Several weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about what it’s like to start auditioning again after taking a long break from stage acting. In my case, the break was necessary if I wanted to keep up with my PhD program. After all, coursework, prelims, and that pesky dissertation are, well, time-consuming. But now that my schedule is more open, I’m steadily easing back into auditioning with equal parts excitement and total trepidation.
Overall, going on auditions again has actually been fun so far (i.e. no major embarrassments to report, as of yet), but I confided to my friend that I was surprised at how easily I’d forgotten the consistent disappointment that comes with going on audition after audition. Just like with academic writing, your rejections massively outweigh your acceptances. This is just the way it is. In fact, the rational voice in my head hasn’t wasted any time reminding me to “just get over it and move on” in light of my past few auditions. Acting is hard. Auditioning is harder.
What’s funny is that all of these realities don’t change the fact that I now approach the process of acting through the lens of my research-oriented graduate training, something I never expected to happen. If I’m sensing a problem in the work that I’m doing, or if I don’t feel like I know enough about a play I’m auditioning for, then I do the graduate student thing of going to the library and immediately checking out all the books I can find on the subject.
(A PhD does not a good actor make, but access to a world-class research library doesn’t hurt.)
I found myself doing quite a bit of library-going recently with auditioning. Since I’ve read books on the subject before (a long, long time ago), I was a little nervous that everything I would find in the library would be a recitation of the same old principles: don’t take it personally, be prepared, dress appropriately, relax, be professional, speak up, don’t look the auditors in the eye, etc.
All of those things are important, and I’m not kidding myself that some people are probably well served to be reminded of them, but, this time around, I wanted to find advice that was more substantial. I was hoping to find a resource that would help me mentally (and emotionally) reframe the whole audition process. Most importantly, I wanted something that would offer real, pragmatic advice that went several steps beyond what you find in a typical Internet search. (Try googling “audition tips” and then prepare to have your common sense slightly insulted.)
After some digging, what I finally found was Donna Soto-Morettini’s Mastering the Audition: How to Perform Under Pressure (Methuen Drama, 2012). What I appreciated the most about this book was that the author took real steps to not only articulate how irrational the auditioning process can be, but also to give performers a real sense of what they can control. In other words, the elusive “it factor” is probably out of an actor’s control, but things like mastery, risk-taking, and self-confidence are all within her reach. These big picture ideals, to me, seem essential to a “philosophy of auditioning” that goes beyond in-the-moment tips and tricks.
In my opinion, Soto-Morettini’s book spends its core energy on those first two traits, mastery and risk-taking, although the issue of self-confidence is definitely in the background. One of the most helpful refrains related to risk-taking was the call to enact the “least likely interpretation” in audition settings. This habit is something that you have to cultivate constantly, not just when you walk into the audition room. Risk-taking, then, becomes a personal creativity issue instead of an audition “trick.” She is careful, too, to remind the reader that the “least likely interpretation” still has to jive with the truth of the text and the character. You should never conflate “least likely” with “total opposite.”
And for mastery, she even offers sample plans at the end of the book for creating a personalized schedule of improvement. As in, “if I have 10 hours to spare each week, how many hours will I give to vocal work, physicality, cold reading, or enlarging my repertoire?” I’ve only met a handful of actors (who also happen to be really good) who have a tangible plan for artistic development. Soto-Morettini’s implicit argument on this topic is that all actors should approach their work this way if they want to reaffirm acting’s status as a craft, both to themselves and to their artistic colleagues.
Her undergirding claims about how a performer respects her craft carry through to the end of the book. This was one of my favorite paragraphs, just a few pages from the conclusion:
Perhaps the closest I can come to describing people who have that “it” factor lies in one common element—whatever the material they are performing—which is that they understand that all great performance is based on a passionate and honestly felt need to communicate something. It isn’t about demonstrating a great voice, it isn’t about demonstrating that you can cry on cue. It isn’t about hitting your high C faultlessly, and it isn’t about doing a flawless triple pirouette. It’s all about understanding why the crying, the high C or the pirouette must happen, must be executed with skill, just at that point, in order to truly communicate the piece. That’s what mastery is all about: good artistic taste and judgement, the powerful employment of skill in the aid of communicating something, and in making us see the world in a new, perhaps unexpected way. (Mastering the Audition, 225-26)
Soto-Morettini’s follow up book, Mastering the Shakespeare Audition: A Quick Guide to Performance Success, is forthcoming with Bloomsbury press (release date: August 25, 2016).