COLLEGE-BOUND STUDENTS spend a lot of time on entrance test prep and college applications while maintaining a competitive GPA and extracurricular profile, but those aiming for college theatre programs have extra hurdles to clear. Preparing for acting auditions and assembling design portfolios are no small tasks. Not only that, but the competition is also steep. Here are some tips on how to make your performance and presentation stand out from the lineup of talented applicants.

Choose well your part

“The most successful auditions are those when the student presents their talent and their personality as honestly as possible,” says Vincent Cardinal, chair of musical theatre at University of Michigan. “Don’t try to be what you imagine the auditors want you to be. In a school audition, you are looking for a place where they can help you realize your best potential.” Christie Kerr, assistant professor of musical theatre at University of Arizona, agrees. “It’s so essential that the student picks out audition material that really shows who they are as a person.”

Most theatre professors encourage students to select characters around the same age and to avoid speaking in dialects. And though contemporary plays work well in this context, avoid the most popular, potentially overdone plays (Hamilton, anyone?). “I see most successful auditions based on material that is close to a character that the student might actually play in a professional situation today,” says Cardinal.

Catherine Weidner, chair of theatre arts at Ithaca College, also recommends monologues that students connect to in a personal, truthful way. “Choose something from plays and musicals that you love, characters that connect to you, a role that you could play right now,” Weidner says. “Avoid sexually charged language or situations. This is not the time for that.”

While an audition monologue should highlight how the performer portrays emotions, some emotions are more suitable for the college audition. “Because you are going to be nervous, I suggest avoiding material that is primarily angry,” says Cardinal. “The combination of nerves and anger often results in an audition that lacks the emotional levels you’d like to demonstrate.”

Finally, do your homework and mind your technique. Practicing a monologue should include examining the pacing of the character’s voice, as well as careful script analysis to cultivate understanding of text and subtext. “Practice the changes in the piece. Consider when is there a beat or a shift that forces you to make a new choice, play a tactic, or work off an imaginary response from another character. And be sure to do a few mock auditions,” says Weidner.

PRACTICE, PRACTICE, AND PRACTICE SOME MORE

For an audition, you simply can’t over-practice. Your audition should be so well rehearsed that performing it comes as second nature when you’re in front of adjudicators.

“I see students not being as prepared as they should be,” says Kerr. “We all understand that auditions are a stressful time, but make sure you’ve given yourself all the tools to have a successful audition. Occasionally, there is a memory slip with forgotten lines or lyrics, but if you’re not able to get back into your audition, despite this slip, chances are that you haven’t spent enough time preparing and practicing your audition.” Cardinal adds, “Find opportunities to perform the material in front of other people, so that the first time you have an audience isn’t in a college audition room.”

Each audition itself is good practice for the next. The audition process always provides valuable experience, even if it’s a flop or even if you make the cut but turn it down. That’s another reason to apply to several schools and not to focus solely on your top choices. “I can’t stress enough how important it is that you audition for a variety of schools at different tiers,” says Joey Mervis, who applied to nine different programs and was accepted into two, including New York University’s Steinhardt School, where he is now a freshman majoring in vocal performance with a focus on musical theatre.

DRESS THE PART

One of the most common mistakes at college auditions is a student wearing inappropriate attire. “Sometimes, actors — mostly women — wear clothes that completely contradict the material,” says Weidner. “If you’re singing a Golden Age song cut or doing a monologue from Our Town, you probably shouldn’t be in a miniskirt and heels,” Weidner says. “If the character is high status, you shouldn’t be wearing jeans and tennis shoes. So many women do the Viola ring speech from Twelfth Night [during which she’s disguised as a man] in a dress. Pay attention to the given circumstances and work out a plan for what you wear that reflects your choices, without it being a costume.”

Being comfortable the day of the audition is also important. Kerr advises that students do a “dress rehearsal” before auditions. “Practice in the outfit — including shoes — that you’ll be wearing to audition. It makes a big difference when you’re at ease in the room.”

Thespians prepare for the college dance audition at the International Thespian Festival.
Thespians prepare for the college dance audition at the International Thespian Festival. Photo by Susan Doremus.

COORDINATE YOUR MUSICAL THEATRE GAME

Students auditioning for college programs in musical theatre have to be a triple threat of acting, singing, and dancing skills. That’s a lot to account for. To get focused, start with a highly organized audition book, advises Mervis. “Your book [of songs and monologues] will travel with you to each audition,” he says. “I organized my book into a few sections like 16-bar songs, 32-bar songs, and full songs, with an index in the front of each section, so if a school were to ask to see my book, they wouldn’t have to flip through each individual song to decide what they want to hear. Then at the very front of the binder was a section called ‘Audition,’ where I would move whatever songs I was planning on singing for that particular audition.”

When it comes to musical selections, “Pick songs you love to sing,” says Zeva Barzell, head of musical theatre and associate professor at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “The cuts should show off the very strongest aspects of their voices,” adds Barzell. “The pieces should show range and dynamics. At least one cut should have a nice sustained line. It is not just about ‘sounding good’ but also the use of the lyrics. Choose material that you can do comfortably on a stressful day. If you can hit that high  note 75 percent of the time, find the alternative note that you nail 100 percent of the time,” advises Cardinal.

Cardinal says that in musical theatre auditions, the widest range of ability he sees is in the dance audition. “Whether an extraordinarily skilled dancer or an enthusiastic mover, it is important to act the dance, to attend to what your movement is communicating, to employ the best technique you currently have, and to enjoy the opportunity to perform,” says Cardinal.

Auditioning for musical theatre programs is competitive, so it helps to have someone to help in guiding you through the process, whether an audition coach, drama teacher, local theatre professional, or other musical theatre student. “Minimally, students should have someone check their cuts and make sure they have rehearsed with the accompaniment — and do both songs and monologues in front of people to get the nerves out,” says Barzell.

In navigating his college search, Mervis found his audition coach to be invaluable. “Very few people — not even parents in some cases — understand the chaos that is the college audition process, and I can’t tell you how good it is to have someone to go on the ride with you.”

But while Barzell says it can be helpful to get assistance from professional theatre coaches, it is not necessary. “A slick audition is not what I am looking for,” she says. Incoming Boston University acting student Sarah Whelan agrees. “Certain schools have an eye for super-coached kids, and there is such a thing as over-polished.”

ENJOY THE JOURNEY

Trusting your instincts is key to finding the program where you will thrive. “Your job in the audition process is to find the place that best matches your practical needs as a student and a human being who has professional aspirations,” says Cardinal. “At the end of the process, trust your gut. Go where your research and your heart says you will be challenged, nurtured, and encouraged to travel your unique path as an artist.

Of course, auditioning for college theatre programs, whether at the International Thespian Festival, National Unified Auditions, or college campus itself can be overwhelming. “Shift your perception of the audition from your opportunity to impress to your opportunity to share your talent, your preparation, and your best aspirations. Remember, everyone’s goal is for you to find the best fit for your college education,” says Cardinal.

“I would advise any prospective students to enjoy the journey,” says Barzell. “There is nothing quite like auditioning for colleges. It can be an exciting time to meet young people from all over the country and sometimes, other parts of the world. You only do this once. Have fun!”

This story appeared in the October/November 2017 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

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