Audition technique

Last week I was invited to sit on the panel for the first batch of Musical Theatre auditions at the Queensland Conservatorium. It was a telling three days, exhausting and exhilarating in turn. There were some difficult moments when it was easy to see that, despite every good intention, sometimes auditions don’t go the way the candidate hopes. Here’s what I learned last week.

Firstly, dance. I cannot emphasise this enough. People contemplating a performance career NEED dance. They need dance in order to move on stage, to have stage craft, to learn the essentials of choreography. Plenty of hopeful candidates had appalling dance skills and terrible stage craft. While this is not an essential element overall, it was telling that the ones we liked best often had solid dance skills as well. Jazz, tap and ballet. Everything else helps but is not necessary. Boys were the worst culprits. Many boys who auditioned lacked even general fitness and it was clear some had never even kicked a footy. Now, I’m no sporty banana, but even I noticed those students who lacked basic tone and flexibility. Which brings me to my second point.

Stage performers need to be fit. We saw plenty of good dancers who lacked basic fitness and who struggled to complete a one hour dance practice and 24-bar dance routine. We did not care about size. If candidates carried extra weight but moved well and were obviously fit, we loved it. There are plenty of gigs for bigger girls and boys, because Musical Theatre is not just about a chorus line – it is so much more. There are all sorts of character roles (which I think are more fun) as well as the usual romantic leads available to people of all sizes. But we saw lots of unfit slim young people on the day and it was not impressive.

Thirdly, performers need to have basic acting skills. We didn’t care if auditionees were technically weak or lacked craft. That is something we can help with, but we needed to see that they inhabited the character and could change approach if given a note by the director. Out of 140 hopefuls, there were one or two candidates only who we thought, “wow, what fantastic acting, what character”. Plenty of hopefuls came in thinking they can act because they can memorise a few lines and have been in the school play. Some were “playing” at acting. By that I mean that although it was a polished performance, it was not real. It did not touch us, the panel.

Fourth, as well as a good voice with vibrato and good intonation, stage performers need to have the capacity to inhabit character through the song. They need basic musical skills and a sensitivity through singing that becomes evident in portrayal of character. We listened for tone quality, decent vibrato and vibrant, energised singing. If auditionees lacked any of these, we tended to discount them, despite them perhaps having done a good dance audition. Some hopefuls made an awful mashup of their songs. One or two who are normally very well prepared sang quite poorly on the day, a terrible disappointment to those who had suggested they audition. But we could hear the quality or otherwise of the voices in most cases.

Finally, preparation. Audition technique is a tricky thing to prepare for. On one hand you want good dance skills, good preparation of the monologue and a well produced song. However, so many hopefuls had not put this together in a pleasing whole. They danced well but then wandered aimlessly about the stage during their monologue and song. Or they couldn’t dance at all and forgot lines in their monologue. Or they sang their first song well and sang their next song very badly while still wandering about the stage. Some hopefuls clearly wanted it so much that they performed poorly overall because they were stressed, yelling the lyrics or flubbing their lines or forgetting postural alignment. The best auditionees had practised their auditions. Maybe they had been to a few already. But they were relaxed and did not let nerves get the better of them. Their second song was well learnt and sometimes better than the first!

Some auditionees, strangely, were over prepared. They were too rigid in their approach and could not change their character or change their sound at all. It was clear for some that they had practised their songs and monologues to death, and so they lacked vibrancy and life. This was difficult for us to pinpoint at times, but those who couldn’t change their approach tended to be discounted.

So, I think for all my students who are looking at careers in Musical Theatre or stage performance, please go to every audition workshop you can. Practise your audition technique with anyone who will listen. As a singing teacher, I can only really prepare my students for the singing component and even then I was surprised that the song I had thought perfect for one student turned out not to be on the day, and that technique and characterisation let them down. It helps to sing in as many comps as possible, although “eisteddfod” face was rife in the hopefuls we knew were perennial competitors. No, it’s more about knowing what to expect, being mature enough to inhabit the character you are portraying and not getting fazed by the little things, the little slip ups. It’s about showing that you are a triple threat performer.

About Jessica

Dr Jessica O'Bryan PhD is an educator, researcher, singer and author. Her next book on Musical Theatre Education and Training will be published in 2020 through Routledge. Her last book was Teaching Singing in the 21st Century (2014, Springer). She lives in Brisbane in a semi-renovated 20s Queenslander home with her husband, Dougal the Groodle, and all the single ladies (Poppy the Groodle, Lucy the Cat, and the chooks).
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