Every year we have the great fortune to offer four full-length theatrical productions at Faith Lutheran Jr/Sr High School. We try very hard to run the extra-curricular program like a professional theatre company. We attempt in every way to offer a multitude of opportunities to educate and effectively prepare students to succeed in audition and performance situations.
There are four directors at our school and I feel secure enough to speak on behalf of all of them to say that we never give students roles. We grant them opportunities to play roles based on their performances in auditions. (We refuse to adopt the philosophy that “now they are a senior, let’s give them the lead” or “they’ve climbed to the top of the totem pole, so let’s give them a chance.”) Along with the great fortune of being a teacher at Faith (a tuition-based, private school,) I have the privilege to work with some of the most talented students in Las Vegas. They are focused, hard-working and beautiful people who offer a multitude of talents onstage to the glory of God. Students who attend Faith are fortunate. They are secured…nurtured…and very much loved. I would say that the biggest challenge I have with STUDENTS at Faith Lutheran is entitlement. I don’t blame the students. Being an enrolled student there is an expectation of the Faith faculty to offer a quality, Christ-centered education AND a multitude of extra-curricular opportunities to help enrich their interests/goals. I am pleased and proud to do this every day. It is my greatest joy.
As we approach auditions for “A Christmas Story” (the loveable, popular story of Ralphie and his quest to obtain a Red Ryder BB Gun, based on the popular Christmas classic) I look into the eyes of dozens of hopeful students as they prepare to take to the stage, and bring forth the fruits of my instruction. I expect them to prepare in advance. I expect them to work hard on characterization, relationship and dedication. I expect them to brush up on audition etiquette and the support, encouragement and positive reflection toward their fellow student. I expect them to pray and give thanks to God for their talents and the opportunity to glorify Him.
What I don’t expect from my students….is perfection.
Auditioning is a process. There are no professional audtioners. Everyone must be adjudicated and assessed before earning an opportunity to add to the dynamic of a production. Trying to wrestle the notion that a theatrical play/musical is ultimately generated for an AUDIENCE, (at least in the professional industry) is very hard to do. In high school…this should be an educational experience…period. Part of that education is a formal audition process, that will appropriately put students in roles that will exemplify the demands of the part, add positively to the dynamic of the show and position the student, the cast and the production as a whole for success. Bottom line.
My job in the equation…is to be trusted to use my schooling, experience and knowledge to make informed, performance-based decisions that will flesh out these production demands without compromising the process or hurting the individual student’s approach to their passion for performing.
It’s never perfect. The process is subjective. Like a football coach standing on the sidelines in the middle of a fevered game, we have to make judgements, and act immediately, based on what we think would be best. There is a huge element of trust that goes along with that. I can tell you stories of students….bloody talented students who we invest our heart and souls into….students we care about VERY much….who have left an audition / performance bitter, angered and upset about how the audition / performance turned out. They feel robbed of an opportunity, tossed aside or ignored. It becomes personal, fast. Auditions are what give me the most joy…and they break me in two.
One of the joys of being a theatrical arts educator is watching students grow up and realize the amazing gifts God has blessed them with…and then realize that they have been put on this earth to use them to glorify Him. It brings me SO much joy to watch them flourish and thrive and receive applause. The demands from parents, the expectation of a looming financial burden so that students can attend a quality institution, and the pressures of an exposing audition in front of peers with the like conditions is enough to bring any “normal” student to the edge of insanity. (And that’s before the Anatomy homework!) It’s no wonder people prefer to run Track or go out for one of the 57 football teams we have on campus. It’s really hard to be a student actor.
I will never make light of the unbelievable pressures of auditions. I look forward to auditions this Wednesday. I asked students in my Musical Theatre class to write out questions they have about auditions. This is not the last time I will talk about auditions. It’s an ever-growing, multifaceted topic that demands tons of attention. I argue that an actor should NEVER, NEVER be satisfied with their craft. One of the greatest joys of performing is the demand, and the desire to continue to create. Finding new ways to approach auditioning is just ONE way an actor (student, or otherwise) can find great joy in performing. I hope that the simple offering in my answers below can offer some insight to questions you may have about the topic.
- Why do we get so nervous at auditions? Stage fright is the most common plight of EVERY high school actor. First and foremost, it’s natural. We have human nature defense mechanism that reacts based on a “fear of failure.” We all fear failure. We want to do well. We want to make our parents, friends, directors, etc. proud of us. We are standing in front of a group of our peers so that we may be “judged.” It’s very exposing, and before we even open our mouths we find ourselves scared to pieces! The bottom line is (and in answer to your question) we get scared….because we desperately CARE about what the director / fellow classmates think about us. (I blame society.) If you can wrap your head around the fact that the director is TOTALLY rooting for you to succeed…and that your classmates will be in the very same boat you’re in…it gives you courage. That courage fuels your confidence…and that confidence will calm your fears. Just remember…I’m very proud of you. Even if you personally don’t think you hit a home run with your audition….a triple still scores runs. You can do it. If you are your own cheerleader…then you can start on building up that confidence…now.
- Mr. Ball, every time I step onstage (alone mostly, I’m good in groups) I get all choked up and can’t force any sound to come out. I love to belt it out at home and I tell myself I’m not nervous but I just can’t get over this. Take a gander at what I had to say about about stage fright. First thing you need to know…you are not alone, and this is a very common thing. I recall an audition for “AIDA” that I worked very hard for…practiced again and again…I felt very confident…I found myself auditioning in a room, in front of people I knew and respected (and for the most part, comfortable in front of) and to my great surprise….I FORGOT THE WORDS! I kept singing…I made up words (something about chasing my son up a tree!! I don’t know!) and then stood there completely stoic. The director said “thank you, Erik.” I left the room….and about died! It was a terrible experience. But, I’ll tell you what I took away from the experience. I found out that even the most trained, rehearsed, poised actor needs to be on their toes and “nervous.” I thought I was ready. Maybe I was. But, it’s part of the process. The “on guard” mind set that you have to bring with you to auditions….the uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, needs to be a part of what you do. It’s how you manage it that structures the fabric of your process. Use that nervous energy to bring to the table an energetic, passionate, full-of-life (including nerves) offering. Bottling up (or in your case, choking up) is a reaction to those nerves. You’re closing up. It’s a conscious reaction. Think if it like this…if a monster approached you…would you curl up in the fetal position and hope he goes away….or will you make a loud noise and emote in an exaggerated manner, facing that monster? You may be scared to death of the monster…and he may eat you OR run away…but, you will have FACED the monster either way.
- Why shouldn’t a person dress like the character the are auditioning for? This is an easy question to answer. Bottom line…you want the focus of your audition to be what you have to offer. Not what you’re wearing. There is a funny moment in the musical “A Chorus Line” when a busty character muses on the fact that she seems to be getting more work every since her plastic surgery. (I won’t go into it in any further detail!) In the professional industry, yes, you will be cast in some things STRICTLY because of your “look.” I encourage all actors to embrace who they are. There are a million roles out there…and because of what you bring to the table, physically, you’re going to be PERFECT for a LOT of them! But, for a high school (or maybe a college audition), make the FOCUS of your audition your talents. I’ve had kids dress like Elvis, in bunny suits, etc. for auditions. They did fine…but ultimately, they were auditioning a notion or gimmick. I rank it up there with those silly auditions you might see in the outtakes of American Idol. Is it memorable? Yeah. But for the right reasons? That’s arguable. Another thing to chew on…an actor never wants to limit a character based on their audition. By dressing “in character” you’re saying “this is what it should be like.” The director may disagree…and then you’ve backed yourself into a corner. Give them something to think about by leaving a little mystery.
- Where is the line of impersonation and inspiration? Wow. What a mature question. I’d say it’s a fine, fine line. For example, in “A Christmas Story”…a very popular (cherished) Christmas movie that has been adapted to the stage…there will be a certain expectation of the audience to attend a show that will be somewhat reminiscent of the movie. I found myself in a similar situation when I played Gaston in “Beauty & the Beast.” It’s an iconic animated movie. There is an expectation that I tip my hat (creatively) to the original. But…with that said…I think you will be setting yourself up for failure if you don’t take those beloved, cherish moments…and make them your own. (Meaning, find new ways to breath new life into them.) Perhaps the best way you can do this is to research what about the movie version is so beloved (this can be part of your pre-audition research, especially if you’re not as familiar with the movie) and then work on WHY those moments are so memorable. Put your own spin on them! Nobody should resort to mimicry. There’s little creative process in being able to do an effective impression. Even the most skilled impressionists (like Terry Fator) find an outlet to channel that talent through that is completely original.
- How can you fail with pride at an audition? (i.e. goof up a song, forgot your lines, etc.) Remember, directors aren’t necessarily wanting to know how well you memorize lines (unless specifically indicated.) My advice…stay in character. Stay dedicated. Never say die! Don’t allow something as trite as a line, or a lyric…or an entire song of lyrics…spoil your audition for you. See above…during my “AIDA” audition, I lost the words. I still got a callback. Was it the pride of my auditioning career? Probably not…but I didn’t go down without a fight! I think the directorial staff admired that. All auditions are GOOD experiences, even the bad ones. You can walk away, evaluate things…pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start the process all over again. The only time you are EVER defeated in the auditioning process is when you walk away from it.
- Do directors notice when people get up on stage and do the same exact thing another person just did…but just try to one up the other person? The audition process is imperfect. It’s subjective. You will NEVER find a process that caters to the way you would like. I’ve auditioned for one person in a room all by myself…and for what seemed to be a crowd of people. I’ve sang for an audition in front of hundreds of people and in front of only a video camera. All processes should be approached with the same mind-set. You need to make the FOCUS of the audition what YOU have to offer. Know the material…focus on your craft….present confidentially and take chances. Have fun! If you are in a room with people who are auditioning before you and after you….fine. It’s doesn’t matter. Do not allow other people’s offerings trip you up. You have something special to offer, right? Well, why would you focus on anything else? I found myself saying “if you see something someone else is doing…and doing well…steal it, adapt it to your dynamic…and make it your own.” I think it’s reasonable to assume that you’ll monitor what others are doing. (We are, after all, human!) If you like what someone else did. Fine. But, don’t copy. Make it your own. Copy cats are as obvious as it gets. Making it your own shows a dedication and a willingness to adapt. Both qualities are things directors love. Oh, and to answer your question directly….yes, we notice it.
- How can I get into character? I could spend all night talking about this topic. I would advise you to always prepare ahead of time. Get into the script…really get a feel for the pulse of the show. Identify with a character you’d like to audition for. Study the character, practice the character…and work on getting connected with the character (emotionally.) When you are called up to read for your audition…recall those feelings that you’ve practiced and lock in on those emotions. If you’re well practiced you should find yourself approaching your audition in a confident manner.
- Why is it that people shoot snippy looks at you during auditions and how do you prevent people from getting into our heads? People are mean. Not all people. But, yes, there are mean people in the world. Mainly members of the Third Reich, Zombies and those who attend auditions. In all seriousness, I would be a fool to say that there will never been people who sit right in front of you and shoot you daggers in the hopes you fail. It happens all the time. I auditioned once for a scholarship with one of my best friends. As I sang “Put on a Happy Face,” one of my dear friends made faces at me from the second row. Now…he was a dear friends, but in my head, this dude was auditioning for the same scholarship that I was…and that sucked. Whatever reason it happened, it doesn’t matter. There will always be someone out there who is upset that you are in the spotlight. Remember why you are in the spotlight: to glorify God with the talents He blessed you with. All other things are secondary. You don’t need the approval or applause from the zombie in the audience. Let them shoot daggers. Be confident in your work and you just watch those daggers drop right in front of you. You will be unaffected. My advice…never sink to the level of dagger shooters. Be above that. Support others…congratulate others…be happy for others. Worry about your craft. There is a saying by Esther Lederer that I love, “Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.”
- How does one know what kind of character your should go for? Like, how do you decide if you should go for a bigger or smaller role? Part of your preperation is a thorough understanding of the show and characters. Then you need to have a thorough understanding of who YOU are, and what you can thoughtfully offer. Know your limitations and see what you could add to the show. Everyone in high school wants the leading role…but think about it this way…if the director gave you the leading role, would you be confident in your approach? If the answer is “no,” then maybe look at a secondary role or ensemble role. Those roles are just as important and have a completely different set of demands. Thousands of actors have lifelong careers doing nothing but playing ensemble roles, character roles, dancers, etc. Figure out what special talents you have to offer, and then make that your “special talent.” Figure out what part of the show your special talent would be best utilized.
- I’m so pumped to work on bigger roles, and I know I can do it, but I can’t seem to make roles bigger than just ensemble parts. What is something I could do or work on to break out of my “ensemble role” shell? I would start with an analysis of your audition process. What are you doing REALLY good? What needs work? Also…take it a step further…those that ARE receiving leading roles, what are they doing REALLY good? I argue that leading roles are usually the roles with the MOST demands. (Vocally, musically and dramatically.) A firm understanding of your limitations is essential. If you’re packin’ a bag of small apples and a sling-shot…it’s gonna be hard to reach a leading role target a hundred yards away. There is NO SHAME in identifying what you’re good at, even if it means an ensemble role. I will NEVER say that an ensemble role less glorious than a leading role. They are JUST as important, JUST as needed and JUST as fulfilling, personally. I have a dear friend who refuses to audition for anything BUT ensemble roles. Why? Because she loves being the “superglue” of the show. The ensemble holds everything together. I’m not saying settle for ensemble roles. Rather, take great pride in any role you receive, knowing that there are always kids who are not cast who would die for that ensemble role. Instead…work hard…always, always, always continue working on expanding your craft. Know that God has a plan for you.
- When auditioning is there such a thing as being too bold, going too far, or making too many choices? Of course. If you went out there and screamed like a banshee and lit your shirt on fire….I’d constitute that as a bad thing. In all seriousness, it is important to educate yourself to the dynamic of theatre. One easy way to do this is to WATCH a lot of theatre. All types. See how actors approach the storytelling element in their performance. They’re bold, strident and daring…but they are never “too much.” Be exaggerated and take chances. I would argue that it is VERY important to invest TRUST in your own instinct. Go with your gut. You never want to walk away from an audition regretting that you didn’t offer something. Give it a shot. If you find yourself doing something “just for a laugh,” then it probably had little to do with the scene itself. If you present a glass of orange juice in a crazy glass with umbrellas and shish-ka-bobbed fruit sticking out….it’s still all about the orange juice.
I always like to end things with a crazy analogy. Heh.
If you have a question about AUDITIONING…please leave a comment or email me at ERIKBALL123@GMAIL.COM.