Every year over 10,000 people will audition to get into a British drama school. Of that 10,000, maybe a few thousand will get through to the second round and of those, several hundred will get through to the third round. And of those...
So, what does it take to succeed and get through to that last round, or indeed to win a place in the drama school of your choice? Over the decades I've auditioned thousands of young actors for a place at Guildhall. Here are some of my tips – they are my personal views and not necessarily the views of my audition panel colleagues, but feel free to pass them on if you know anyone who might be auditioning. They also apply to auditioning in the profession.
Yes, you will be tense, because you're under huge pressure. But the game is to make it look easy and relaxed, otherwise your visible effort will get in the way of your performance. If you are relaxed, the panel will relax. Then we'll be more likely to focus on your strengths.
Before you go into the audition, concentrate on your breathing and try to get it under control. Long, slow breaths from the diaphragm – that's one of the most effective ways to relax quickly.
2. Trust the text
Your instinct will often be to do something flashy with the text – something that will make you look different and memorable. For example, being very loud, or physically dangerous. This will almost always lead to 'pushing' – where you force the energy and emotion through tension rather than relaxation, and the voice becomes harsh. This usually has the effect of pushing the audition panel away rather than drawing us in.
In your preparation, go back to find the accuracy of the text. Be absolutely specific. What are the words actually saying? And why do you say this particular word, or that particular phrase? Trust the text and it will do a lot of the work for you.
3. Find the truth
I've seen very spectacular auditions which didn't appear to cost the actor anything at all. This is where your imagination is vital. You need to tap into the feelings of the character, be unafraid of expressing your vulnerability and let your imagination fly. What does it honestly feel like to be that person, think those thoughts, say those words? Get inside the character, with uncompromising truthfulness and let your imagination fly.
4. Make it yours
What I personally look for in an actor is the power of their imagination. This is one of the traits of all great actors – it's their imagination that makes their characterisations memorable and unique. Think of Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey or Matthew McConaughey in True Detective.
What I mean by imagination is your ability to inhabit the character and within that, to make your acting choices fresh and creative. But those choices must always seem natural and truthful. If you use a bold acting choice just for the sake of impressing the audition panel, it's unlikely that we'll believe you.
So how do you do that? The best actors in an audition find spontaneity – being completely present in the moment and allowing themselves to discover the speech afresh. See where it takes you today, in this moment, rather than repeating something that you know worked well yesterday.
5. Be warm
Warmth is one of the most revealing qualities I look for in an actor. If an actor exudes coldness in an audition, then I'd want to know why they are locked and unable to find openness. But, it being an audition, I might not have time to work on that. It's quicker just to say, no.
From day one at Guildhall I encourage my students to be 'warm and generous'. Why? Because over the decades I've seen that warmth and generosity are the strongest qualities for creating empathy with an audience. Finding those qualities is a matter of attitude: send out love rather than hate and distain, and be generous rather than selfish to your audience and fellow actors. But remember the vital separation between actor and character – your character may be a hateful villain but you, the actor, must always relish playing that with warmth. It's the contrast between those two opposites that excites the audience.
6. Be positive
Prepare yourself in a positive frame of mind. It's natural to feel anxious about any audition, but remember, those of us who are auditioning you are trying to guess what you will really be like to work with. We're trying to get beyond your nerves to have a sense of the person. This comes out especially in the interview, which is usually an essential part of any audition, whether for drama school or in the profession.
One powerful technique you can practice in the days or weeks leading up to the audition is to visualise yourself doing the interview and delivering your speech with the clarity, relaxation, passion, presence and warmth that you've dreamed of. Give yourself time to create a detailed, positive visualisation – a little movie in your mind.
Play this over, as a mental rehearsal, several times a day, and you will start to build up a positive feeling about the event. This will help you come across in a more playful, friendly way when you walk into the room. And that in turn makes you more attractive.
7. New beat
When actors ask me for help with their audition pieces, I often find that they're overcompensating by forcing the emotion, when what they really need to do is focus first on the structure of the thought.
Get the structure of the thought right and it will do half the work for you. Here's a powerful technique that I've found makes a big difference in auditions. Break the speech down into beats. A beat in this case is the smallest unit of thought and each thought or beat should have its own energy. It's as simple as that. Technically this means that each thought is different in pitch, volume, tempo and timbre. You might spit out one thought, caress another and whisper yet another. Sometimes a new thought will be a complete sentence, sometimes a single sentence will comprise several thoughts. There is not necessarily a definitive solution for any text: how you divide it into beats will depend on your interpretation. Sometimes you may simply follow the commas and full-stops, sometimes not. For example: The line is immaterial. / Mr Worthing, I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. /To be born, / or at any rate bred, / in a hand-bag, / whether it has handles or not, / seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. / And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to? / As for the particular locality in which the hand-bag was found, / a cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion – / has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now – / but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognised position in good society./
Try emphasising the difference in each of these thoughts. You'll immediately be aware of the varied rhythm, which is there in all good writing. Go for accuracy of thought rather than rushing in with the emotion. What are the words actually saying?
8. Choosing the right piece
For drama school auditions, you'll normally be asked to prepare one classical piece and one modern piece. It's difficult to choose, especially the modern piece, because within that, you have such a wide range of material. Where do you start? Here are some tips that might help.
Firstly, consider what the panel is looking for. It's not about being polished, or your ability to do a range of accents, or do wild character acting. Those are things the training will deal with in due course. We want to know what your imagination is like, how well you can make sense of the text, what sort of personality you have and – especially in recall auditions – how well you can take direction.
The best piece for you is the one that will best answer those questions. Therefore, choose something that's close to your own personality, that has emotional territory you can identify with. It'll also be more comfortable for you doing something that's close to your own age range rather than giving us your King Lear.
Can you find the truth in the piece? Is there something about it that speaks directly to you and touches you? Some people like to write their own piece. If it's well-written and gives you a good opportunity to show what you can do, then there's no reason why you shouldn't do it.
Descriptive monologues (where you are describing a scene or a person) are less useful because they don't usually demand much emotional cost, and therefore they don't tell us enough about you as an actor. The piece should be lively, but you don't need to shock the panel. It's amazing how many sex monologues we get every year.
Yes, the panel will be looking for freshness, cost and individuality in your interpretation, but you should avoid hijacking the piece in order to give a blistering display of histrionics. This can lead you into the trap of pushing the emotion into unhelpful tension that merely gets in the way of telling us what you are like.
Finally, be flexible rather than rigid in your interpretation. If you're asked to repeat your Hamlet monologue as a terrorist or a stand-up comedian, give it a go and see where it takes you. You may surprise yourself – and the panel.
9. Dealing with nerves
One of the hardest aspects of auditions – both in professional and drama school auditions – is dealing with your nerves. You really want that part, or to get into that drama school, and in a sense it feels as if your life depends on it. It's accepted that you'll be nervous. In fact if you're not nervous, you should worry because you might be coming across as too laid back, as if you don't really care. That can be very off-putting.
It's often struck me that many of my most successful Guildhall students got their first break when they were still in the last month or two of their training. They were rehearsing for a third year production, so they could bowl up to the audition in a relatively carefree way, enjoy the experience and then go back to their rehearsal. When you've been out of work for three months, it's much harder to project the same carefree enthusiasm.
The best advice I can give is: make it about them, not you. If you're heavily focused on how you are coming across, you'll project mainly your anxiety. And that makes the panel feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, if you focus on giving the panel an enjoyable time, you start to take the pressure off yourself. How do you do this?
One way is to play the following trick on your mind. Give yourself the freedom to throw the audition away, rather than worrying whether or not the panel is seeing your very best work. You still aim to do the piece well, but without desperation. The effect of this is that you relax enough to find more openness and your nerves are reduced. The energy becomes more extrovert rather than introvert.
At the same time, go in with a spirit of openness, as if to say to yourself: "Together we're going to explore this piece and see what makes it tick." Your curiosity will relax and energise the panel, and creative work starts to happen. Your attitude becomes: "I'm enjoying being here to try out this speech. I may not be exactly the person you're looking for, but let's take a few minutes to explore this together and just see if we like working with each other. I'll try to make it as easy for you as I can."
And finally, remember that it's also you auditioning us. The casting director or the drama school may appear to have all the power, but you've got to want them as well. Just realising that you can choose whether you'd like to work in this company or that drama school, without being arrogant of course – that thought alone frees you up a lot and enables you to come across with more openness and confidence.
10 Adopt the right mindset
In The Outstanding Actor: Seven Keys to Success, I've talked a lot about the importance of having the right mindset. Your mindset is your default habit of thinking. For instance, it's very easy to regard a forthcoming audition or interview with dread: "I'm not really up to this. I'm punching above my weight. They'll see through me. I'll probably mess up the lines. I'm not the type they're looking for. Everyone else will be better than me." That sort of thing.
If you give these thoughts free rein they quickly set up a poisonous cycle of negative expectation. So when you finally walk into the room, all that self-doubt will be written on your face and your body. It'll also be in the tone of your voice and the words you use to describe yourself and why you want to be an actor. And above all it will affect your thinking: it's amazing how inarticulate you can become when you adopt a negative mindset.
The director or auditioning panel will in turn be affected by this because neuro science tells us that when we see recognisable behaviour (for instance someone being anxious) part of our brain takes on the same mode and we start to feel uncomfortable just watching you.
Preparing yourself in a positive mindset – "This is a great chance to show what I can do. I'm making some valuable contacts here. I love talking about my passion for acting. Let's enjoy exploring this piece together and see what happens." – is going to change the way you walk into the room and the quality of your presence. Your positive enthusiasm will be written on your face and body. Your mind will function more lucidly. In turn, that is likely to make the person auditioning you more relaxed and motivated to get the best out of you. All this will increase your chances of getting the result you want.
And how to you get into that positive mindset? One way, as I mentioned in tip number 6, is to prepare yourself in the weeks and days leading up to the audition by visualising, through all your senses, the way you want the audition to go. It's as if you're creating in your mind a mini-movie of the event. Keep replaying it to yourself and you'll start to feel more positive about the audition.