The Insider’s Guide to Drama School Auditions
So you want to be an actor and everyone’s told you not to do it. Well, so they should. You’d have to be mad to enter a profession where you are so unlikely to earn a living, have to cope with rejection on a permanent basis and have little control over your life.
But if you have a real passion for acting, then you won’t listen. And that’s the way it should be. Nothing is guaranteed economically these days and, with a following wind, you might do very well. You will also discover many other wonderful occupations within the business that you might not have thought of: voice-overs, presenting, teaching, writing, directing, producing, editing, costumes, design, the technical side and many, many more. You will also learn social and presentation skills to last a lifetime and to ensure you can always find a job to keep you going while you are waiting for the phone to ring.
And you will find a way to create your own projects so you can have more control over your life.
So if you do have that passion, that drive, that stubbornness, that need, that bravery, that commitment – then go for it for all you are worth. And the journey you start on will engross you for the rest of your lifetime.
So, onto the practical stuff:
Choose your drama schools carefully. In the UK, make sure they are accredited. This ensures you will receive excellent tuition, that you can become a member of Equity (not mandatory but an excellent survival tool), that you can join the Actors Centre (where you can keep up your skills and find a social base) and that you have a chance to be seen by major agents and casting agents. It also looks good on your CV and ensures you never feel embarrassed when, at auditions, they ask you where you trained.
Can you get into the business without going to drama school? Well, the answer is, yes – but it’s much, much harder. And you’ll be running to catch up for a long time. Even if you have studied drama at a conventional university, you will not have had the day in, day out practical training that is offered by a drama school.
Can you afford it? Sadly, like all other training, it has become much more expensive. If it is your first degree (most drama schools are now affiliated to universities and you apply through the UCAS system), then you will be able to take out a government loan. This is provided at a low interest rate and the good news is that you don’t have to repay it until you earn (currently) £21,000 a year. And to be honest, you are unlikely to be earning that figure for quite a few years. When you are, then you can repay at a manageable rate.
Because drama schools auditions are highly competitive, I suggest you try for at least four and maybe six or more schools. (Yes, I know that makes it expensive but it’s better in the long run.) Choose ones that offer courses you are particularly interested in, or ones that friends have been to and have recommended, or that appeal in some particular way to you. Add a couple that are out of London or not in the very top group (although still accredited).
Because of the UCAS system, you will be able to review all your options before settling on one. And, because of this system, you may find that if you are on a waiting list, you will be offered a place as people shuffle around into their chosen colleges.
One-year foundation and postgraduate courses don’t usually come under UCAS, so you must check they are right for you as they will be expensive and you may have to find the fees yourself. A foundation course may be the right way to start out but there is no guarantee that the drama school will take you into the three-year programme at the end of it. If you are over 21, then a one-year course may be right for you, but it is over very quickly! Some post-graduate courses enable you to achieve an MA degree.
You’ll find a list of accredited schools in the invaluable ‘Contacts’ published by Spotlight, ‘The Actors Yearbook’ (Methuen) and on the NCDT website (http://www.ncdt.co.uk).
Before we go on to the all important audition pieces, let’s think about the interview. Make sure that you go and see some good straight theatre in the months preceding the auditions so that you have something solid to talk about if they ask you what you’ve seen. Know which actors you admire and, above all, why you want to be an actor and why you’ve chosen that particular school. Do your homework. What they want to know from that interview is whether you are a potential dedicated actor or a ‘wannabe’ and whether you have the emotional and physical stamina for the course, as well as if you have talent.
You may be asked to sing (which will only be really important if you are being considered for a Musical Theatre course), to do a movement class or an improvisation. You will also be asked to do at least two pieces, generally a classic piece and a modern piece. Some places ask for three and some have a list to choose from and some have a list of pieces they’d rather not see. Read the requirements really carefully! If one of the colleges has set pieces to do for the classic choice, then it is a good idea to choose another as well for the other colleges, as they will see many people doing your monologue. For the song, if you are not really a singer, choose a piece that you can connect to and sing easily and approach the preparation in a similar way to the pieces. Make sure you take a good clean copy with you and consider a preparation session with a professional. You may be singing it with pianist for a musical theatre course, but it is usually unaccompanied.
For the classic monologue, it is a good idea to look at Jacobean pieces as well as Shakespeare, so you have more choice. These are also less done. If you do something superbly, it may not matter if it is popular, but some are done so often – like Helena in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and Phoebe in ‘As You Like It’ – that the auditioners might dread hearing them again.
For auditioners are human. They like to be woken up, stirred, enthralled, amused, surprised or moved. They don’t really want to see the same pieces over and over again, and they don’t particularly relish being sworn at and yelled at all day, as they are during some of the more popular modern pieces.
I would generally start by choosing your classic speech and then choosing the modern, trying to find a piece with a different drive and quality. If you want a lighter piece, then I would look for that in your classic piece, as comedic modern pieces of any depth are hard to find.
Finding the modern is generally trickier anyway, as there is a much wider field. Modern generally means after the late 1950’s (check the school’s current criteria), but I would be inclined to look for something after 1980, so that it feels more naturalistic and contrasts better with your classic piece. But if you fall in love with something from the ‘70s, then ignore that last advice – the important thing is that it is right for you.
What do I men by, ‘right for you’? Well – it should be around your own age, have no dialect (unless it is your native one), have strong drives, offer changes of intention and emotional pulls – by that I mean we should learn more than one thing, emotionally, about you in the role during the course of the speech – and, above all, it should fire your imagination. If the role is telling a story, then it must be for a reason and to get a response from the listener.
You can go to French’s bookshop (www.samuelfrench-london.co.uk) (Monday to Fridays) and sit and browse through monologue books and plays and ask for advice. If you find something you like in a monologue book, see if there is another good speech in that play or look at the author’s other plays to find a speech that is less common.
If one speech you choose is a soliloquy, then make sure the other is directly to another character in the play. With a soliloquy, you have to decide whether you are speaking directly to the audience or speaking your thoughts aloud within the ‘fourth wall’ (the world of the play). For example: when Hamlet says ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’, he may be stepping outside the framework of the play and asking the audience (very common in Shakespeare’s time and still sometimes used for effect) or he may be pacing around his room, or sitting and staring at a skull, and speaking out loud to himself. Something we all do from time to time to clear our thoughts. Or he may be saying it to a painting of an ancestor on the wall, or his dog etc. etc.
Anyway, only have one piece in which you are alone in the room (and you may have none like this). It is often easier to be talking to someone else – even if they are imaginary. As your imaginary partners are not being auditioned, put them slightly diagonally with their backs to the audience or even provide a chair for them if you are sitting down (be careful it doesn’t block you from view and remember their head is higher than the back of the chair). Keep them static unless the move is something obvious like you watching them leave the room. If you are auditioning in the US, then it is usual to place the other (imaginary) character as if they are in the audience. In Britain, you share the stage with them.
Some pieces are right to do seated, but not for the whole time. Follow your impulse to get up somewhere unless it really, really wouldn’t be right. In that case, make sure your other piece is more physical. They need to see you in motion at some point, or at least, standing. Generally, pieces work better standing and you may hardly need to move at all. Know your environment – what are you looking at. Where are you? It is life not a ‘speech’. Who are you talking to? What do they look like? What is your relationship? What do you want from them? Why are you saying this? If you talk about anyone else in the speech, ask yourself the same questions about them.
It has to feel like YOU speaking. You – as if you are in that situation, that place, that moment. They only want one thing from you in an audition; they want to believe you in that role. They don’t want you to be ‘showy’, or to ‘act’ they want it to feel real. They want to believe you. But they must be able to see and hear you and share that moment with you. You can’t mumble it to yourself in the corner with your eyes to the floor.
Give yourself plenty of time to find the pieces and to learn them really, really well. You don’t want to be fumbling for words. Learn them by finding how one thought leads to another. You could start by improvising in your own words to be sure you understand the situation, but in the end, you must be word perfect – particularly with the classic piece. You have to reach the point where the need to speak wells up and the only words that will come out are those precise words. And each time, they will be fresh. Don’t let the words drive you; they must become your words.
One thing that usually happens when you start with learnt text is that you want to rush. Take your time. Allow the impulses to happen. When you are rehearsing, move between your own words and the text – do the learnt words feel the same? Are they coming from the same place? You want it to feel and sound like you – you don’t want to go higher, or tight or to put on a ‘poetry’ voice! If English is your second language, then keep moving between your first language and the text until you feel the same connection. Our first language is learnt organically, but our second can stay in ‘de-coding’ mode for many years, so moving between the two helps you feel vocally and emotionally ‘centred’.
Watch your posture. By that, I don’t mean that you want to feel stiff or unnatural. But you should be as grounded and upright as you would be in life. Your body should be right for the situation. If you are leaning forward a lot, or sticking your chin out, or tilting your head up, you are ‘protecting yourself’ or dealing with nerves, and you will block yourself. When you are rehearsing, shut your eyes, ‘see’ the situation and let your body move naturally into place.
Don’t get patterned in the way you do the piece, it must stay fresh. If you’ve done it for several colleges and it’s starting to feel stale, whisper it very slowly to yourself to re-discover the drives. Write it down with the hand you don’t usually use. Draw a picture whilst you speak it. Run through your lines in a million different ways: sing them, dance them, run with them, do the hoovering, chop onions as you do them, lie on your back and let them float out and so on.
In the classic text, the syntax will be different to our modern patterns and it is a good idea to walk around the room, changing direction on the punctuation so you can feel how the thoughts drive on. They may be longer thoughts than your modern piece. Make you understand completely and specifically everything you are saying. There are texts that give you modern translations if you are in trouble. You need to own this language; it still has to feel like ‘you’ speaking. It must never feel as if you are ‘doing a speech’. Remember, human drives never change, even though the language may, at first, seem strange and archaic. You still have to be trying to get what you need from the other character. It is still ‘you – in the role’.
You might consider getting some help. If you do go to someone, make sure they are truly professional – otherwise, you are better on your own. If you’re doing A-level or B-tech drama, your teacher may be very helpful. Beware of doing your pieces to friends and family. You will get strange, conflicting advice and they may undermine you without meaning to. And they probably won’t know what the auditioners are looking for.
Don’t get complicated or think there are ‘rules’. Just really understand your imaginary world, who you are talking to, what you want and then believe in the situation.
You may have choice over the order of your pieces, so think beforehand about which piece will help you to get settled more easily. Also practise announcing the play, cleanly and simply as in – ‘I’m playing Rose, in ‘The Living Room’ by Graham Green’. (You don’t need to tell them the plot unless they ask something.) Do this short statement then get into your position for the start, take your few seconds of preparation and begin.
What should you wear? Well, you may have been asked to bring comfortable clothing for a movement workshop, so don’t forget those. You have to be able to move easily so flat shoes are best (or very low heels) and comfortably fitting clothes. You may want to slip a loose skirt over trousers for the classic piece, have a shoulder bag or put a jacket on for the business role. But keep things like that very minimal. Don’t get cluttered with props and changes. Usually you can find something that will be neutral enough to suit both pieces.
Work out how to get to the college in advance. Give yourself plenty of time, allowing for all the travel problems that might arise. When you get to the audition, you will find everywhere is different. In some places, you will come in on your own in front of a panel, announce your piece and do it. You may be interviewed before or after the pieces.
In other places you may do your pieces within a group situation. Try to be reassured that you are all in the same position and supporting each other and be brave in front of them. Often you will feel it is over before it has begun. So always centre yourself emotionally, take a second to see where you are in your imaginary world, where you’ve come from and what you want before you begin.
Adrenalin is part of an actor’s life – so you will have ‘nerves’. Shut your eyes, put your hands over your stomach and breathe into them. Feel how your stomach moves outwards as the breath drops in and goes inwards as the breath goes out. That is relaxed breathing. If it goes into reverse you are in ‘flight and fight’ and you don’t want to run away or punch them! So avoid taking a deep breath to prepare yourself before you start your speech – it’s bound to take you into stressed breathing. Instead, think about what you want in the scene and then just go for it. You’ll always have enough breath for the first line and then your body will take over. (You’ll find more tips on my blog http://wp.me/p1GPXq-8 and http://wp.me/p1GPXq-5)
You may be asked to do your piece again with some different direction. Take this as a good sign; they want to know if you are flexible. There may be a workshop. Throw yourself whole-heartedly into anything they want you to do. Ask simple questions if you don’t understand something but don’t make problems for yourself. Try to enjoy the day! You will probably be asked for a recall and occasionally you’ll need to do a different piece for it. But if you are not asked to do this, then it is probably wise to stick to the ones that have served you but to work on them afresh, without trying to replicate exactly how you did them before. Each time you do them must feel like the first time.
I wish you the very best of luck. If you don’t get in, think of it as preparation for all those lifelong rejections. There are so many reasons, apart from potential talent, that can result in you not being offered a place. Maybe they thought you were too young, or they wanted different ‘types’ for the course, or they had filled a particular quota. Take a summer course or an evening course at one of the dram schools. Think again if this career is right for you. If it is, then try again next year.
If you are successful, you may have more than one offer. Do some research, but follow your instincts based on your audition days. After all, as well as them auditioning you, you were auditioning them. And when you finally start that course, I wish you a wonderful, life-changing time and the greatest luck for the future.
(For the last twenty-odd years, Mel has worked at many of the major UK drama schools directing, teaching voice and acting and running workshops. She is the author of ‘Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second’ (Virgin Books) and ‘A Screen Acting Workshop/DVD’ (Nick Hern Books). She is on Twitter @MelChurcher. Her website is www.melchurcher.com)