The #1 mistake actors make in auditions

43Recently I was asked for some feedback by someone who (unsuccessfully) auditioned for me.  It’s unusual for actors to even ask for feedback, so I was happy to take some time to write him an email. When I thought more about it, I realised his mistake was a really, really common one for a lot of new actors, so I thought I’d better share it with you here.
The auditionee was an extremely lovely person, and based on attitude alone I would have loved to cast him.  The difficulty I came up against as I directed him a few different ways during his audition was that he had actually over-prepared.  He had clearly chosen certain gestures to happen on certain words and a particular vocal pattern for his lines, and no matter what I would ask him to do, he couldn’t resist doing them every single time.  Now, there was nothing actually wrong with the gestures he had chosen; I just needed to see what else he could do, and his adherence to the same movements and pitch every time meant I only got to see a very small side of his range. Having seen only that much of his range, I had to assume that was all he was capable of, and I couldn’t cast him.

Ideally, you don’t want this to happen to you.  Every time you go to an audition, you want the director or casting agent to see you do a variety of things, and do them well. Often, the director has a general idea in their head of the type of actor they’re looking for – that might be to do with an actor’s looks or their particular approach to the scene. Sometimes they just want someone that’s great at following direction and easy to work with. Sometimes they’re secretly thinking about turning the whole production into a musical set in the 1980s. So when you go to the audition, you need to be listening carefully for clues for what the director wants. Obviously you can’t do much about what you look like, but if you can glean from the director’s comments that they’re looking for someone tough, then you need to show them you can be tough!

It’s simpler than it sounds.  You don’t need to cry on cue or do 5 different accents.  They just want you to be FLEXIBLE.  If the director says, “stand in the corner and say your lines without moving”, then DO IT!  If they say, “Do an 80s dance and sing your lines at the same time”, then give it a red-hot go (remember, there’s always the possibility that they’re planning a 1980s musical).  Listen carefully to the instructions, ask questions if you really need to, but even better – just give it a bash, and don’t hold back.  If it’s not quite what they wanted, they’ll either redirect or leave it at that, but they’ll at least see a different side of you – but only if you’re flexible and courageous enough to try something completely different (and not in a half-assed way, either!).  And believe me, directors do ask for things like that.  They really do.

So you need to think about how you’re preparing your audition material.

When I first started out as an actor doing theatre auditions, I used to prepare my monologues geographically.  ‘I’ll start here, walk over here on this line, turn my head this way on this line, walk forward on this line.’  I really wouldn’t recommend this approach. For screen auditions this is obviously harder to do, but you might be ding the vocal equivalent – my voice goes up at the end of this line, I laugh a bit here, and so on and so on.

I’ll tell you a secret – when I prepare scenes monologues for auditions now, I don’t prepare any actions at all.  Not unless they are specified in the spoken text, such as ‘here on my knee’.  If they are in the stage directions, I will give them fair consideration, but it should also be noted that your monologue will be out of context, and therefore you may not have the necessary surroundings to make the stage directions make sense.  As always, it is personal choice, but I would say as long as you understand why the stage directions are there – are they indicating that you move away from someone, or that your character is physically exhausted, for example – then you should be able to incorporate them or adapt them as you see fit.

So if I don’t prepare any actions, how do I not look completely underprepared when I audition? What do I actually prepare?  There are two basic steps to preparing for an audition.

1. I learn my lines really, really well.

This seems obvious, but its importance cannot be underestimated.  You need to know them back to front and upside down.  You need to be able to do them without thinking, because when your director asks you to do an 80s dance and sing your lines, I guarantee you’re not going to have enough brain space to also think about your next line.  It is has to be there at the front of your brain, waiting. It needs to live in your bones.

2. Commit to discovery

Do you believe that the best acting occurs when you repeat the exact same thing every time?  If you do, I’d challenge you to rethink that.  Of course we are in the game of repetition, whether it’s screen or stage, but you still need to be in the moment.  If you’re thinking about trying to recapture something you did in the past, you can never really be in the moment.  Your scene will always have the same limitations – the same lines, the same set, the same people, the same circumstances – but each moment holds infinite possibilities.  The truth is, you don’t know what is going to happen.  This is something that I hammer home when I work with actors.  You should always, always be discovering.  What’s going to happen?  Let it arrive, let yourself be the first audience, and respond – not just to others, but also to what you’re doing.  This is a fairly advanced concept, so it may not make sense for a while, but I really encourage you to take with you the idea of discovery.  Discovery leads to flexibility – if you don’t know what’s going to happen, you have to be flexible enough to deal with anything, and you will be respond generously, courageously, and openly.  That’s great acting.

Like an English Lit essay, there are no ‘wrong ideas’ if you can back it up with evidence. Unfortunately, like English Lit, there will always be people who will tell you you’re wrong anyway, so you  just need to do your homework and be brave – and FLEXIBLE.  There are endless possibilities, so if your director asks you to try something else in your audition, don’t say, “but the stage directions say ‘yadda yadda yadda'”, just DO IT.  Try it first and see if it fits.  Chances are they’ve had longer to think about it than you – and if not, they’re the director, so in the end it will be their vision that wins out, so you need to be able to play by their rules.

For extra brownie points: find your favourite acting technique

There are a million different acting techniques and theorists out there, and you really need to find a system that works for you. If you haven’t been to drama school, you may not have been exposed to all the options for acting prep. In this case, I highly recommend checking out some acting books to find a technique you like. (There are so many. Have you tried The Actor and the Target or An Actor Prepares?) This way you can make sure you have a system that gets you great results every single time.

There’s a lot more I could say about audition prep, but I’d better wind things up before this turns into a novel.  Let me finish by saying – yes, it can be terrifying taking away your structured gestures, vocal choices and geographical planning, because it feels like it leaves you with nothing.  But I promise you – if you know your lines so well that you can wash the dishes and tap dance while saying them, and you commit to discovering something new each time you perform, you will soon find yourself inhabiting the character so comfortably that it will get up and walk and talk on its own, without you needing to force-feed it gestures.  To really be prepared, you need to know and understand your character.  After that, anything can happen, and it will be glorious.

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