Auditioning for a Musical in High School
You have no idea how hard it was for me not to do a High School Musical / We’re All in This Together play on words for the title of this post. I suppose I’m more interested in people being attracted to this post for what is it rather than being attracted to the cleverness of the title….much in the same way I’ll never be able to appreciate the Twilight movies because Kristin Stewart is a strung-out mouth-breather and Robert Pattinson is a jelly-headed monkey with sweaty pits. Anyway….(Sheesh! Where did that reference come from? I gotta stop drinking V-8 before bed!)
I’m going to try to categorize the process of auditioning and give some advise in all areas. My goal here is to effectively prepare students (especially those at Faith Lutheran High School…holla!) for their upcoming musical audition. Faith Lutheran is looking forward to “ALL SHOOK UP” this spring…and next year “LEGALLY BLONDE.”
Needless to say these are two very demanding musicals…but I would argue they are amazingly fun too. I hope in the words that follow you can capture a joy in approaching your audition by gaining some sort of peace of mind. After all…this is supposed to be fun, right? I would like to thank the Music Theatre Guild, Signature Productions and my past theatre professors, as they certainly have all contributed to what I’m about to share.
There is a common misconception: directors are a roadblock of sorts in the efforts to successfully win the Nascar race that is an audition. While the process of auditioning is certainly a step in putting a show together, I would argue at a high school level (and when I refer to things at a “high school level” I’m talking about Faith Lutheran specifically. Surely other schools have standards that would support or oppose my comments. I argue that after 12 years of doing this I’ve found the processes I describe to be successful, that is all) the director WANTS a student to succeed. Let me give you two scenarios:
- A student who has done several shows and regularly enrolls in drama classes…this kid might be considered a “drama kid” (a wonderfully stupid label…all kids are dramatic…like, really! Psh!) and has maybe even earned some leading roles. If this student walks into auditions, most likely the director has worked with them before…or the director at least knows of their work ethic. Don’t you think the director would hold them to a high standard, knowing they want to pursue performing outside of high school? Knowing that they are there to re-prove to all the other kids that they are deserving of the role (a tough speed-bump to approach, believe me)…knowing that even though they’ve had an opportunity to do a leading role before, they are a human being with desires, dreams, goals and hopes (just like the boy or girl who has never received a role.) Sure, there are going to be students who don’t appreciate their gifts….sure there is going to be arrogance….sure there is going to be entitlement issues. But underneath all of that is a human being who WANTS TO DO WELL. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Whether or not they’re re-proving themselves to the parents who don’t pay attention to them….or merely hoping for a lead so they can “finally get something of substance on their resume”…whatever the reason….the director of the approaching drama student WANTS them to succeed. Why? Because it is in the show’s and the student’s best interest.
- Now take a student who has never done a show before. (Perhaps they’re a senior who has “always wanted to give it a shot”…or a “jock” who finds a studly role in the show appealing to their ego.) Or maybe…just maybe….it’s a student who has auditioned 5 times prior and has never been cast. All types are looking forward to facing a director with glaring eyes, and a strong opinion of them already. Well, I’m going to tell you something…..YOU’RE RIGHT! Those glaring eyes are filled with hope. That strong opinion of the type of person “you are” is about to be challenged by the type of person “you could be.” I promise you (on a stack of Bibles) that the director WANTS YOU TO SUCCEED. First and foremost, who doesn’t like an underdog! I cannot begin to tell you the number of times someone has flown under the radar and wow-ed me with an outstanding audition. I also love seeing “green actors” get their sea legs in a role and find that they have a passion for something they didn’t even know they had a talent for. And to those who keep trying after countless “failures”…to be granted a chance to finally do what you hope for, it’s thrilling. Why WOULDN’T a director what to give that gift to someone?
So, I don’t care who you are, if you want to audition for the musical, I want to impress upon you that every high school theatre director (if they’re worth a spit) wants you to succeed. This is why being a director is one of the most rewarding and heart-breaking jobs ever. Not every student will get that chance.
Directors are looking for the best fit between role and actor. PARENTS, READ ON. Directors don’t simply put the “best actor” in the “biggest role.” It doesn’t work like that. The actor needs to have what it takes to be able to fulfill the demands of the role. That includes chemistry with other actors, technique (in vocals, dance, etc.) and how a student takes direction. This is HUGE in high school theatre as directors are burdened with many issues regarding rehearsal space, school conflicts, budget, volunteers helping with set, costumes, etc. and many more! If a student is VERY proactive and works hard on their “job,” then a director can trust that with some creative tweaking, that job will get done. If the student’s approach suggests that they will be a liability (or at least, someone we’ll have to “deal” with all the time) then the attractiveness of their offering won’t be as golden. Parents, don’t storm into a rehearsal and pull your student out saying “we have to go, right now.” It’s creates a huge problem. While the play in your world may be another bullet on your list, for the production, yanking your kid out nullifies productivity in that rehearsal. I think parents sometimes forget that we high school directors (and the student actors) have a job to do too.
This is why I’m constantly nagging the students to make a good choices throughout rehearsals….clean up after themselves in the green room….be kind to others, preventing backstage drama….and being respectful to their fellow students and volunteer adults. Nobody wants to work with someone who thinks their proverbial “poop doesn’t stink.” Not in high school, not in college, not in the industry. I always saying (somewhat jokingly…but somewhat not) “It’s one of two choices: a good choice or a bad choice. What one are you looking to achieve?” Back to auditions….sheesh. See how I get side-tracked!
I want to clear up one last thing. In an audition, directors are looking for what you do RIGHT, rather than what you do WRONG. (Which is why if you mess up your words in your song…keep singing!) Mistakes are expected, so try not to focus on them. Instead, show us what you are capable of. Edmvnd W. Golaski once said “While the actor’s ego may crave the largest role, getting a role that’s the right fit is probably more conducive to happiness during the production period. I would argue that it’s in your best interest to be yourself, show off what you do well, and trust that the directors will put you where you can shine.” I like that.
BEFORE THE AUDITION
- PICKING THE RIGHT SONG: We are looking for a song choice that suits your voice and shows off the dynamics of what you can offer in range and personality. Remember, this offering is no less storytelling than your acting audition, so make sure it’s a song you “perform” well. If a director has set up rules to follow (aka: do not sing something from the musical, an up-tempo, etc.) then FOLLOW THEM! Do not challenge the director before you even open your mouth by bending the rules. There are a million songs out there…find one that satisfies the requirements and makes you look good. If all else fails, choose a simpler song that you KNOW you can sing well. Avoid songs that are tremendously overdone.
- THE SCRIPT: Some high schools make sides or scripts available to students before auditions. You absolutely need to acquaint yourself with the show. Read through the show, find scenes that interest you and rehearse them. Make solid choices in character / approach that you can bring into auditions with you. Nothing too solid. If the director wants you to try something completely different…be flexible enough to change it up. I recall my callback for Mr. Salt in Willy Wonka, the director wanted me to read him as a bustling oil tycoon. I donned a rip-off Yosemite Sam and turned the character into a southern tornado. I got cast in the part and was never asked again to approach that “type” of character. I believe the director was testing me. Unless the director requires you to memorize something, don’t bother. Know the scene well…but don’t add another stress to your plate. I guarantee you the “worth” of you having the scene memorized will not be weighed in your favor as much as you’d hope it would. Directors don’t care about that at this stage of the game.
- DANCE CALL: If you are considering a career in performing…get into a dance class. Bottom line. Even if you’re not a “dancer,” any sort of movement will take the edge off a dance call. (Trust me…I’m not a dancer.) But, if you are unaccustomed to dancing / dance calls…my advice is to come prepared. (Bottle of water, towel, comfortable/move-able clothes, appropriate footwear.) Prepare yourself to do your very best. (Even if your very best is the best dancer’s very worst!)
THE DAY OF THE AUDITION
- CHECK YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR: It so funny to me that a student can be so conscientious about what their boyfriend / girlfriend is doing behind their backs…but they have absolutely no sense of object permanence when they sit in a room during an audition. A director can see you rolling your eyes. A director can see you making a comment under your breath. A director can see you isolate yourself from others. Make it a point to be outgoing, enthusiastic (about everything and everyone.) Be kind. Be helpful. Be proactive. Be welcoming. Be encouraging. Be supportive. Nobody…nobody wants to work with the alternative. If you have a hard time adopting these traits…then your social personae is telling you that the impression you’re leaving is not as important as your status at the school. A director sees that too.
- THE AUDITION FORM: Someone once said “be illustrative, not exhaustive” when filling out your form. (Especially when detailing your experience and relevant skills.) Please come prepared to write down all of your conflicts. (Everything…that means talking to your parents and making sure orthodontist appointments don’t surprise anyone!) Good rule of thumb: “when in doubt, put it down.” Be honest and clear. Misunderstandings always create confusion…and you never want to purposely leave something off or lie.
- IN GENERAL: Usually auditions are held after school. Try to go about you day normally. (I know, I know…easier said than done!) But, seriously, working yourself up into a tizzy ain’t gonna do you no good…so eat a good breakfast, work hard in class, eat a healthy lunch and then approach the auditions with a collected mind. Avoid pre-audition gossip and do your best to think about your audition instead of focusing on others.
- SINGING: I’m a big believer of telling a story in your song. Understand what the character is feeling in the song, and become that character. Personally, I don’t mind if you read your lyrics off of a piece of paper…but in a professional audition, you’re going to want to have that thing memorized. You will most likely not get a chance to sing the whole song. (Most directors put a limitation on offerings…mostly because of time.) If there is a part of the song you want the directors to hear…make sure you include that part.
- THE VOCAL DIRECTOR is looking for the following: VOCAL QUALITY, MUSICIANSHIP, TECHNICAL DETAILS (pitch, dynamics, etc.) and are you ACTING THE SONG. The director is looking at a bigger “package.” Does your voice and body language suit the song you’re singing? Are you entertaining? Overall, please remember this….we know this is probably NOT going to be your BEST offering. So have fun!
- THINGS THAT EFFECT YOUR VOCAL AUDITION – There are a million factors that will effect your audition. Ex: Are you just getting over a cold? Did you just flunk your science test? Did you get into a fight with your boyfriend/girlfriend? All of these things will creep into your audition. If you can remember: NOBODY EXPECTS PERFECTION…then you’ll do okay. If you do run into “trouble” and forget your words…my recommendation is JUST KEEP SINGING. Say any word in the world…it doesn’t matter….but don’t stop. You know the notes….sing them. Sing any words that come to your head. One of two things will happen. The director will realize what’s going on…ask you to stop…and allow you to start again. OR, the director will let you finish…and RESPECT the fact that you didn’t give up. I KNOW I WOULD! Never say die in a vocal audition. REMEMBER…the director WANTS you to succeed!
- ACTING – Listen very closely to the directions given by the director. The best way to do this is by looking them directly in the eyes and giving them all of your focus. This is hard to do sometimes, because you’re nervous, fidgety and attempting to find some sort of comfort by connecting with your friends/classmates. When the director talks…shut your mouth, look them in the eyes…and follow their directions as best you can. If you are unsure of something…ask.
- WHAT IS THE DIRECTOR LOOKING FOR? They need to see if you can portray a character in such a way as to effectively tell the story. (This means they’ll be looking at character choices, relationship, reactions, and delivery.) Don’t allow words to get in your way. You’ve already read through the script, right? So you know what’s going on in the scene? If a word or two gets in your way…just GO ON! You know how they respond…so RESPOND! Students have this weird notion that they have to deliver every single word perfectly…and if they miss one….they’re out! Just focus on TELLING A STORY. Best way to practice this: At home, pick a scene from a musical. (Look at them all. Which ones WOULD be a good scene to use in an audition. Usually that’s the one the director will use!) Go through it a couple of times with your friends. Now….drop your scripts. Seriously. Put them down. Now, do the scene without the privilege of the lines. Make up the lines. Keep the same intention / goals / relationships, etc…but just get through the scene from beginning to end without the scripts. Afterwards…revisit the scene WITH the script. You will find that the discoveries you make when you’re NOT buried in words are usually MORE FUN to watch. Apply them. Practice makes perfect. Some of the best auditions I’ve seen in high school were ones delivered by those who worked on their scene work BEFORE auditions. Just sayin’.
- TAKING DIRECTION: I guarantee you at some point the director will give you instruction. Again, 90% of the time, they’re testing you. They are not so interested in the final outcome so much as they are the journey you take to get there. Listen…focus…take chances…and perform!
- TAKE CHANCES: This is tricky. I’m not telling you to light your shirt on fire and call it an “acting choice.” There are good choices and bad choices…remember? What I’m saying is, make a FUN choice that helps tell the story. People want to be entertained. Why deny them of that honor in auditions. Have FUN! But make sure that whatever choice you make….supports the scene.
- START THE SCENE WITH ACTION! This is huge for me. Never start a scene with the first line of the scene. Why? Because everyone else will. That’s why! Trust me. Start with a moment of action (pantomime even) that sets the stage for the first line. Also…end with action. The script is just words. WORDS, WORDS, WORDS!
- LOOK THEM IN THE EYES: Chances are you won’t be paired with a scene partner of your choice. In any case, when you are performing, LOOK THEM IN THE EYES. It’s a little detail, but I’m surprised at how many people DON’T DO IT. If you are buried in the script…or in a distant land somewhere spouting words into the empty universe….you’ll never connect, and ultimately it’s empty and void of an entertainment value. Instead, force your energy upon your scene partner by talking to them and making eye contact. They will do one of two things: 1.) Take that energy and run with it, offering it back, thereby creating a cool back-and-forth pulse to the scene. 2.) Or, fight against it. If this happens…and sometimes it does…I promise you it makes YOU look good. Just remain persistent and let the little bugger flop in the boat like a helpless fish. (Somewhat insensitive…but so is fishing.)
- SAY THANK YOU: A simple thank you is enough. No need to walk over and shake the director’s hand (unless they offer it.) Just look them in the eye…say thank you….and be gone.
- DON’T STOP BELIEVING: No matter how the scene is going…keep going. If you struggle to find a heartbeat in a scene…keep going. If you flub a line…or your scene partner loses his/her spot in the script….keep going. Never, never, never stop and ask to start again. Never apologize for your offering. Never mutter how bad you thought you did as you leave the stage. Bad, bad, bad monkey!!! No, no, no. Head held high! Stiff upper lip! Act that scene….and if it sucks….well, then….suck wonderfully!!!! Just don’t stop.
- DANCING – Listen very carefully to the instructions given by the choreographer. Make SURE you have had enough water to drink before the auditions. (That includes you, wafer-thin Tyra Bank wanna-bees who eat only celery every other Tuesday.) You will most likely be tested on how you follow direction, technique, application, interpretation, and energy. (Also, are you focused and driven? Or sloppy and distracted?) My suggestion (and I don’t dance that much) is to do you best. Focus….and do your best.
- Something technical to think about. A choreographer tends to stand in front of the group to give instruction. Most choreographers are right-handed…which means they will turn over their right-shoulder to give instruction and watch as you execute the moves. It would behoove you to stand toward the front and stage right. Just sayin’. You’ll be noticed more. (Nobody ever got noticed standing in the back. That’s why us good old fashioned Lutherans sit in the back pews. It’s the closest to the coffee in the narthax and we most likely won’t run into the head of the church committee-of-the-month.)
- FOCUS – In on of the dance classes I helped team-teach, one of my students challenged me to Dance, Dance Revolution. I failed miserably. It was NOT pretty. I remember the same game at my brother-in-law’s house. Empty house…game system all to myself…and I’ll tell you what, I did about 100 times better than I did in class. Why? Because I didn’t have distractions. I focused. You can do it! Final word on this….have fun. Choreographers want to work with people who WANT to work hard…and have fun. If you exhibit neither of these traits….it’ll be a HUGE up-hill battle. If you screw up…keep going. The only time I think you should ever leave a stage during an audition is if you are going to PUKE, PEE or FAINT. Then, by all means, exit stage right.
- CALLBACKS – Remember this, unless otherwise stated, callbacks are NOTHING MORE than another audition. What does that mean? It means the director needs to see more of you. That’s all. It’s not a right of passage. It’s not a green flag so you can advance to the next level. This isn’t American Idol. You’re not going to Vegas baby. (You’re already here!) Tighten your belt, strap on your helmet and gear up for more of what you just went through. It’s JUST another audition. Directors may give you something specific to work on. My suggestion is to focus on that and give it your best shot. DO NOT focus on who’s reading for who…and who did / didn’t get a callback….blah, blah, blah. See, you’re back acting like a typical high school student. You’re above that.
- RELAX – Try to relax. You just been through battle. Remember there are many kids in there vying for the same part you want. In essence it is a competition. But, did you do your best? Did you take chances? Did you execute everything you had in you? If so…then you have absolutely nothing to worry about. If you don’t get cast, then it wasn’t because you didn’t do something. The goal for you as an actor in an audition is to walk out of that room with confidence in what you offered with no regrets. Another goal might be to make sure the director is thinking about YOU when the auditions are over. You’re unique…you’re special…you’re deserving…and you have EVERY BIT as much right to be considered for that role as the next guy. (And if you don’t think so out of the gate….there your #1 problem. Work on that self-esteem thing before auditioning next time.) The point is: The director is rooting for you. Most likely your parents, brothers / sisters are rooting for you. Your friends are rooting for you. God is rooting for you. Why in the world wouldn’t you be your #1 cheerleader. Have confidence in yourself! You can do it! And if it doesn’t work out, then next time you’ll do it. You need to generate a tough skin. The performance industry is the most rewarding industry out there…but it’s the toughest. It’s ruthless. And you need to be able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off…and start all over again. If you’re unable or unwilling to do that…then don’t get into the performance industry.
- ONCE THE CAST LIST IS POSTED:If it’s posted on a call board, then approach the cast list, take a gander and then walk away. I recommend celebrating or reacting with disappointment several….several steps away from the cast list. Make it an agenda item. An appointment. Check the list…then go away. If you linger it’ll be perceived that you WANT to see others’ reactions (good or bad.) If you react (positively or negatively) and linger, it’ll make the approach to the cast list just that much more difficult for others. Please, for your sake and the sake of your fellow classmates, just check it out…and step away. If it’s posted online or if you receive word regarding the cast list via email…then you have the opportunity to reacting in the comfort of your own home, snuggled up with your ladybug pillow pet. Anyway you want to react is fine, but I beg of you to refrain from engaging in rumor mill gossip as a result.
- Please keep in mind three things:
- 1.) Regardless of the role you received…there is always someone out there broken hearted that they didn’t get the role you got. So appreciate the opportunity.
- 2.) If you got a leading role…be humble. Remember, with great power come great responsibility. Get ready for a lot of work. (And that work shouldn’t include beating down misconceptions of others saying that your arrogant.)
- 3.) If you didn’t get cast…please remember, this was a VERY difficult decision. It’s NEVER personal. (Parents, I understand if you roll your eyes. The job of directing a high school production is something I’m very honored to do for the school. They trust me to put in place a fair system that will determine a cast. I, and most directors, take this responsibility VERY seriously because it is our passion. We want to see children flourish in the art of theatre, not suffer as a result. After every cast list is posted, I spend a good two-three weeks as a make-shift guidance counselor, talking with students who are disappointed and working through their auditions, having a collaboration regarding what they could be doing better for the next time.
- FACEBOOK: Can I just say one thing. I’m a huge Facebooker…I have a Twitter, a Tumblr and every other en vogue app de jour. With that said…please remember, EVERYTHING you put on Facebook is read by everyone. If you’re happy…awesome. If you’re sad…that’s perfectly reasonable. But if you feel compelled to self-medicate yourself by posting the highlight or greatest regrets regarding the posting of a cast list over the world wide web in any format…ultimately your positing yourself to hurt someone. I have been on the back-handing side of things with regards to this, and I have witnessed first hand these types of postings totally disable a person’s joy in auditioning in the first place. Frankly, it’s the reason my wife cancelled her Facebook. Not because she was attacked…but for the same reason neither of us will ever chaperone a school dance: it’s paints students in such an ugly light. We see knee-jerk sides of their personalities that we wish we hadn’t. I ask you to think twice before posting, that’s all.
- PARENT CONCERNS: I’d say 95% of the complaints I hear from parents as a result of their students not receiving roles they believe they deserve, are brought to my attention because they believe I’m not providing an opportunity for them (in the form of a leading role.) I hope they’ll look at the bigger picture and see that while I cannot give every student a leading role…what I can do is provide opportunities for them to GROW. (Whether it is in the form of an onstage role or a supportive dialogue with the director) so that at the next time, the student can effectively expand on those opportunities and re approach the next play/musical. If you’re a drama director at a high school level, I challenge you to keep that open-door policy after auditions. If a student falls into the background after an audition…seek them out. Have a dialogue with them. I view this as the most important part of my job. Shows come and go…as do classroom dynamics…but that personal coaching is what builds character, which should be paramount.
- Please keep in mind three things:
IF YOU’RE A STUDENT: I am very interested in your continued success as a performer. If you have a question (vague or specific) that I haven’t touched on in this post…please leave a comment. I promise to respond.
IF YOU’RE A HIGH SCHOOL DRAMA TEACHER / ADMINISTRATOR: Please let me know what you’re thoughts are on this topic. I’m also interested to hear what others think are the current challenges of drama programs in the school system as we approach this generation of students. (Especially in light of diminishing fine arts programs nationwide.)
IF YOU’RE A PARENT: Please let me know your concerns as a parent of a “drama student.” I believe strongly in the classroom trinity: STUDENT, TEACHER and PARENT. Collectively they create harmony. (And anyone who has worked with me will tell you that without the direct support of the parents at Faith Lutheran…I wouldn’t be able to do what I do everyday.) I care greatly about your concerns, and would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, knowing that we all have the students’ best interest in mind.
I hope this was helpful.