Last week, I coached an actor who had a big audition this past weekend. It was of the ‘bring two contrasting pieces’ variety. She came to me a little later in her process than I would have liked: I didn’t get a chance to consult with her about what pieces would show her off to her best advantage, and we didn’t have much time to get the pieces she had chosen into fighting trim. Fortunately, one of them was already pretty solid: she was using the language well, she was making big choices (which is all most directors want to see at a first audition anyway – that you are capable of making choices and exploring them fully), she was physically engaged in a way that helped to explore her choices and fight for what she wanted. So far, so good.
The second piece. Well. The character in this classical monologue was a queen, and my coaching client was all about the grace, poise and grandeur of playing a queen. When she got to this piece, this otherwise bubbly, open, articulate, available actress became stiff, dull, closed off. She was so busy playing the idea of ‘queen-ness’ that there was no character, there were no choices. And she was completely unaware that she was doing this.
If she led with this piece, the auditors would have mentally ordered their lunch before she performed the really vivacious piece and they would never see all that she had to offer.
This was clearly where I was going to earn my actor coaching keep.
I brought my actor’s attention back to her text. To whom was she speaking? When did it change? She was speaking to the king and then to her ladies-in-waiting. Who is the king? Her husband. What kind of husband has he been? Loving, attentive, flirtatious. Has their relationship suddenly, precipitously veered into a frightening direction? Yes. So I advised her forget about talking to ‘the king’ and to try to reach the man she loves, who has disappeared into this angry, seething fellow before her. (Yes, we’re talking Hermione and Leontes in The Winter’s Tale.)
I then asked her about her relationship with her ladies-in-waiting. She had the idea that they were staff, well below her in status. Really? In the scene immediately preceding the King’s furious entry, she is laughing with them, sharing jokes and intimacies. What if the ladies-in-waiting were good friends? What would give her more to work with, I asked; what is more dramatically viable: low status people to whom she has little attachment, or intimate friends who share her horror and grief? Hermione says, “Do not weep, good fools” and my client was barking an order at dimwitted servants. What if she was gently admonishing her good friends, urging them to hold it together so that she, too, could keep her composure? What if the sight of her women crying was going to set her crying, too? What if she wanted to hold it together in front of this incandescently angry husband and his men, and the only way she could do that is if her waiting gentlewomen likewise keep their apparent cool?
My client’s reading of this line blossomed as she explored her love and affection for her ladies-in-waiting, her grief and shock at her husband’s volcanic anger and her desperate need to (i) ensure that some of her ladies stayed with her; (ii) show the assembled members of the court that she was calm (even when she was anything but), and (iii) buy herself some time to think through the shocking turn of events. As we worked our way through the speech several times, she slowly let go her tight hold on the idea of ‘queen’ and began to fight for her husband’s love, for her attendants to accompany her, and to keep her composure against the tremendous obstacle of her intense circumstances. You know what else? That whole grace and poise thing started to take care of itself as she released the idea of it: the language of the speech took care of it for her.
What would I like you to take away from this coaching tale? A few ideas: (i) consult with somebody (somebody you trust) about how your audition pieces do or do not work together to showcase your range, depth and skillset; (ii) get somebody (could be that same supportive, thoughtful somebody from item i) to take a look at your work at a couple of points along the way, because you simply cannot see it clearly while you are performing it; and (iii) if you are in doubt, confusion or otherwise not making active choices, go back to the text.
Mine the text.
Read the whole play (you may or may not be amazed at how infrequently this happens).
Re-ask the questions even when you think you know the answer.
Get the callback.
Get the job.