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The Art of Teaching Theatre: Mastering the Audition Monologue

#108

Damaris Vizvett in the "2016 August Wilson Monologue Competition Los Angeles Regional Finals" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Monologues are one of the ultimate forms of theatrical expression. When delivered with skill, precision, and passion, they thrill audiences and deeply satisfy artists.

Monologue is the motif for this moment in Center Theatre Group’s season. An Act of God is thrilling audiences at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 10 courtesy of a number of monologues performed by Sean Hayes who, as God, answers “some of the deepest questions that have plagued mankind since Creation.” And on February 29, the Mark Taper Forum played host to the August Wilson Monologue Competition Los Angeles Regional Finals.

So it seemed appropriate for this installment of The Art of Teaching Theatre to tackle the genre, particularly because monologue auditions are an important part of high school students’ applications to college and university theatre programs. We approached theatre artists and educators who audition these students and asked them for their advice on how high school teachers should help their students get ready to present their monologues and what skills they want incoming students to arrive with.

Theatre director, playwright, author, and college professor Mel Shapiro has auditioned many prospective theatre majors at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Carnegie Mellon University, and UCLA. He offered these words of wisdom:

For me, the problem these last dozen years or so has been the fact there is too much coaching of audition pieces by teachers, hired pros, parents, etc. It’s not that the coaching has been bad: it’s that all one sees is the hand of the coach and not the student. I usually work with the candidates I’m interested in by giving them new adjustments and seeing if fresh life can be put into their work.

Teachers and coaches need to work on two levels. The students need to be intellectually knowledgeable about the text: the world of the play and the character’s course of action in the play. Grabbing material from sources like monologue books really is not a good idea. The student also needs to recognize the emotional and psychological side of their character. And the student should be taught, even if on a cursory level, how to personalize with that character, so they can covey what the character has to say with authenticity. Auditioning needs hard work, research, trial and error, and understanding. All too often, they are thrown together at the last minute.

I always say to any actor, you are as good as your preparation. Show the auditors you are prepared. Take a moment to grab on to your character and let the journey begin. Remember whom you are supposed to be talking to. If it’s the audience, you might ask beforehand if they mind that you’re playing to them. Concentrate on what you are playing. The words, always hold on to the words.

Actor/director/professor Adam Smith has taught performance at UC San Diego, where he earned an MFA in the UCSD-La Jolla Playhouse theatre program, and is currently on the faculty of the School of Theatre at California Institute for the Arts. He gave us the critical factors he thinks high school teachers should emphasize in prepping their students:

First, be sure the material is something that showcases the student's strengths as a performer (and yes, this often is a distant cousin to that dreaded industry term “type”). Finding this can often mean selecting material that the student connects with or is excited about or is inspired by. Secondly, I don't think auditioning students (or their teachers and coaches) should concern themselves too much with obsessing over that rarely performed or never-heard-before piece that will force the auditors to "sit up in their chairs." It's more important that the auditioning student present well than present "uniquely," particularly when it comes to the classical monologue (of which there are limited choices, especially Shakespeare). In fact, it can actually benefit you to perform an oft-used monologue if you're the one person that does it well, as opposed to the five other mediocre versions of it we've seen throughout the day. This really speaks to the first point: namely, know thyself and choose material that shows thyself off well (regardless of how well-known it is!).

The number-one quality I think we're looking for in auditions is "trainability." That's rather vague, but essentially it means that we see evidence that you're able to develop beyond what you're currently demonstrating in terms of natural ability and that you're ready for that development. Of course, we also look for actors who naturally "extend beyond the footlights" with their energy, who have promising vocal instruments, who are already somewhat comfortable in their bodies, and who don't have any glaring speech issues that might be uncorrectable. But malleability combined with a hunger for growth and curiosity for the work goes quite a long way.”

Jonathan Mann, Director of Development and Arts Education at Circle in the Square Theatre School in New York, offered us his insights:

Teenagers are full of ideas and emotions, with emerging points of view and insights about the world, and the good, bad or indifferent relationships they have with the people around them. Whether brash and outspoken, shy and softspoken, or any variety between, high school students are transitioning, with varying levels of struggle, hilarity, despair and success, toward adulthood. There's a lot going on inside of them they can use, because a full inner life is what makes characters in a play or musical interesting to an audience.

So, finding age-appropriate roles the individual can truly get inside of and relate to are a great strategy. Because the best performances come across to the auditioner/audience as fitting the actor “like a glove.” That way we can ideally forget what we are watching is a performance.

I also recommend bringing two contrasting monologues that demonstrate the actor's range. It’s best to come ready with a shorter or longer part of each monologue, lasting approximately 60, 90, or 120 seconds.

Actors should take ownership of and enjoy their audition. When they enter the room, we must know the party is getting started, because one who is ready to share information worthy of our attention has arrived.

The actor must know and be prepared to discuss any part of the play or musical their monologues or songs are from. Because if they care enough to know the material well, that depth of interest will translate and allow us to care. The facts are important: who the actor is talking to, what they are saying and why they are saying it.

To be taken seriously as a performer, what you say onstage must be heard and felt. Your voice is how you most convincingly express your heart, soul, and personality. So a rehearsed and prepared voice with at least some resonance is key. Unnecessary movement or drifting during a monologue is to be avoided. Movement only happens where the text calls for it. Direct your attention and body so your face and other aspects of you physical presence reveal the character, in an added physical communication with the auditioner(s).

Don't hide onstage—be bold, take charge, and be visible. Your judgement about where and how to stand, sit, and move onstage, in keeping with the writer's character and situation, speaks volumes.

Sayda Trujillo is an actress and theatre-maker/educator who has served on the faculties of Pace University and California State University, Northridge. Her advice:

One of the most challenging aspects of preparing for an audition is choosing a piece for the audition. Teachers can guide their students through the process of choosing material (by suggesting plays to read, etc.), but ultimately it is important that the student choose the piece to work on. Students often want their teachers to choose a piece for them because it’s “hard.” “I don’t know what to choose,” they’ll say, but making a choice is a crucial part of the process: this ownership will influence the way a student works on their monologue.

After choosing a monologue, teachers should emphasize understanding the text, the thought process, and the notion that a monologue is a scene—they are talking to someone and there is a reason they keep talking.

Understanding the text involves meeting the different layers that the author has put on the page for us to interpret. What are the patterns in the text, what repeats, what are the images, what does the punctuation say about this character’s rhythm and thought process?

For voice and articulation, attention must be paid to consonants and vowels. I am of the belief that you must work on your feet from day one on your monologue. You can think about it before you go to sleep and on your way to school, but when you choose a time and space to work on your monologue, it should be done up and moving, and the words and the language should be tasted and played with.

Pieces with accents/dialects should be done without, unless the student already has that accent. This is important because trying to wing an accent will in most cases keep the student from truly connecting to the monologue’s meaning, actions, and objectives.

Students with a first language other than English must use their voice, their own sound, whether they’re using Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams. It’s especially important in an audition for a college theatre department, because at this audition you are introducing yourself, and schools want to see you.

By the character’s thought process I mean, how are the ideas linked, where do they come from? Discover the progression of the character’s thoughts. Especially when memorizing, memorize the thought and not just the words. Work slowly and connect one thought to the next.

It is important that students understand that in a monologue they are talking to someone else. And in that sense it is a scene. Exploring the reasons the character keeps talking will keep the monologue fresh and present and connected to a clear objective.

The most important element students can bring to an audition is “a joy for the work.” This cannot be manufactured. Along with this, an understanding of listening, of being present, and having courage to stay open and available will be very helpful.

The other skill to bring is breath. What I mean by breath is a private sense of your own breath. A breath that isn’t forced or held. A breath that moves you, that keeps you grounded, open, and engaged. Coming into an audition prepared, knowing that you have done enough work to play. Using your nerves to stay alive and joyful.

Less is more. Make clear choices.

Trust yourself. Don’t ask permission. Be generous.

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