Demystifying Auditions

What follows is some advice and information about auditions that may help you prepare and help you understand what you go through in the audition session. For most actors, auditioning is the absolute worst experience they ever encounter in the course of a show. The best thing you can do is approach the audition as your chance to show the directors what you’re capable of doing. Throw yourself into it, give it all you’ve got, don’t hold back. Whatever the outcome, you’ll have no regrets if you give it your best.

What do directors ask actors to do in auditions?
This varies quite a bit from director to director and according to the needs of the show. Here are a few things that are commonly asked in auditions and the purpose behind them:

  • Read from sides from the show. “Sides” are brief excerpts from the script. These readings help directors get an idea of how the actor falls into the flow of the script. The readings also test your vocal quality — volume/projection, diction/enunciation, animation/characterization.
  • Sing an excerpt from the score. This is to test your singing skills, range, vocal tone, etc.
  • Deliver a prepared monologue. This is less common in community theater, but not unheard of. This will be a brief (60-sec max, usually) comic or dramatic monologue of the actor’s choosing that they memorize and work on in advance. There are many anthologies of monologues for women, men, and young actors available. The prepared monologue tells the director a lot about the actor’s abilities after they’ve had time to really work on a piece. Directors are looking at the actor’s ability to memorize the piece, interpret the text, create a character, stay in character, use the stage space, and be comfortable on stage in front of an audience. Be sure to read the audition notice to know if a monologue is needed and the details (genre, length, etc.).
  • Improvisation. You may be asked to improvise a brief scene or action. For example, you could be asked to improvise accidentally stepping into a big muddy puddle wearing your favorite pair of shoes. Or you could be asked to be a squirrel foraging for nuts. The director will be looking for creativity, testing how well you listen and respond to direction, and evaluating how relaxed and comfortable you are when you are thrown a curve.
  • Dance. Particularly for musicals, actors may be taught a short bit of choreography and perform it for the directors, usually in a group. This tests your dancing skills, how you move around the stage, how quickly and well you learn the steps, and how you relate to the audience when you are dancing.

How do you recommend actors prepare for an audition?
Know the material. Read the play. If it’s a musical, have a working knowledge of the piece and be prepared to sing something from the show. If you can’t get your hands on a copy of the script, at least familiarize yourself with the genre, theme, or style of the playwright. Know something about each character in the play, especially the character or characters you want to be considered to play. There are synopses and character descriptions on the internet for every play or musical you are likely to encounter.
READ THE AUDITION NOTICE and any additional information provided. Prepare what you are asked to prepare and follow any other instructions you are given. Although directors will usually see auditioners even if they don’t follow the audition notice to the letter, you will make a better impression if you do.

How can actors do better during auditions?

  • Be on time.
  • Fill out the audition form completely.
  • Be honest about which part(s) you are willing to accept. If you don’t want any part but a lead, be honest about it. It will not affect the director’s decision about whether to cast you in that role. However, saying you are willing to accept any role and then not accepting an offered role will affect their decision about working with you in the future. So, just be honest.
  • Be honest about conflicts. Almost every show there is an actor who says they have no conflicts, they get cast, THEN they remember the 10-day vacation they had planned right before the show opens. Actors do this mistakenly thinking their conflicts will interfere with their chances of getting cast. But, in most cases, if a director knows ahead of time and they really want an actor in the role, they will work around their conflicts (within reason).
  • Take advantage of any material that is offered, such as character descriptions and sides, to understand the character you want to play.
  • As far as the actual audition, listen! Most actors are so nervous they ramble and chatter. Listen to the director and try to apply the suggestions given.
  • Ask questions. If you’re not sure about the material, the motivation, the characterization, where in the sequence the reading occurs, what the director is looking for, or what a particular direction means, ask.
  • BE PREPARED! If you are given sides to look at before you go in for your audition, read them over! If the director offers you time to look over a side before you begin the cold read…take it! The more familiar you are with the material and more you think about how you will portray the character the better you will be.
  • Breathe!!! Seriously. Before you step up on the stage, take three slow cleansing breaths. And shake your hands. It will do you a world of good.

So… I prepared a monologue/song/dance/etc like you asked, and you didn’t have me do that in my audition. What gives?
This sometimes happens. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the time you took to prepare…we really do and we notice when you do. But sometimes the directors see something in you that makes them want to test a skill that they won’t get from your monologue or prepared song. Incorporate what you learned from preparing the monologue or song to whatever the director asks you to do. Show the director that you can adapt and you are committed to being directed.

So… I said on the audition sheet I was interested in Character A, and the director asked me to read as Character B. Or, I said I was interested in Character A and Character B but they only had me read for Character B. What gives?
This is really common. Often the directors see something in your audition sheet or there’s something about you that makes them curious to see something in particular from you. They have very limited time — especially in the first-round, open-call auditions — to get the information they need to make their decisions and they know how best to get that information. But don’t worry. Directors are actually pretty good at figuring out if you can play Character A by watching what you do as Character B. If they are unsure, they may invite you to callbacks so they can see more from you.

The director stopped me in the middle of my song, monologue, reading, improv, etc…. What gives?
Particularly in the first round of auditions there isn’t a lot of time to spend with each actor individually. Directors listen long enough to get a sense of you, then stop you to give you time for the next part of the audition. But don’t worry. The fact that you were cut off doesn’t mean you were too terrible to listen to. It could just as easily mean you were so great they don’t need to hear more. Also, directors have all auditioned for roles themselves and know all about nerves and colds and other things that affect performance.

What factors go into the decision to cast a particular actor in a role? Are there some factors that are more important than others?
Of course talent and stage presence are huge but they aren’t everything. Commitment to the process and true desire to do right by the character and the play make a big difference. Experience and training are considered, but are generally less important than talent and commitment. Availability is important, as is a professional attitude and the ability to listen and take direction. Chemistry with other actors and suitability for the role are big factors. Another big factor is the composition of the rest of the cast. Each actor is part of an ensemble, and it is important that all the parts of the ensemble “fit” as a whole. Last but not least, any past experience the director or other production personnel have with you as an actor can make a difference. We know there are people who don’t audition well but do great when they have rehearsal time and direction. Conversely, there are people who do well in auditions but are unreliable or lose their way during rehearsals. If we know that about someone, we’ll take that into account.

What happens after the auditions?
Soon after the first round of auditions are over, you’ll receive notification (usually by email these days!) with your results. In that notification you may be offered a role, be invited to callbacks, be told you aren’t being cast, or if the directors need more time to deliberate we’ll give you a sense of how long it will be before you get your results. [See “Part Two: Callbacks” for more about what that means.] Whatever the outcome, we’re glad you auditioned for us and hope you will keep auditioning, keep being involved in theater.

Related article: Demystifying Callbacks