The day after I was appointed to work on Dancing at Lughnasa, I was already in the room for the IU Theatre season general auditions. I hadn’t even registered for my classes yet, but there I was at the table with the three directors for the season (Jonathan Michaelsen, Liam Castellan, and Dale McFadden, whom I’m assisting on Lughnasa), watching nearly a hundred actors audition.
The auditions were enlightening for many reasons. My first two impressions:
- Wow, there are a lot of REALLY talented actors here.
- Wow, these auditions are REALLY competitive.
On the first point, it’s really exciting to see the pool of talent at IU. These folks are young, hungry, and excited to work, and it’s clear that a large portion of the acting pool has professional potential after school.
On the second point, when you’re on my side of the table you become acutely aware of how difficult it is for an actor to stand out from a hundred other actors, armed with nothing but a monologue and a smile. Within the three non-musical plays this semester, there were a total of 24 roles available, and only half of those were cast with undergraduate actors. It’s the simple math that for the vast majority of auditioning actors, there just won’t be a role, and a lot of skilled and talented actors won’t be cast.
But then that’s the business, isn’t it? In almost every professional theatre scene across the country, it’s an intensely competitive market for actors. If you aren’t able to reliably beat the odds in the audition room, you won’t reliably work. Young, inexperienced actors who aspire to work professionally need to be exposed to the challenge of auditioning and start honing their skills right away.
And that’s what I was struck by when watching everyone audition for the IU Theatre season – the veterans in the room make themselves stand out by having a solid command over some basic audition technique. Things like:
- Start off on the right foot. When you come into the room, hand your materials to the auditors if you’re still carrying them, then place yourself a comfortable distance away from the table. Don’t be too far or too close (this is a nice opportunity to show them that you have some basic spatial awareness). If you need a chair for your audition piece, find a chair in the room and place it wherever you need it. You don’t need to ask permission to use the chair. When you’re all set up, look at the auditors and smile. If everyone is looking back at you and nobody’s writing, it’s okay to begin. You don’t need to ask permission to begin. Slate with your name and audition material, then start your pieces. All of this is showing the auditors that you’re comfortable auditioning, that you’re confident and professional, and that you’re ready to work.
- Choose material that shows you off. This is a tricky one, but finding a good monologue is crucial. Try to pick something that is within your range as an actor – if you’re a 19-year-old female, auditioning with Salieri from Amadeus is a fascinating choice, but it reveals very little to me about what you can actually do. In anything close to traditional casting, I couldn’t cast you in that role (or any role similar to it) so even if I appreciate the novelty or boldness of your choice, it probably won’t give me enough information about you to be able to call you back. Also, avoid doing overdone monologues. A quick Google search can tell you what’s frequently used (hint: it’s Angels in America). You’re trying to be memorable, so it’s not a great tactic to use material that we’ve heard many times before, often in the same day.
- Learn your lines. It’s really hard to nail an audition if you’re not rock solid on your text. It’s not that the directors will be horrified if you forget your lines or stumble – some will, but most are fairly generous – it’s that you’re not going to be able to make interesting choices if you’re grasping for your words. And once you visibly forget, or ask to start over, then the auditors at the table will wonder during every single pause if you’re acting… or searching for your text.
- Dress the part. Look presentable and professional. If you wouldn’t wear it for a job interview, don’t wear it to audition. Your NOFX tank is super rad, but I don’t want you to deliver your Tennessee Williams monologue wearing it.
- Don’t look at me, please. Place your imaginary scene partner somewhere in the space that isn’t EXACTLY WHERE I’M SITTING. Please, please, please: if you’re auditioning for me, don’t look me in the eyes while you’re acting. It makes me self-conscious, distracted, and forces me to look away from you while you’re performing, which is very bad. Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to act with you, I want to watch you act. By looking at an auditor in the audition room, you’re bringing them into your scene to be your unwillingly scene partner, and that’s not a good idea. Save the eye contact for callbacks, when you have other actors to play off of.
In other words, don’t be Billy McBadactor in the following play, which may or may not have been written right now by me:
Billy McBadactor Goes to an Audition
BILLY enters the audition room wearing an IU hoodie, Pokémon socks, and his girlfriend’s jeggings. He looks around the room for several seconds before walking up to the table of the DIRECTOR.
BILLY: Uh, do you guys need my resume and stuff?
DIRECTOR: Yes, please.
BILLY: Okay. I actually left it on the bus but can I bring one to you at callbacks?
BILLY: Okay and I don’t have a headshot but I took a selfie in the hallway, can I text it to you or something?
DIRECTOR: That’s okay, don’t worry about it.
BILLY: Okay and can I use a chair for the audition?
DIRECTOR: Yes, there’s a chair up there already.
BILLY goes to the chair.
BILLY: Okay, can I use this chair?
BILLY: Are you sure? This chair right here?
DIRECTOR: Yes, you can use it.
BILLY: Okay but I actually just decided I’m not going to use a chair.
BILLY goes to the extreme end of the room and stares at the DIRECTOR.
BILLY: Okay do you want me to start?
DIRECTOR: Yes, whenever you’re ready.
BILLY clears his throat and does some stretches. He does not tell the DIRECTOR what piece he will be performing. Probably Angels in America.
BILLY: Okay I’m going to start.
He clears his throat again, then waves a hand in front of his face to show how serious of an actor he is. He walks all the way to the front of the room, four inches away from the DIRECTOR, stares directly in her eyes, and begins to scream.
BILLY: HEY, YOU IDIOT! YEAH, I’M TALKING TO YOU!
The DIRECTOR is unsure whether BILLY is acting or actually yelling at the DIRECTOR.
BILLY: JUST BECAUSE I’M AN EIGHTY-FIVE YEAR OLD GRANDMOTHER WHO HAS DEALT WITH A LIFE FULL OF TRAUMATIC EVENTS DOESN’T MEAN I’M GONNA…uh, I’M GONNA… uh…
BILLY pauses for twenty seconds.
BILLY: Sorry I forgot the lines can I start over?
DIRECTOR: …what play is this from?
BILLY: My friend Danny wrote it. He’s going to audition next.
DIRECTOR: Okay… you know what, I think we’ve got what we need. Thanks a lot for coming in.
End of PLAY and BILLY’S CAREER