It’s for the smallest of audiences, involves no set or props, and takes less time than microwaving popcorn. Yet it’s an audition that can launch your journey as an actor to professional heights so many dream of but never reach.
Jason Beck is familiar with the process for DePaul University’s theatre school. While today he is director of admissions for the Chicago-based program, he’s also a graduate of the program, and laughs when asked to recount his own audition in 1993. Having grown up in Oklahoma City, he had little experience outside his high school. “I didn’t feel like I was prepared.” The audition process then and now is a three-part process: The first part is the monologues, next there is some class work and then some light scene work. Beck felt comfortable with the monologue, as he had some coaching from his drama teacher. “But I didn’t even know what a conservatory was at the time so with the other parts I felt out of my element.”
DePaul offers 15 degree programs and three graduate programs. “It’s a four-year total immersion program.” Around 330 students participate in 40 productions a year.
At Webster, applicants perform two monologues up to two minutes long. The preference is something written after 1945, and is dialect-free. “They can do something from Shakespeare, but we don’t require it because high school kids aren't usually prepared to take on that work,” Sargent says. “I think the issue is making a character choice that the person is comfortable with, and be able to tell a story with it.” But he cautions about being too contemporary: As so many great contemporary writers use … ahem, “contemporary” language, he’s seen a desire to impress by some choosing these “colorful” snippets. “I’ve had others on the committee turn to me and say, ‘if I hear another ‘[expletive deleted],’ I’ll go nuts!’” he laughs. “Don’t get me wrong, some of the work of David Mamet and Sam Shepard can be quite lyrical, but you don’t want to push it for an audition.”
The liberal arts college requires a good academic record to get in, at
least a B plus. There’s no audition into the theatre program, though
they hold auditions for scholarships and for those who don’t quite meet
the academic requirements. “I can be like the football coach,” he
Muhlenberg also requires two age-appropriate monologues, up to a total of five minutes. “No accents—I want to hear what their voice is like.” He advises choosing monologues that allows them to make “active choices—pieces that show they can act. Too often monologues are remembrances of the past, and overly narrative rather than active.” Part of the audition is what they choose themselves, which is why Muhlenberg does not give recommendations. “I want to see what you choose. It’s going to tell me what your level of sophistication is.” Bad choices include getting “silly things off the Internet” (yes, he’s seen it) or Christopher Durang pieces which are “too hard and I’ve seen too many of them.”
They can choose a Shakespearean piece. “I would avoid comic pieces from As You Like It. It’s never funny and almost always painful to watch. Midsummer Night's Dream excerpts are overdone. I would advise considering Isabella and Angelo monologues from Measure for Measure. They are good and not done to death.”
At DePaul, it’s just one contemporary monologue. Beck advices the applicant to be familiar with the entire play the monologue is from. “We may choose to work with them a bit on the piece,” he says. His view is there is a limit to the well-written pieces for this age. “I tell applicants we haven’t seen them do that piece. And good material is good material for a reason.”
After the monologue, there’s a class session for about an hour that involves warm ups, movement and vocal exercises, and other basics taken right out of their first year at DePaul. The entire process is also meant for the applicant to audition DePaul, too. “We want them to see if we’re a good fit for them.”
At Webster, those interested in pursuing musical theatre also sing 16
bars of two songs. “The big tendency is to choose songs from the
current hit on Broadway,” says Sargent. “Sometimes they forget there
was some pretty good music written in older shows.” Also, today’s
Broadway hits tend to be rock songs. While it’s still great music, it
doesn’t always show off what the voice can do as well as older material
in 16 bars. “Everyone likes to do things from Rent, but it’s all
belting. It punishes the vocal cords.” He adds that hearing a Lerner
and Loewe or Rodgers/Hart song is not as common as one might think, and
is an excellent choice—as well as a welcome break for the judges.
Coaching – and the “Small Stuff”
Sargent notes a burgeoning cottage industry of audition coaches making a living preparing kids to get into programs.
“Some do excellent work, some don’t,” says Sargent. Some acting coaches think they know the formula of getting into a particular school, but it’s not like coaching someone to get a high score on the SAT. “We’re interested in what the person brings to the audition, rather than the slickness of the audition.”
Richter notes that sometimes he’s seen kids who have all this additional training at special workshops, come from Arts Magnet schools, and work with a professional coach, which is “fine when they are good. But I want to say to some of these kids, with all that training, and you’re still bad? Maybe someone should have told you you’re lacking talent!”
All advise to pay attention to the details.
Beck at DePaul specifies to wear clothes you can comfortably move in. Even if for the monologue it’s better for the applicant to wear a shirt and tie, they encourage them to bring a change of clothes and get comfortable for the rest of the process. Richter recommends dressing simply and comfortably. Women shouldn’t dress overly suggestively, and no one should dress in a manner that contrasts too radically with the material they are performing.
“Some advise wearing something a little funky so you are easily remembered,” Beck says.
Sargent feels applicants should dress appropriately, in near business-attire. “I say an audition is an important date. Don’t go in with jeans. Look presentable. Some guys like to wear ties and dress pants. Women should think skirts and heels.”
Other “small” things that make a difference: State the name of the piece clearly. “Sometimes applicants are nervous and mutter it, and we spend most of the monologue trying to figure out what it’s from!” says Sargent.
Headshots are necessary, though they need not be professional ones. And remember the importance of the resume – experience and shows need to be done in reverse chronological order, starting with the most recent show or training.
Beck encourages asking questions. If you’re the least bit confused in preparing or executing your audition, the staff at any good theatre program is going to want to help. Finally remember that those auditioning you are rooting for you: “When we see someone do really good work, it’s exciting to us,” he says.
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