27 June, 2012

Ask Al: Contemporary Speeches

Every once in a while I get emails from people asking for help or for advice. With their permission, I always think it is helpful to share these Q&As with everyone just in case any of you have the same questions out there.

This on was from a young woman about to audition for drama school in the UK.

* * *

Hey Al,

...Loved your blog on Auditions but is there any chance that you could recommend a couple of contemporary speeches? I have an audition for Mountview coming up and am struggling to find something.


* * *

Dear A,

The best I can offer you is to think about a "type" you fit. Think about a film actor whose personality/type represents the truest sense of you--your essence, a kind of kernel of your inner self. It is important that you distinguish the difference between
     who/what you want to be
but dig deep and think about
and also importantly,  
This takes a fair bit of self-awareness and sometimes quite strict self assessment.
And Dude: it can be brutal.

So. Sometimes I play a game with students when I am teaching that attacks this issue with a bit of whimsy (that's right, I just said whimsy)-- I ask them what Muppet they think they are. [*She pauses a moment for you to take that in....*] This covers all the Jim Henson canon from your straight up Muppet movies to Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock and beyond. Go for gold, people! Then we sit in a circle and WE TALK IT OUT AS A GROUP. Yes. Like, as in, yep-I-am-aware-this-is-higher-education-acting-class-and-we're-supposed-to-be-discussing-Meyerhold-but-let's-talk-Muppets-instead kind of talk. Real, serious, gritty talk.
For over two hours.

Things progress thus:

Blonde Guy: I think I am Animal.
Al: Okay, great. Why?
Blonde Guy: Because I don't like to say a lot, but I like to act out. 
Al: Alright. Is that it? 
Blonde Guy: What do you mean? 

Then we talk about how he is so much more than just that one sentence, and how actually, he just wants to be Animal because, let's face it-- Animal is awesome.

Then things continue:

Al: So what do you guys think of Blonde Guy as Animal?
Dark-Lipstick Girl: I dunno.
Al: Why?
Dark-Lipstick Girl: I see him more as Bert from Seasame Street.
Blonde Guy: WHAT?!
Al: Why do you say that Dark-Lipstick Girl?
Dark-Lipstick Girl: Because even though I agree he is quiet and can act out at times, I think it comes from a sort of adorable "fussiness" that reminds me a lot of Felix from The Odd Couple-- you know, the way you like to have all your pencils in a special order, and the way you dress so impeccably even for movement class and the way you never like to get sticky?! THAT IS TOTALLY BERT!

[flabbergasted and thoughtful, Blonde Guy thinks this over...]

Blonde Guy: Is all of that true?
Al: No. The pencil thing is true. I don't really want to know if the sticky thing is true. But ultimately, the character behaviors are only ever a reflection of what is happening inside. The person's essence moves them to make certain choices. So. No, it is what they perceive to be true.
Blonde Guy: I am Bert?!
Al: Look. I need you to breathe. I'm not trying to crush your Animal dreams here. You could be a little bit of Bert as well as Animal. We could throw in a healthy side dish of Prairie Dawn if you're feeling frisky. That's possible. These people might not know you as well as you or they think they do.
Blonde Guy: ...I guess I am a little bit like Bert. I didn't know people saw me that way.
Al: Well...that is what this whole incredibly ridiculous exercise is about.

Yeeeeeep. That's why they pay me the big bucks people: to get real about Muppets (and to sing loud, cry on cue and throw tarot cards at Danny Pino's head...of course.).

Now. Just so we're clear, this is genuinely a helpful exercise for any kind of material because it is important for us to understand our strengths and natural abilities, as well as the things we need to work on. I make it about Muppets because it is non-threatening and creates a levity in the classrooms of the English speaking world's most serious acting environments...and also because I love the Muppets...duh

But the exercise can be as "Oprah Aha-moment" as you deem it necessary to be. Get a journal. Talk it out with your close pals. But be prepared for a few surprises. Proceed with caution.

This knowledge, incidentally, is not always as important for classical material because naturally there will be an acting adjustment made for the time period, heightened language, etc. Contemporary stuff is deceptively challenging because you have to be your in touch with your natural, present-day self in a different set of contemporary circumstances. (This naturally applies to all acting, but these discrepancies can be ever more evident in contemporary work.)

For instance, the second I came to grips with the fact that I am a "Meg Ryan" a whole world of contemporary stuff opened up for me....

Now what the hell does that mean, exactly? I'm a well-read, highly educated neurotic American young woman with a penchant for word-sparring, situational and physical comedy that turns on a dime to become deeply affecting and emotionally serious, usually about matters of the heart. Bazinga. Obviously there are other actors out there that fit this category, and I draw from them too-- but mostly, I'm a Meg Ryan. (I'm also a Valerie Harper).
Whatever. It's a place to start.

Once you have this figured out, then, start by adapting a speech from one of their films. It is just a place to start. You can branch out from there. I find contemporary speeches very difficult (let's just take one little look at my professional work thus far and you will see that I pretty much always cry and wear corsets-- that is a strength of mine). So, when the contemporary going gets tough, I steal from Meg Ryan films. My RSAMD showcase scene was from French Kiss. It was a hit.

Oh, and for contemporary, my advice (particularly in the UK where this issue can get hairy) is to stick to your own accent. It is just better in a million ways. As you begin to feel more at ease with the genre, you can branch out and try other stuff. But always begin "close to home."

End of the day, do something you know you are going to rock at no matter what it is... even if it is from, like, Evil Dead 2, Felicity, or something you patched together from The Corrections.

That's my advice. I hope it's helpful.


* * *

Honestly, that is possibly the best advice I've been given! Thank you, will let you know what I end up doing! Just got to work out my type- feel plenty of discussion will ensue.



  1. Great advise Al. Have you considered doing a workshop (if you have time!) Think you'd be fab!

  2. Thanks for more great advice! You're definitely an artist....you give back so much.

  3. Just so you know, you'll always be the Anna Magnani type to me...

  4. Perfect. Thank you. :)



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