Prepare for the Unexpected in Auditions
The ability to audition is one of the most important skill sets an actor will develop in their career. Chiefly, because without it they won’t have much career to speak of. For this reason, we talk about auditioning a lot here on StageMilk: how to audition for film and TV, commercials, theatre, community theatre and even drama school. We talk about what you can expect in an audition, where to find auditions, ways to calm your nerves, and how to choose the right monologue that showcases your talent. These are especially important things to know in the age of the ubiquitous self-tape—as fewer and fewer actors are getting the chance to flex those in-person audition muscles until they’re literally in the room on the day! But for all the knowledge and experience an actor may have, they often fail to prep for the unexpected in auditions: the curveballs that get thrown to you either by circumstance or the powers that that can throw you off and ruin a performance you knew was a winner walking in.
In this article, we’re going to talk about how to prep for the unexpected in auditions. We’ll outline some things that might jump out and surprise you in the room, as well as give you some tips on how you can right yourself and move forward. In these moments, the trick is to recover quickly and keep going; the other trick is to be aware of what might happen beforehand so it doesn’t seem to faze you in the first place. This is not to say these things will happen often, or at all. But in an industry so fraught with forced moments of rapid brilliance (“You have thirty seconds to impress us! Go!”), it’s best to be prepared for the worst and end up pleasantly surprised.
How to Prep for Audition Curveballs
In compiling this list of horrors, this Cabinet of Curiosities, we reached out to a few of our StageMilk team members and associates for any advice and anecdotes on strange audition moments. A few were too good not to include below (with names redacted, of course!) If there’s anything you think we’ve failed to mention, feel free to get in touch so we might add to the list. There’s nothing quite like bringing the collective knowledge of actors together to strengthen our community!
#1 Reading a Completely Different Scene
This one is more common than you might think: you’ll usually get your sides for the reading sent through a few days (or usually the night) before the audition. You’ve got time to do script analysis, nut out your actions and objectives, maybe do some character work! But when you get in there on the day, the casting director hands you new pages and says: “We’d like to try this, instead…” In this situation, you’ll need to rely on your cold reading skills. They’re not as practiced by actors in the self-tape age, but nonetheless something you should work at improving.
“Not a negative one in any respect but the director asked me if I had plans for the day and I said I could stick around. He then asked me to go and prepare to audition for a completely different role in about 30 minutes!”
This quote, from our anonymous actor friend, stands as an important reminder: being asked to read something different should be seen as huge positive! It can mean the director is interested in seeing more of you, or watching how you act under pressure with fresh material. They might think you’d be a good fit for another role—perhaps not the one you’d shown up for, but a gig’s a gig, right? Take this happening as a sign that they like you. They’re not setting you up to see you fail.
#2 An Unexpected Audience
We think about auditions as being small, intimate affairs: casting director, camera on a tripod, reader, maybe the director … prep for those moments when unexpected audience members are there to see you bare your soul. You might get the writer in, or the producer/s; if it’s a singing audition or similar for a musical there could be a musical director as well, perhaps even a choreographer. And those are the people involved in production! What happens when the producer’s babysitter falls through and there’s a kid drawing and crying in the corner?
In such situations, keep your focus on the scene: find the eyeline that brings your attention solely to your scene partner (either the reader or imaginary) so you can block the others out. Oh, and the subject of unwanted personnel…
#3 The Awful Reader
We can’t stress this one enough: prepare for the reader in the audition to be terrible. Actors tell stories of readers with no understanding of the scene, or the character, or a very rigid interpretation that does nothing for the reading you’ve prepped. They might forget the words, they might have their pages jumbled. Sometimes, they won’t even be actors: they’ll be the director, or the director’s assistant, or the tea lady, or the fifteen-year-old high school work experience kid who keeps giggling at the rude words. No matter who they are, you have to push through and give the scene your all.
One recommendation we can give you in this situation is to speak to the person themselves—rather than the character they’re playing (terribly). Impinge your truth upon them, rather than on a performance that simply isn’t there.
#4 “Try it again … but different.”
It’s probably a stretch to say that direction from a director in the audition is unexpected. It might throw you off, but being ready for different interpretations and readings should be part of your process. Plus, learning to take a note and work with directors are invaluable skills in themselves. What we do want to speak about is this awful, vague command that can bring so many fine actors down in the room: “Try it again and show me something different.” What the hell does that mean?!
Most actors, in a panic, will think about delivery: fast or slow? Loud or soft? Sitting or standing? Usually, they’ll deliver an identical performance, save for the one modifier they’ve chosen. Our advice is to pick a new objective or different actions in the piece—a new goal or, at the very least, new tactics to get there. Trying Something Different without thinking about these points is like trying not to think about pink elephants when somebody says “Don’t think about pink elephants.” With new actions and objectives, you give yourself something to achieve, rather than something to keep away from.
#5 Accent and Dialect
It’s unusual, but it happens. Sometimes a director may ask you to try out a different accent in an audition; more often than not, it’ll be an adjustment to, or of, your own accent than something they’ve not asked you to prepare: broader, flatter, more or less pronounced. This is particularly the case for countries such as Australia, where the accent may be dropped in favour GA or RP. As one of our insiders recalls:
“I once auditioned for Our Town… famously set in America, and had practised that quite specific north-east coast dialect to then find out at the audition they’re setting in Australia. So prepare your own dialect too!”
It is highly unlikely that you will be asked to do an unprepared accent in the room. But if you’ve prepared something with an accent different to your own (especially it’s a choice you’ve made for the character), consider running the piece in your own in case you’re asked for the option.
#6 Be Ready to Move
Another hangover from the age of the self-tape is a generation of actors forgetting to act from the neck down. In an audition, the director may want to see you moving around and physicalising the character. Consider this. Be ready for this! Or, as ready as you can be…
“[I had] an audition as a pirate for a ‘Peter Pan’ tour, I was sent a short scene to learn with no other requirements mentioned. In the audition, and in front of a panel of 10 or so, I had to learn and perform a short but quite technical sword fighting choreography, which included jumping over my opponent’s sword as it swept under my legs, while doing the scene.”
Hideous safety concerns aside, this clandestine confession from one of our acting associates illustrates that you can never really know what might be asked of you in an audition. Just know that it can happen. This is particularly true, again, for musical theatre auditions. If you’re not expecting to dance and they want to see you tap, you better have packed all types of shoes!
Finally, be ready to stop moving as well! Sometimes you’ll be asked to still your body and cut down on physicality. Don’t let it throw you off, take it as a chance to explore a higher degree of focus for your character in the action of the scene.
#7 Have an Opinion
This point is simple enough: be ready, if asked, to tell the audition panel what you think. What’s your understanding of the story and how does your character fit into that? What do they want? What drives them? Having hot takes on these can show that you care beyond the simple goal of booking a gig. It can show a director that you’re right for the part.
“As a director, I look for actors who can prove that they give a damn about a project. Even if they haven’t been given the full script, I want to hear from them on the world they’d be stepping into: how they think it will affect them and how they can make it feel like a more realised place and narrative. If I ask you for your opinion, don’t be safe, tell me! Don’t be afraid to piss me off or change my mind!”
Just a quick note on the business of “pissing off”: having an opinion and being honest doesn’t give you a license to trash the project/character/writing. Be tactful, yeah? And if you really hate the idea so much, why are you there in the first place?
#8 Career Negotiations
When we tell you to prep for the unexpected in auditions, this one can often be an unexpected delight: they love you! They want you, right there in the room! And suddenly they’re asking when you’re available, or if you’d cut your hair, or whether you can stay with friends in the cities they’ve planned for the tour. Career negotiations tend to happen in less established or professional rooms; if you’re doing a community theatre show, student film or independent production, it’s not uncommon to get questions about your availability and how you might be able to accommodate rehearsal schedules≥
If you’re feeling on top of things, feel free do bring a date book along so you can write down any details. If not, it’s also fine to say no at this point, and clarify these details later on. If the production team is serious about you, they’ll respect this and be willing to wait to hear back. For professional engagements, your agent should be the one handling any logistical and legal stuff. A professional production team will know this and respect it just the same.
#9 Human Error
Of all the anecdotes we received from our industry peers in compiling this article, human error accounted for one of the most heartbreaking (and frustrating) incidents. Imagine losing the perfect take of a taped audition piece in the room … because the casting director forgot to hit “record”.
Human error sucks, but ,mistakes happen. While they might make you want to leap across the table and choke the casting director, use these moments to illustrate just how professional and compassionate you can be. If you do, you’ll gain the respect of the people in the room—who will no doubt
#10 Prepare Options
Here’s another one for you musical theatre actors out there: have more than one song prepared for a singing audition. You’ll probably have something either from the show in question, or something they’ve specified in the brief. But have a banger or two up your sleeve should they want to hear more.
“Have at least two other options to sing! And make sure you have the sheet music for those other options with you. I have been asked on countless auditions, “do you have anything else”. So variety is key.”
We can’t stress the sheet music angle enough: that is a surefire way to dash your hopes of an encore!
#11 Learn When to Say No
This point comes from knowing yourself, respecting yourself and understanding that sooner or later, in an audition, you hit a point of diminishing returns. Sometimes, you’ll need to say no to a request from the director: be it the tenth encore of a song you’ve sung, a third character to read for on the spot or an extra take so they can really capture the colour of your eyes.
It might be flattering, it might be exciting, but you’ll eventually stop delivering your best. It doesn’t have to be a hard “no”: you could ask to read another day, or send them a showreel that illustrates what they’re looking for. But having to say no often denotes a less professional or experienced casting team—much like hashing out contracts and dates in the room. If they want to work with you, they’ll respect when you’ve run out of things to give. If not, that’s a massive red flag: you’ve probably dodged a real bullet.
This last one is important because it’s often something we think we’re able to handle. No matter how well you know the piece, how well you know the casting director or love the show, plan for nerves to throw you off your game. We’ve got a great account from well-respected actor in our network, which we’ll add below:
“Early in my career, I auditioned for a leading role in a major stage production. My preparation was extensive, but as soon as I arrived at the stage door, the nerves set in… When I eventually crept onto the stage, I had allowed my nerves to diminish my presence and I felt small, apologetic and physically sick. Luckily, my preparation saved me. I was able to channel my nervous energy into the performance and I was called back for a second audition. The second audition was not what I expected. It was not in the theatre but in a small office and I had to read opposite the director. He was brisk, demanding and stern and I immediately felt enormously intimidated by him. My nerves began to strangle me. I began to shift my attention from myself by asking questions, and I appealed to his sense of humour. In the reading I tried to peak to him through the lines – to make an authentic connection him and I could see it surprised and delighted him and a barrier was broken.”
As with most other points on this list, the key is preparation: even in those times when you think you’re in control and the nerves won’t come for you. We talk about dealing with nerves a lot on StageMilk, especially those you can encounter in an audition, and with good reason. Sometimes they are the only barrier between you and getting the job … and there’s nothing worse than doing the scene perfectly to yourself on the drive home.
Wow, this is a really strange list of things. Some seem quite normal to encounter, others sound like horror stories swapped around the foyer bar after a show! But you can be ready for all of them with a little preparation and a lot of confidence in yourself. Don’t forget that the people on the panel want you to book the thing: they want you to be the one and they’re looking to give you every opportunity to show them. At the end of the day, you’re all on the same team.
So continue developing your audition prep, expect the unexpected and keep on growing that thick skin.
And break a leg!
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