16 October, 2009

Ask Al: Auditions, Drama School and Conservatory (Part One)

Dear Al,

I am considering auditioning for Drama Schools next year, and would love any information, insight, or general "tips" you might be able to offer? I am sure there are a lot of out in the big wide world who are interested in picking your brains on this topic!

So I guess the specific questions are these: 
1. What should an applicant expect on audition day? and 
2. What should an applicant do to prepare for it?

Thank you so much,


* * *

Dear Andrew,



I've watched a few people succeed and many, many more fail and have long felt that a significant proportion of those who "failed" did so because of factors other than lack of talent. I didn't fully appreciate what those "factors" were, and I came to the conclusion that too many people fail not because they don't have talent but because they are not properly prepared. So you are already asking the right questions about preparation, what follows is my personal interpretation of said preparation.

As I have said before if in my general audition blog, auditioning is a talent of it's own. The competition is well known to be very tough. Here are the facts on how tough it actually is: in 2004 the drama schools with 'accredited' courses received between 1,000 and 3,000 applicants for intakes that range between about 25 and 150 students across all of their courses. The most famous schools will probably accept 1 applicant in 100; this proportion rises to between 3 and 5 per hundred at the less famous (but not necessarily less good) ones. What follows are some basic preparations you can make to enhance your chances by making sure that your talent is shown off at its best:

Most of them advertise and most of them have web sites. Then ask for prospectuses and application forms for those you like the look of. When you apply you will be sent details of what you will be required to do when you go for your audition - some schools now have these details on their websites.

* * *

Read very carefully what each drama school requires you to do. For instance, a few ask you to prepare three audition speeches - and could well ask you to do all three. I've seen a number of people come with only two prepared because most other schools only require two. (In fact I believe that it's better to prepare many more - say between six to ten - to open up your options for each circumstance.)

Make sure that you've got the right kinds of speeches. Many schools define "classical" as "Shakespeare or contemporary" or "Elizabethan or Jacobean" (which mean roughly the same period), but some specify verse"; others don't. Others are less restrictive in what the mean by "classical".... Be sure what each means by "modern"; to some that can mean over the last hundred years, to others just the last ten. The best tactic is to put together a portfolio of at least six speeches (and preferably more) so that you can choose to suit the varying circumstances.

Some schools will ask you to prepare a song (even if you're not applying for a Musical Theatre Course) - you should prepare this with as much care as your audition speeches. Remember, that a song well acted can tip the balance if your auditioners are at all equivocal about your speeches. Think of the tune as an 'underscore' to the words - and, as with a speech, it should appear as though you're inventing the words on the spot and are saying (singing) them for the first time. NB Some schools ask you to sing unaccompanied; others with accompaniment. If the latter, make sure you've got easily readable sheet music.

It is essential to plan ahead. Check out deadlines for applications - they vary considerably! Bear in mind that once you've sent of your application you can be called to audition at any time - occasionally within in a few days. And some drama schools are resistant to changing audition dates. I suggest that it is best to start sending for prospectuses a year in advance of your hoped for entry.

* * *

3. DON'T JUST APPLY TO ONE SCHOOL!: Apply to as many of the 'good' schools as you can afford. How do you know which are 'good'? First, read the contents of their prospectuses. Don't be fooled by smart graphics - what do the words say and would their kind of training suit you? (Be very circumspect about a loose use of the word "method" and the name "Stanislavski" - what do they actually mean?) Second, try to find people who know something about the recent work of each particular school. A drama school is only as good as its current teachers. A list of famous graduates or a glossy prospectus doesn't tell you what it's really like now. It is essential to ask around and get several opinions - which may well be contradictory.

Especially if you are just starting out it is important to get to get used (a) to the actual act of auditioning, which is always different from what you might have anticipated and (b) to learn how the varying audition systems work. At a guess perhaps 50% of ultimately successful applicants don't get a place first time round (for all kinds of reasons) so think of your early assays into the field as exploratory exercises to learn from rather than the 'be all and end all'. You'll also make a lot of friends as you go round the drama school circuit. [I know one young actor who got her place at RADA within three weeks of her first audition (including two recalls) and another who took five years on the audition round before she got a place.]

* * *

As is well known the audition speech is the traditional form of assessing an actor's potential (or otherwise). Unfortunately it means that you've got to be at your best for the 2 or 3 minutes that it takes. At least you've got 2 or 3 hours for a conventional exam. You could argue that at least the agony is over quickly but too many people fail because they seem to give a similarly brief amount of time to (a) the content and (b) how they do it. Your problem is that the competition is so fierce that there is a sense that your auditioners are looking for ways of eliminating people for whatever reasonable reason. Also (and crucially) their time to watch you is so brief (they will get some ideas from interview/singing/movement sessions etc., but the speech is almost invariably the most important) that you have to find ways of really impressing them in just that 120-180 seconds. "Not fair!", you cry; it isn't, but it's just like the profession so start getting used to it. Your only advantage is that you are being watched by people very experienced in assessing potential as opposed to the "complete actor"; but even so that "potential" is too often masked by silly mistakes (choosing a character who is totally unsuitable for you, for instance) and no drama school wants a "silly" student. You have to be together and organised to do both the training and the job.

At least one school issues a blacklist of speeches not to be used and every auditioner has a mental list of those he/she is fed up with sitting through AGAIN. The fact is that you've got to do one of these popular speeches extra well to stand a chance. How can you know if a particular speech is "popular" or not? This is difficult, but you can help yourself if you avoid anything from those books of audition speeches because a lot of other people are selecting material from them. It can be a good idea to do a speech from a play you've done or from one that you otherwise know well. It may well be that there were no speeches long enough contained in anything you know, but there will be scenes in which one character is 'running things' and it is reasonably easy to cut out other people's lines and perhaps with a little bit of rewriting make a complete speech that nobody else will be doing. AND, it is a fact that the "original" speech (provided that it's well-written) will put you at a distinct advantage. The other advantage of taking a speech from a play you've done, or know well, is that you will have a very good idea of what the whole play is about from the inside - essential to a good performance of that speech.

A few schools provide a list of speeches from which you have to choose. How can you be different from everyone else in this circumstance? Go for the more obscure! It'll mean that (a) you'll have to ask advice about what's obscure and what isn't and (b) they often require more preparation, but choosing one of these can be well worth it.

(See Auditioning [Part One])

Several schools counsel against this and I have seen numerous circumstances when the outside help is downright misleading. There seems to be a cottage industry out there of people happy to take your money for their guidance. How do you know if you're being helped properly? In general, it is best to find someone who has close contact with the profession and not someone whose experience is concentrated in speech and drama exams. The latter have very little to do with modern acting. If you can't find anybody whom you feel is suitable, then at least try you speeches out in front of somebody first. They may not be able to give you detailed constructive criticism but at least you'll get a gut reaction and doing a speech in front of only one person is very different from doing it by yourself.

* * *

(to be continued...)


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  5. Hi Al!

    First off, I just want to let you know that the college process has been so much easier after working with you, Toni, and Michael. Everyone is still talking about that being the highlight of our year! David continues to update us on your amazing success and the Interlochen theatre department could not be prouder to call you an alumnus! Secondly, I wanted to let you know that last week I auditioned for the Royal Scottish Academy and had the opportunity to work with Professor Maggie Kinloch. It was such an amazing experience and I feel so fortunate that Interlochen allowed me that opportunity. What an amazing program! Robin told us you were working on Master Class in Washington, D.C.! I will be there when it is running over spring break and am crossing my fingers that I can see you in it! I hope all is well and I just wanted to say thank you so much for all that you have inspired in me!




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