It’s difficult, to be an auditioning actor these days, with the pace of casting and also the level of confidentiality that seems to surround every single project. If you aren’t someone who can very quickly get off book, you find yourself stumbling in cold reads and not getting callbacks, just because a few words won’t stick in your brain. It’s frustrating, I know.
It speaks to a larger shift in the audition process, in which actors have to audition more, casting needs to see more, etc. etc. There’s been a distinct push for a higher quantity of actors considered. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but how do you stand out from a crowd? When you have three or four auditions in one day, and one is sixteen pages of material that you just got last night, and one expects you to memorize two full pages of technical jargon about thirty minutes before you walk in – how are you possibly able to provide something of a higher caliber in each audition?
I don’t have all the answers – but a quick-prep guide might help.
Before we get into it – if you have multiple auditions in a day, don’t be afraid to ask if any are having more sessions another day. If they aren’t, then figure out how to structure your day, but if they are – you just gave yourself a little more breathing room. I know auditions come in like feast or famine, and it feels like if you ask for a reschedule, you might lose the audition entirely – you won’t. When you say you have four auditions in a day and you’d like more time to prepare if possible – we in casting understand. We’ll be honest with your reps on how much it’ll hurt your chances, if at all, and then you can decide if you want to try to keep your time. Only you know what you can handle in a day – if you can handle all of them, great, but if you know you can’t – choose which ones to focus on. I’m not saying skip an audition – it’s always good to get in a room, and sometimes, flying by the seat of your pants works for a particular character. But focus on the ones important to you, so that you can make the day a success.
Alright now that you’ve gotten your schedule set – let’s say you have a ton of material, and the audition’s tomorrow. Or you just got to the casting office, and got the hard copy there. The process is much the same. Before you get started – consider two things. What’s the outlet for this? Is it Disney channel? Because that’s sure as hell going to be a different reading than if it’s for HBO. And secondly – who wrote it? Do they have a specific voice? If you’ve seen their work and you know the language is particular – you now know you need to prep to be as word-perfect as possible. Or perhaps the pace of their other projects is always lightning fast – that pace is something to keep in mind as you’re preparing.
If you don’t know either of these – don’t panic. They’re only guidelines – if you don’t know the outlet or the writer, then you have the freedom to make your own decisions on all the below.
1) Read through the entire scene, and get a sense of your character. Not only the core qualities from the breakdown, but where are the quirks? Where are the idiosyncrasies that make them human, and interesting? What are they pushing deep down inside? And if you don’t understand a line or a word – now is the time to ask. Ask your friend, ask your reps, ask casting. “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt,” right? Mark Twain’s version of that quote makes us not want to ask questions, for fear that we should already know whatever it is we’re asking. But guess what? You’re going to be saying the words in your audition. Better ask now, instead of trying to fake it while the cameras are recording…
2) What’s the tone? Is it grounded and naturalistic, is it high stakes and exaggerated? Get a sense of it BEFORE you start learning the words, so that the tone is integrated with the choices you make.
3) How does your character fit into the story? I don’t care if it’s two lines, or it’s the main character – every role is just one piece of a greater puzzle.
4) Where are the relationships in the scene? This is what will make you stand out from anyone else doing a cold read – show me the relationships. Where are the opportunities to connect with whatever or whoever is in front of you? If it’s a monologue – it’s still a relationship between you and your audience. Knowing when to make sure you are looking at the person in front of you and knowing when you can disconnect and look down at the page – if you can identify this first, then you can integrate your choices as you’re learning the words. You’ll know which phrases to memorize first, because you can’t look down right after you say “I love you…” but you CAN look away after “I love you, but…”
5) What is your character’s goal in this scene, and where do they learn they will either achieve their goal or not? I’m not asking for the climax of the scene, I’m asking for the moment in which your character realizes what comes next. What this scene leads to.
6) Now – go through the scene, line by line. Say each separate line out loud, and think about what the character is really saying. What’s the subtext?
7) Go through the scene again, line by line – and say every line differently than you did before. I’m sure you heard it a specific way in your head, but try something different now. Whether you like the new version or not, whether you keep it or not – try a different choice.
8) This time, going through the scene – speed through the whole thing without any pauses. Take out any spaces – whether within the lines, or between the lines – ignore any stage direction, any ellipses, any “(beat)” language, just blaze through it, one word after the next. Do it without the page if you can – do this a couple times, so that with each line, you’re aware of the next line and have it ready and on the tip of your tongue.
9) Run through it again with no pauses – but focus on the relationships. What are you trying to say overall? Every scene has a relationship. Whether it’s with an audience, or a specific person – what are you trying to convey, big picture? Without the pauses, it should give you a sense of what are the most important points you want to make through the scene.
10) Now put back the spaces, the pauses, the reactions, the connections, and think about the specific character choices you want to make. As you’re going through it – any place that you find yourself consistently stumbling on the lines, or almost stumbling on the lines, identify the nearest choice or connection. Give yourself something to fall back on – if you want to be word perfect, then find the moment before or after that you can look down at the page. If you’re comfortable not being word-perfect, then think about what your character’s really trying to say here, and be ready to say it in your own words. In other words – identify the beats where you lose the thread of the scene, and figure out how to give yourself the support to make sure you don’t break character.
Overall – when you get a scene with no time to prepare – we in casting are aware. And when you’re auditioning like that, we’re not there to see if you know how to read and recite. We’re there to see what kind of instinctual choices you make as this character, and whether your abilities as an actor can convey those choices.
It’s a lot of steps, I’m aware, when you have so little time. However – I’m not asking you to write an essay answer for each question. The idea is that you have a grasp on each of these, before moving onto the next – the entire process can take less than half an hour. Curious how? Go with your first choice, the answer the comes to mind immediately, follow your instincts and spend less than a minute on each question. You can also take your sweet time with each step, really thinking things through, if you have more time to prepare.
I’d love if you could be as close to the script as you can.
I’d throw all the words away in order to see you stay in character, and see the choices you make. And you’ll be surprised – if you focus on the choices and beats, rather than the words, you may find that the words stick a little easier, because you’re more aware what your character wants, and what they’re really trying to say.