Nailing the 5 Key Elements of College Auditions

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Each year at this time, thousands of young actors vying for a spot in an undergraduate theater program prepare their auditions. In an effort to quell some nerves, gain some perspective, and focus attention on the more important areas of your upcoming auditions, I have invited the guidance of those who can speak firsthand: current and former professors and directors of top theater programs. With many thanks, they include: Robert Anderson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Tim Davis-Reed, Syracuse University; Grant Kretchik, School of Performing Arts at Pace University; Barbara Mackenzie-Wood, Carnegie-Mellon University School of Drama; and Joe Price, University of Minnesota-Guthrie Theatre Dept. of Theatre Arts/Dance. 

Whether it’s one of the Unified locations or on campus, first and foremost, your auditors want to create a comfortable, positive atmosphere where applicants feel they can perform their best work.

Think in terms of “going on a cool date with someone who shares the same style as you,” says Kretchik. What’s your most “put together” style showing who you are? Wear clothes you can move in, that fit you, show some thought into who you are now, and how you want to be perceived.

You must be contrasting in the material. “Avoid choosing a character who is experiencing the same circumstances in both your classical piece and your contemporary piece,” Kretchik advises. Follow the guidelines addressed on schools’ websites for monologues and songs. They will time you and may stop you. Do not create an awkward moment. Time your pieces.

Choose pieces you are passionate about. “I can always tell when an actor just ‘likes’ a piece. Know why you chose your pieces, and have a thoughtful response. We are looking for our future colleagues, and someone to spend the next four years with,” says Price. It doesn’t matter if it’s overdone. What matters is allowing your auditors to see you in your work.

READ: A Tool for Students + Parents to Land Their Dream School

Anderson dares you to answer, “Who are you? What gets you going? What authors do you love? Who do you want to be? What gets you mad, happy, passionate—what turns you on?” Have the courage to share who you are.

“The thinking is, ‘If I find a great monologue, or the perfect song, they will think I am great doing it.’ Your job is not to show me a great monologue or song,” says Davis-Reed, “Your job is to use the material to show me you.”

Are you ready to talk about your pieces and take a redirect? Mackenzie-Wood has been auditioning students at Carnegie Mellon for over 15 years. Her reminder to young actors: “Be prepared to answer specific questions about the play and the monologue.” Be ready to thoughtfully answer, “What just happened before you begin this speech? Where have you come from? Who are you talking to, and why you are saying these words? Know the speech so well that if we ask you to make an adjustment to the piece, it will not throw your concentration. We are looking for flexibility and the actor’s ability to play and take direction.”

There may be a little small talk at the top designed to subdue nerves and create dialog. Rice appreciates “availability and openness right off the bat. Keep it basic in your introduction of your name and pieces. Messing up the title of your pieces is OK as long as you are relaxed about it.” Allow them to see who you are, and maintain some humor about it.

Audition Room
“Walk in like you want to be there. We need you,” says Kretchik. Whether it is a conference room, stage, rehearsal space, or office, it’s your room. Price agrees: “Everyone at these programs are good people. We’re trying to solve the problem, and actors give us too much power. They have way more power than they think.”

Go into the process thinking you’re “interviewing us much as we are interviewing you,” says Davis-Reed. “You are about to make a very big life choice that can also include a significant financial investment, and it should be an informed choice.” Do proper research and have an opinion about what you want in a training program.

What is the department’s mission and style of training? Price auditions many prospective students who have no idea about his program and the legacy of its regional theater. “I appreciate it when the actors know about the Twin Cities, and that we provide classical training. Know what the Guthrie is, what the school and department is about, its alumni, faculty. Ask specific questions, and tell me what you like about my program.”

Be ready to talk about yourself. Why do you want to act? How does each one of the schools specifically meet your criteria and dreams? Sometimes the professor auditioning you will be much more interested in the person sitting in front of them, talking about their passions, than the actual audition.

The entire college audition process is subjective. As Davis-Reed eloquently says, “We are making an ‘educated guess’ as to whether this young person would be a good ‘fit’ for our program. We make mistakes. We miss an occasional diamond in the rough. If this is really what they want to do with their lives and we don’t think they are the greatest thing since sliced cheese, why on Earth would they trust our opinion in the first place?”

Enjoy the process and prepare for it. Maintain your joy. And go be amazing!

Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Caroline Liem
Caroline Liem is a casting director, teacher/coach based in Los Angeles. For the past 20 years, she has cast films, studios features, television pilots, and TV series. She is faculty at Pace University and UT Austin and teaches locally at the Village.
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