.
“I feel like it is the best place if you have talent and you want to share it,” she explained. “I sing, I skate, lyra [aerial hoop], trapeze, hair suspension, fire — the whole shebang. If you do everything, you might as well bring it here because this is the stage for everything.”
Those who impressed the show's producers move on to the taped auditions. Contestants will learn by the end of March if they qualify for the next round, where they will come face-to-face with judges Simon Cowell, Sofia Vergara, Heidi Klum, and Howie Mandel.
America’s Got Talent Season 19 premieres summer 2024 on NBC.