Auditioning Against The Odds

Although Michael Simkins’ article in the Guardian was hardly a paean to the acting profession, it was an honest account of the fickle nature of the business with all its highs and lows. In “Is Acting Today Just Too Tough?” he talks of the harsh demands of cash-strapped producers, the paltry salary of theatre work and the fact that the defining difference between professional and amateur actors is not talent but “whether you have the stomach for the lifestyle – one in which rejection, disappointment and despair are part of your daily routine.”

The buoying narrative doesn’t stop there as he asserts: “The cruellest aspect of the acting business is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s merely indifferent. It gives everything to some and nothing to others; talent, ambition and virtue have little to do with it. What’s more, with no qualifications or tests to assess how good (or bad) you are, the only benchmark is success.”

Despite all of this, there are still several thousand applicants to drama schools each year and all of them will no doubt have heard all of this before. While the adage “all art is subjective” is largely true, getting into drama school is a way of testing how good or bad you are – albeit an unreliable one. Although success in the profession is in no way guaranteed, it is interesting to see that actors who have found success very early on in their careers have chosen to take a break from the profession to go to drama school. It’s an acknowledgement that drama schools don’t just churn out graduates that are industry fodder; they prepare students for the demands of the profession.

In an article entitled “Life After Potter – Where Are All Hogwarts’ Graduates Now?”, it was interesting to note that many of the young actors were graduating from drama schools such as The Royal Welsh Conservatoire of Music and Drama, LAMDA and RADA despite having spent the ages of 10-21 on a set. Harry Melling said: “I went to LAMDA. The films were a great learning experience, but I wanted to do theatre, get better, to have a process.” While Frank Dillane declared: “Arriving in an establishment (RADA) where everyone is better than you, you can’t uphold any kind of arrogance for very long.”

Drama school may not be a necessity for success, but chancing it in a profession that is routinely prefixed with the word “unstable” is a caveat to all its potential practitioners to be as prepared as possible. A 3 year training does exactly that. With more students coming to Audition Doctor, it is clear that in spite of the warnings, drama schools are more popular than ever. Making yourself distinguishable from the throng has become even more necessary. You are watched at every single stage of an audition; while this makes the process sound rather like a stint in a high-security prison, it is the truth. This means sessions at Audition Doctor are an integral part of ensuring that you are on form every single time you are in front of a panel. There is (literally) no time to mess up, with many panels timing the length of your speeches with a stopwatch.

Although the 26 selected for entrance into each drama school are entering a profession in which 92% are out of work at any given time, the students that come to Audition Doctor are undeterred. Why? Michael Simkins acknowledges that “The answer is that it’s a drug – and once it gets in your system, it’s difficult to break the habit. In any case, despite the withering odds, if you’re an actor, you’re a dreamer. As David Mamet put it: “Narrative always wins out over statistics.”

Drama School – Not Just For Actors

The Times recently dispatched one of its journalists – Richard Morrison – to attend and report back on the increasingly popular intensive courses that RADA offer for people in business. The article was entitled “How RADA helped me find my inner Gordon Gekko”, which leads me to believe that the infamous decision to send a Tower Hamlets councillor on one of the £625 a day courses was made in the spirit of shrewd business acumen, intended on swelling the council’s empty coffers in the face of government cuts instead of what some perceived as gratuitous profligacy.

The commercial courses that this drama school offers attract people from all job sectors – The City, the NHS, the Civil Service, event management, the Home Office and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. The skills that actors require such as the ability to be clearly heard, to hold the attention of an audience and to stand up in front of a group of people while “exuding such an air of friendly but confident ease that all present will feel the impact of [your] charisma” are not exclusive to a career on the stage but also in the boardroom. Edward Kemp, artistic director of RADA, explained the reason for the courses’ success was its focus on voice work coupled with a focus on “status transactions, which we use a lot in drama training.”

“We used to think of status purely in terms of one’s social standing,” Kemp explains. “But there are many other sorts of status. Experts can adjust their status so they are slightly above the person they are hoping to influence, but not so far above as to be frightening. Effective status transactions can be taught, and the skill can be hugely valuable — for lawyers, for example.”

Throughout the course, Morrison is instructed to participate in various exercises designed to boost confidence such as finding your centre of gravity, delivering an anecdote without any “ums” and “ahs” and passing round a Shakespeare sonnet around a circle one iambic pentameter at a time. You get the feeling here that Morrison should stick to his job writing instead of public speaking when he turns to the hapless person on his left and delivers the line “borne on the bier with white and bristly beard” with what he hopes is “a Hammer House of Horror quiver in [his] voice.”

Audition Doctor offers help with effective communication in public speaking without the eye-watering price tag. People from a range of professions have attended Audition Doctor courses and have found that sessions have got rid of the barriers that prevented them from delivering their speeches confidently. Shakespeare monologues or other speeches at Audition Doctor are used as vehicles through which the speaker’s breath and voice are explored and developed.

Why are actors – professionals concerned with the arts – increasingly looked to as the go-to group to improve things in the commercial arena? As Edward Kemp says: “It’s about effective communication. And don’t forget that as actors we are chiefly concerned with conveying truth.” Furthermore, with the skills that you learn at Audition Doctor, delivering your presentation or speech to a room of besuited colleagues will not feel, as Morrison concedes, like a “recurring teenage nightmare”.

Drama School – Not a Talent Show

The Times reported that “in a report published by the Conference of Drama Schools, it was revealed that more than 25,000 applications were made to the 22 accredited drama schools in England and Wales…Which means that they are now twice as difficult to get into as Oxbridge.” The number of applicants is ever increasing, seemingly immune to the hike in tuition fees. The main reason cited for this was the proliferation of audition-based shows on television.

Geoffery Colman (Head of Acting at the Central School of Speech and Drama) stated: “This year, we received more than 4,000 applications for a place on our degree course and that figure is going up every year. But we’re finding that fewer and fewer of those applicants will have ever set foot in a theatre, understood what it means to train for three years to be an artist, or have any idea of the professional world they’re signing up to. Audition-based shows have made it look quick and easy to attain a kind of celebrity-based stardom…You have only to work on your voice for about three weeks and, bam, you’ll be good enough for the West End or No1 in the US charts. Whereas what we’re saying is that it takes three years to train a voice. Young people are increasingly coming in with this idea that talent is an instant right that should be ‘spotted’. They aren’t coming in with a real commitment to the work required to become an actor.”

Edward Kemp, artistic director of RADA insisted that despite the fact that such shows encouraged record numbers to apply, the panelists are not of the Simon Cowell persuasion: “What we want to see is not the commercially lucrative finished product of the TV audition show but unformed raw material that we can mould. That is a totally different auditioning experience, for a quality that is much more difficult to spot.”

The idea that a drama school audition is a talent show is a misguided one; drama school auditions do not solely comprise of performing audition speeches, the interview is also regarded as an integral part of the process. This is where the panelists gauge your commitment to the Theatre, how receptive you are to direction and your dedication to the training process.

What Audition Doctor can help with is not a rigidly polished performance but the capability to respond authentically to the circumstances of the play. As you have more lessons at Audition Doctor, Tilly also opens your eyes to the fact that the interpretation that you might have both agreed on is merely one out of a thousand possibilities; Audition Doctor gives you the freedom to adapt and play around with the character. This is why Audition Doctor sessions are such golden opportunities – the chance to be vulnerable in the presence of a professional eye is rare and it is one of the assets that drama schools most prize. As Colman says: “What we are looking for is authenticity, pliability, a core radiance. It’s up to us to find that. But my best advice is – be vulnerable. And, for God’s sake, go to the theatre.”

Drama Schools Mean Business

Monday’s article “Man Up!” in the Evening Standard subverted the common perception of drama schools being populated solely by young thespians muttering Shakespeare soliloquies whilst stretching at the barre in black leggings. Instead, RADA played host to a group of businessmen and women and held the increasingly popular two-day “Personal Impact in Meetings” group course which teaches corporate executives “practical physical and vocal techniques to improve communication” and how to be “more powerful, confident and effective in business.”

History has proved that this is not an unusual coalition; actors have often been called upon to advise people in various job sectors on how to effectively communicate. Thatcher’s political strategist recognised the authority and influence that came with being a confident public speaker. He sought Laurence Olivier’s advice which led to Thatcher attending voice coaching lessons at the National Theatre and soon “the hectoring tones of the housewife gave way to softer notes and a smoothness that seldom cracked except under extreme provocation on the floor of the House of Commons.” Whatever your views on the former Prime Minister are, the improvement in her communication skills was unfortunately undeniable.

The rigorous training at drama school equips the actor with the technical skill that is required in holding the attention of an audience. In a business world where promotions hinge on adroit presentational skills and the ability to pitch ideas in an engaging fashion – the professionally trained actor is golden. No other job focuses so intently on the importance of captivating listeners; actors understand that it isn’t just what you say, but how you say it that is important. Breath, posture, voice, eye contact and even attire (or “costume”) affect your ability to communicate.

With drama schools now offering courses to business executives, the demand for an actor’s perspective in the corporate world has never been greater. Audition Doctor has had  a marked increase in demand from clients in the corporate sector. Many businessmen and women prefer one-on-one sessions as opposed to the group sessions which some drama schools and companies offer. Private lessons under Tilly’s focused tutelage foster a less self-conscious atmosphere and quicker progress.

Acting with Audition Doctor

For me, the number of lessons with Audition Doctor depended on the stage I got to in recalls. With drama schools such as RADA and Guildhall, there are up to four audition stages. While the competition gets stiffer with candidates of equal competency and talent battling for limited places, it became increasingly more vital to try and show flexibility. Regular lessons in between recalls at Audition Doctor gave me the secure environment to do this.

Working on an audition speech from ‘Cock’ by Mike Bartlett was an eye-opener; the speech was a young woman’s angry indictment of what she saw as her future father-in-law’s hypocritical and false leftist ideals.  My initial shallow interpretation was basically quite shouty and accusatory with no varying shades of tone or emotion which made it generalised and quite frankly exhausting to watch. Tilly and I then looked closely at the text and “actioned” it which involved assigning a transitive verb for each line. Initially it was difficult to recall each verb for each line and when I did it again I felt like a car continuously stalling. However, not only did this process ensure that I became more aware of the character’s thought process but also gave the speech far more intensity without resorting to deafening the audition panel.

At drama school auditions, it was interesting to note that different drama schools had varying requirements for performing audition speeches. Most informed you that they didn’t want you to direct the speech at the panel as they would be jotting down notes during your audition and therefore didn’t want to be a distraction if they failed to react to your speech. Others however, stipulated that acting was not a solitary process and interaction was cardinal and therefore preferred you to direct your speech to them. Some drama schools even provided an existing student for candidates to say their audition speeches to. I directed most of my speeches to the bookshelf (more specifically a collection of wartime poetry) just above Tilly’s head which meant that it wasn’t as intimidating for me when asked to look the audition panel in the eyes during my speeches.

While rehearsing audition speeches alone in your bedroom is undeniably a prerequisite to attending an audition, performing in front of an audience is equally important. Acting in front of friends or parents can be excruciating, which is why lessons at Audition Doctor are indisputably beneficial. Apart from her twenty years of experience in the acting profession, her invaluable support and guidance, Tilly is also- to put it bluntly- a person in the room.