Last week, the Independent featured an article about Benedict Cumberbatch’s upcoming Barbican production of Hamlet. While it acknowledged that “Hamlet stands at the pinnacle of the actor’s art for its emotional and intellectual range”, it focused largely on the 1,480 lines that Cumberbatch will have to commit to memory.
Michael Pennington said: “It is the question that everyone asks at a party. It defines the job; it’s the bare necessity. But it’s still the thing that amazes other people.”
Lenny Henry found writing out the lines of his scene 10 times useful, while most other actors followed the “repetition repetition repetition” method.
Whichever method they chose, all came to the consensus that “the key to mastering lines is not to treat them as lines, but as the ingredients of a character and a story. Grasp the total meaning, and the words will swiftly follow. For Michael Pennington, “You come to know the character that much better. It’s like the engineering of a car: you get to see what goes on under the bonnet. It’s a matter of cosying up the author – you see how they do it, and you develop a feeling for the music of the language”.
Audition Doctor lessons are about getting into the mechanics of the text and to cultivate the linguistic and emotional confidence that comes with spending time living your character. Many Audition Doctor students initially come to Tilly for help with Shakespeare because initially they find it difficult to get to a place where they feel like they are using the language effectively to communicate their character’s intentions.
This week, West End Producer commented on his blog: “One mistake that many new performers make is trying too hard to ‘stand out’ and ‘be different’ so they’re remembered in an audition. Chances are when you do this you stick out for all the wrong reasons, namely for being over the top, desperate, and unnecessary – which is exactly how you don’t want to appear.”
Audition Doctor students have found that sessions have resulted in the right kind of attention at auditions; the work undertaken at Audition Doctor is all about furthering your understanding of the role you are playing, as opposed to yourself.
Bryan Cranston advised young actors: “Know what your job is. About eighteen years ago I had this cognition that I was going into auditions trying to get a job and that simply wasn’t what I was doing. It wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing. An actor is supposed to create a compelling, interesting character that serves the text, you present it in the environment where you audition and then you walk away and that’s it….There’s power in that and there’s confidence in that. Everything else is out of your control.”
Audition Doctor gives students the peace of mind of knowing that they have done all they can to do their job well. Those who come regularly have also noticed that they land jobs simply because the lessons have enabled them to continue their training.
As West End Producer said: “Work leads to work, it really does. That awkward person who directs you in a profit-share show at the Union could one day be running the National Theatre. You never know. And by doing work, you will be surrounded by other actors and meet other creatives – and that’s how you find out about what’s going on and who is casting what, etc.”
The stress on all actors, regardless of whether you are playing Hamlet, is significant and as the Independent article rightly stated: “Every night, [an audience] expects art, practice, training, teamwork and trust to fuse seamlessly into a note-perfect or line-perfect rendition.”
Audition Doctor is popular with professional actors because regular practice and exploration in the sessions takes a large amount of the pressure off.
In an interview, Jack Lemon spoke of his experience working on Glengarry Glen Ross and working with David Mamet’s text:
“We had about two and half weeks rehearsal…if we had not had it, we would’ve all been fish that were drowning. As great a writer as Mamet is, I don’t think there’s a playwright in the world whose lines are as difficult to learn. They are unique, slightly off. The whole trick is to make them sound like normal conversation…He has another thing in common with other great writers such as Billy Wilder and Neil Simon and that’s what he doesn’t write. He never writes too many words and every single one of those “if, ah, ums” is written…When you forget one it’s like dropping a whole sentence – the whole rhythm goes. David has his own rhythm, each character has his own rhythm and each actor has to find that rhythm.”
For many of Audition Doctor’s students, sessions are focused on finding this rhythm. Similarly to Mamet, Shakespeare is a writer whose characters literally speak in a rhythm. Shakespeare is unavoidable for those who come to Audition Doctor to prepare for drama school auditions. Audition Doctor sessions take the fear out of performing Shakespeare by encouraging students to become comfortable with iambic pentameter. Eventually, the language becomes a tool in their arsenal and students find that the rhythm and syntax actually become an indispensable aid in communicating thought and emotion.
Lemon went onto say of rehearsing for Glengarry Glen Ross: “For the first couple of weeks you go absolutely bananas, not only trying to remember the lines but to make them natural so that you’re not just listening to cues or thinking of your lines but really behaving as a character truly would in life and that is as I am now. I’m not thinking of the words, I’m thinking of the thought I’m trying to get across. When you’re really in the scene, that’s what an actor does.”
Those who come to Audition Doctor regularly over a period of time usually find that finding the thought on the line becomes easier than those who leave extended gaps between lessons. Like with many other aspects of acting, routine and rigorous practice is the key to getting to the emotional and intellectual space the role requires more effectively.
Julie Walters recently described the freedom of working with Stephen Daldry: “He’d just say let’s shoot another scene here now. Let’s say they’re in this room and this happens. We’d just do it. I just love that.”
Audition Doctor’s students, whether professional actors or drama school applicants, all benefit from a similar mode of direction. The spontaneity of the sessions means that actors have the freedom to experiment without too much over-thinking.
Benedict Cumberbatch recently spoke of what it’s like for an actor when there is the right chemistry between you and a director: “It’s a great thing to have rehearsals and to know that you’re coming at it from the same point of view. It just means you can be more free, you can play and enjoy it and I think that’s what elevates good work to great work or really daring work.”
At Audition Doctor, students will attest that Tilly undoubtedly creates this possibility.
In The Stage, Judi Dench spoke about her constant “fear of everything” as an actor – fear “ of not fitting into that slot, of not fulfilling that piece you are asked to do. I get more frightened [the more I do]. The more you do, the more frightening it is anyway as you are much more aware.”
Fear plays an undeniable role for most during auditions, however, at Audition Doctor, much of that fear is alleviated through the progressive confidence that each student gains with each session. Both professional actors and drama school applicants have found that failure is not discouraged at Audition Doctor.
This echoes Colin Farrell’s interview on the BAFTA website where he insisted: “You have to be allowed to fail as an actor because it’s very easy to play it safe”. Like drama school, Audition Doctor sessions are where you are encouraged to take risks and feel safe in doing so.
Audition Doctor sessions involve both discussion as well as performance. The choice of speech always takes perhaps longer than expected. However, Geoffery Colman, Head of Acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama, recently wrote in The Actor’s Handbook:
“The choice of speech preoccupies many candidates, who unearth an astounding range of two minute extracts – often material inappropriately sourced online and disallowing any creative placement of their own heart and mind. And oh, how audition candidates obsesses about contrasting this, that or the other! Just select an extract from a play that is simple, clear, unfussy and – most important of all – one that allows you to enter its world without a fight (and most certainly without the need to show that you are entering it). People bring much worked-upon accents, props, shouts, peculiar moves, glances and screams as though volume alone will do the deal. This should be avoided.”
Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Hugh Dancy spoke of what they looked for in a character in interviews for BAFTA. Cumberbatch stated: “When I look for a role…I think about how important is this character. Not how big but how important, how interesting is this going to be to watch and how interesting is it going to be to bring to life.”
Dancy mentioned: “I suppose I’m looking to be intrigued in some way. Maybe have a question raised that isn’t immediately answered for me. It’s not often necessarily the case that you realise that as you’re reading something. It might be that over the following few days it’s percolating.”
Auditioning, particularly for drama schools, is a long process and you can live with the speeches for up to 6 months. The speeches chosen have to be simultaneously comfortable yet demanding – both emotionally and intellectually. Audition Doctor sessions give you the time and space to fully inhabit the character and really make it your own.
This originality and individuality is what drama schools are looking for because as Dench noted in the same interview: “Don’t let’s fool ourselves – don’t let’s stop for a minute to not remember that right here at my shoulder is someone standing, and behind her is someone else and someone else.”
The Stage asked Maria Friedman to give advice on auditioning: “Preparation, preparation, preparation. Bring yourself, not someone else, to every audition- you can’t hide you, so get to know yourself and what it is you have to offer; and know that is your three minutes – so don’t allow something else to dominate it, whether it’s your fear, or travel on the train – and use them. Come in and enjoy yourself and do the performing you wanted to do all your life.”
Aside from the depth of preparation that each actor achieves at Audition Doctor – something that is difficult to achieve alone – Audition Doctor’s popularity lies in the fact that work is only done on speeches that enhance your particular ingenuity, individuality and boldness. Audition Doctor sessions, particularly for drama school applicants, are as much about rehearsing monologues as figuring out the kind of actor you are, working out your strengths and weaknesses and finding it within yourself to identify with a spectrum of roles.
Similarly to the work done Audition Doctor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman said: “The first thing I looked at was how were they similar to me and how were they different to me. I had to cover those bases…so I could create this person who was not living my life but living someone else’s life.”
The best speeches to work on are those that provoke an expansion of empathy or understanding.
Benedict Cumberbatch said: “As an actor you have to find a level of empathy and understanding of your character and I think to carve out anything that’s two-dimensional, whether a character is thumbs up or thumbs down, I find that limiting…I want to find out the three-dimensionality, what motivates them, what’s human about them. That’s not to soften the edges at all, that’s purely because it’s near to a human experience so that there’s some common ground for audience to understand the character’s motivation because then it isn’t something that’s ostracised from us, something that’s telling us how to feel and think. I personally get bored watching that type of work and bored doing that type of work.”
The work that actors undertake at Audition Doctor forces them to go beyond the parameters of their perceived capabilities. Imagination and craft are exercised and pushed to places which offer up a whole, truthful and bold performance.
Lisa Dwan spoke in the Guardian about her role in Beckett’s Not I : “Do you know what’s so gorgeous about this role? I’m not a woman, I’m a consciousness. It’s stretched me intellectually, emotionally. To get out of my blonde hair and body and be this thing, I can’t explain the gift.”
Roles that allow actors to experience this are few and far between, however, taking the time to choose the speech that gives you the opportunity to challenge yourself is essential. Once chosen, Audition Doctor sessions encourages actors and drama school applicants to get out of themselves and authentically live out the role.
A couple of years ago, the Guardian published an article entitled “How to act: stage stars share their acting tips“. Along with “preparation, preparation, preparation”, the most common piece of advice was “listen”.
Actors often cite this ability as an absolute prerequisite when playing a scene. Dominic West recently mentioned: “People who I’ve most enjoyed working with are people who are open, who listen and who are flexible…if you go into a scene knowing how things are going to end up, chances are it’s not going to be a very interesting scene”.
People applying to drama school may understandably feel like this piece of advice is less applicable when performing their monologues in front of an audition panel. Sometimes drama schools provide an existing pupil to stand in place of the other character in your scene, but they will never react to your performance and are there more to help with eye line than anything else.
Furthermore, inevitably you will know how “things are going to end up” in your performance at an audition. Decisions based on the text will have been made and the panel will expect you to intelligently justify why you chose to present that particular interpretation.
Although there may be no other actor to listen or react to, the spirit of being open to suggestion is key to getting a recall. In a drama school audition, the listening applies to responding to the panel’s direction; hearing their notes and immediately adapting your performance to show that it isn’t set in stone and that you are able to play conflicting interpretations truthfully.
The panel aren’t looking for a polished performance, they are looking for students who are willing to fail in the pursuit of a better and more honest portrayal. The reason why drama schools graduates often have higher employment rates than those who haven’t been is because they have been allowed to experiment and fail intelligently.
James McAvoy said: “Drama schools are a great idea, I really do believe that. It’s three years where you’re in an environment where you are safe, your vulnerability is protected. No where in the professional world will you manage to get twenty gigs in three years playing all these different characters. You’re there to fail.”
This is why students return time and time again to Audition Doctor. The focus is not on creating a shiny, unchangeable performance, but the joy of unravelling a human being through trial and error.
When interviewed by BAFTA, Benedict Cumberbatch said: “You can never perfect what we do, I’ve never met anyone who goes “that’s perfection”….this goes for all art forms, the point is that perfection is unachievable. It’s that constant pursuit of the unobtainable which is kind of magic really and it’s that Beckett thing, fail again and fail better” which is essentially the unwritten ethos of Audition Doctor.
You would have thought that a profession whose primary concern is reflecting the complexities and contradictions of the multifaceted nature of human existence would celebrate the diversity of its practitioners. To be an actor (unless you seek to be one of the Hugh Grant variety) means fulfilling the job description of being a chameleon. Yet frustratingly, graduates out of drama school have the cheery prospect of not being given opportunities to get the most out of their training.
Typecasting is still endemic and this week Stephen Poliakoff conceded: “I still think we tend to cast black people in working class roles all the time, much more so than America as they have a much larger black middle class,” he says. “I think there is a little lack of imagination in that casting, and I know one or two black actors that come across as posh and find it very difficult to get hired because people are always looking for drug dealers and gangsters on the street.” On the other side of the spectrum, Benedict Cumberbatch was also portrayed as a “moaning, rich, public school bastard who complained about only getting “posh” roles.” At least there is some justice in the fact that it appears no one is immune to being pigeonholed.
It is surprising that an industry that is by its very definition relates to creativity, fantasy and make-believe can have so little imagination when it comes to casting. There is a risk that despite having received peerless drama school training, and proving that you can indeed successfully transcend the baggage of your education, provenance, skin colour, accent (and in some cases – even gender) to inhabit everyone from Lady Macbeth to a starving Russian peasant amidst the throes of the Revolution, you will be given roles of a certain type.
The only thing you can do to get any part is to stun the drama school audition panel or director with something that is totally unique to you which they can’t get out of anyone else even during extensive rehearsals. This is what Audition Doctor excels in; as much as acting is about overcoming yourself, it is also about exposing aspects of your own experience and personality. Audition Doctor always endeavours to pick and approach speeches that enhance your own currency – the simple fact of being you.
Today, Hattie Morahan was interviewed about working with Katie Mitchell straight out of university and said: “”I hadn’t trained [at drama school], so it was the first time I’d encountered any structured approach to getting under the skin of a play or a character.” The benefit of coming to Audition Doctor is precisely that – it is the rare advantage of having Tilly guide you through the practicalities of inhabiting a character as well as having the relaxed space to experiment artistically. It is this that has meant that Audition Doctor has become indispensable and is now internationally recognised, with students coming to see Tilly from as far as Austria, Hong Kong and South Africa to seek audition advice.
This year has seen the success of the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Harry Haddon-Paton and Harry Lloyd -all unquestionably talented and all from the same demographic – privately educated and middle-class. One could argue that the theatrical profession was ever thus, with many actors requiring financial support from drama school training to well after the “break-in years”. Even though many drama schools now offer foundation courses, two-year courses and one year MAs, the tuition fees are still punishingly high. Wealthy parents almost seem like a prerequisite to becoming a professional actor. However, there has been a movement within the industry to encourage its practitioners to come from all sectors of society.
David Morrissey and Julie Walters recently raised concerns that sky-high drama school fees and the disappearance of grants were consequently increasing the impossibility of working-class actors to train at drama school. Even the head of the Central School of Speech and Drama acknowledged that there was a risk of drama schools becoming a “repository for the privileged.” As a result, the eminent actress Clare Higgins, has announced plans to open her own drama school that will train actors for free.
“We cannot go on like this any longer where only rich people can afford to train in the arts, so we have to get out here and make it change now. I’m not going to get political about it, but all I am going to say is that there is a dearth of training for people who don’t have independent wealth or rich parents. We are aiming to stop that in its tracks.”
It is inevitable that the social background of drama school graduates will directly affect the type of plays that get put on. Lynn Gardner opined that “the Royal Court writing of the 60s would not have thrived without the influx of exciting actors from less privileged backgrounds coming out of drama schools.”
The view that theatre aims to reflect the human condition and effectively “hold a mirror up to nature” was disproved by one columnist in the Stage who questioned: “How can theatre reliably examine say, Cameron’s cabinet when there are more old-school ties among its members than on his front bench?”
Ultimately, professional training should not be an elitist privilege with opportunities to pursue a career in the arts open only to those with ample means. Yet drama schools are not the only places where training can be offered. Apart from private lessons, Audition Doctor offers group sessions from Meetup to Introduction to Acting and Acting- An In-Depth Approach where fees are reasonable and you don’t have to have a rich parent to receive peerless teaching.