Audition time … a few truths

The jacaranda trees are starting to go off after a month or more of blooming their lovely hearts out. That means end of year uni exams are over, but it also signals the start of audition season here in Queensland, and indeed, all over the country.

As I write, hopefuls are being coached and lining up to compete for a place at an Australian theatre-training institute. NIDA, WAAPA, VCA, QUT, USQ … the acronyms of the institutions are well-known by the hopeful auditionees, many of whom are trying out for them all. Only a handful will make it as professionals, and that’s probably a good thing. The truth is that a self-sifting process begins at the starting gate for those who aspire to a career as a performer. It’s heartbreaking, but also true.

I also know it’s audition season because I used to be part of a team at USQ that took applicants through their paces every November with call backs in early December. Although auditions are, according to US actor-trainer and author Robert Barton, the ‘least fair thing about the theatre,’ I recall these day-long workshops being most enjoyable for the participants … at least that’s what we’d hear in feedback. And they did relish the opportunity to loosen up, to let go of the nerves. We would lead them through activities and games for a couple of hours in the morning before the individual presentations to the audition panel in the afternoon. The panel knew that playfulness and trust are requisites for creativity, and it was always part of the approach taken by USQ’s panel. Give an actor the best chance to perform, and s/he’ll usually deliver. However, it’s  also true what they say about the first minute of an audition … we could almost always tell in that time whether or not the applicant had that indefinable aptitude and imagination that we were looking for. I won’t use the word ‘talent’ although that’s part of the package, but it can be something as vague to explain but as potent to experience as a particular energy and connection with others in the space. And so someone who had never (sadly) experienced theatre outside of school could give a blinder of an audition. Another person with years of speech and drama behind them as well as performance experience would fade away. True.

I also coach people for auditions. My approach is to encourage them to be as flexible and open as possible to the ideas in the script and to their own energies. I often find myself having to ‘break the mould’ that the candidate has poured for himself. The first run through of a piece is a warm-up; the second time you start to get a sense of where the actor is coming from, how she’s thinking about the character and situation … most don’t know how to read a dramatic text for clues by the way.

At this point I like to redirect to see whether or not s/he can start cracking open the constraints of the inevitable repetition of lines learning, rather than ideas learning. What Stanislavski called ‘rubber-stamping’ of a performance is of course death to freshness and vitality, but most just repeat what they have learned, trying to make it the same as last time, to get the words and moves right. This focus of energy on ‘getting it right’ chokes the imagination and stifles the content of the material.  If an auditionee cannot take direction and replay a moment or a scene from a different angle … in other words to apply her imagination and energy to the situation right then and there, then it’s all over. True.

I’m sending good vibes out there to all auditionees; god knows it’s a tough business, but perhaps it’s also a good thing to start getting used to this least fair part of being an actor. Auditions are a fact of life for working artists, and in the real world of professional acting not all audition experiences are good ones … nor is much playtime spent on them. One ex-student of mine, a very fine actor, calls himself ‘a professional auditionee.’ There’s no small amount of angst involved in the whole audition process, so it’s probably a good idea and helpful to one’s mental health to get used to seeing auditions not as a test of your worth, but as a chance to perform.

Break a leg!

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