The Ten Do's & Don't's of Shakespeare Auditioning

Jon Ciccarelli

An article was posted on the site about 10 mistakes that actors should avoid when auditioning for a show. The items in this list are generally helpful but it occurred to me that having sat on the other side of the Shakespeare audition table for several years that I could add some items to this list that pertain specifically for a Shakespeare audition. So the items listed in this article can help you If you’re already into doing Shakespeare, however, this list can also apply to those actors who don’t normally audition for Shakespeare.

While you may think “well, it's not the type of theater that I normally do” or “I only do film and TV commercials” or “its really not my thing”, having Shakespeare plays listed on your resume can add an instant polish because:

· Most Shakespeare play titles are instantly recognizable and will jump out during a quick scan by a casting director. This can be especially helpful for those who are just starting out and don’t have many credits

· Performing Shakespeare generally denotes a certain level of acting expertise. Roles in Shakespeare plays show a casting director that you have chops to do classical theater.

· Many Shakespeare plays take place in summer stock programs that require a level of actor responsibility toward the production that is not usually required in the average production.

· Performing in Shakespeare plays can introduce you to new skills or allow you to utilize skills that wouldn’t be able to use in other types of shows. Some skills include various types of unarmed and armed stage combat, playing an instrument, performing different types of dance, and performing juggling or acrobatics.

So what are some of the rules for getting a part in a Shakespeare play? The following list is a number of guidelines that you can use to navigate these auditions and listed in a top ten style format:

10) “Do your research on the company and the advertised project”.

Not all Shakespeare companies are alike. When responding to an ad in Backstage or Playbill or even Craig’s List, look up the company that you are auditioning for. Review how long they have been around as a company. Some “companies” are first timers and may be venturing into their first production. Ask yourself if they are new are you ok with this?

If the company has been around awhile, do you like some of their production choices in plays that they have done and even in their selection of titles? Do you like their mission statement? In the same way that you would check into a potential employer to see if they are good fit for you, check into a theater company and see what they’re all about. Get the detail on what is involved in the production, pay, travel, scheduling and other pertinent information. It will assist you to decide whether you want to audition and if you are called back in it will win you some points with the theater company by knowing a little bit about them.

9) “Know the Shakespeare basics”.

If you are going out for a musical chances are you know how to sing, the same goes for Shakespeare. Even if you have worked on a monologue in acting class and think its pretty well polished, knowing what the difference is between a verse line and prose line can go a long way. Do you know how to scan a line? Do you know what feminine endings are?

Also, know a little about the show you’re auditioning for. While you may have heard of “Romeo and Juliet” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” what do you really know about them? A quick online search for synopsis of the play can bring you up to speed and introduce you to characters that you might be interested in playing. One of the great things about Shakespeare plays is that some of the best parts aren’t the lead characters. Also you could “double up” on parts having the chance to play more than one character and really stretch your acting chops. You may even be asked to play someone of the opposite gender. Actresses are often called on to play what’s called a “pants role”, these are male characters that are often romantically neutral in a story.

8) “Only audition if you are available to do the show”.

The old advice of “audition for everything” works great on paper but not in practice. Most Shakespeare auditions can take a few minutes but those running it can be there for several hours or all day and when we see someone we like its like a breath of fresh air and we get excited about the possibilities. Nothing is more frustrating than offering a call back or a role to an actor who “suddenly” has conflicts that they didn’t list on their application sheet or are doing a show that directly conflicts with your show dates. I’ve even had actors tell me point blank that they didn’t expect to be cast and only wanted to audition.

Folks, ads are bought and studios are rented so companies can get actors for their projects not as open mic nights so don’t submit if you can’t do the show. Theater is a VERY small world and these actors are singled out by companies who often work with each other. As opposed to “getting your face out there” you will be shutting more doors because you will get a reputation for being untrustworthy and a waste of their time.

7) “There is no such thing as a Shakespeare audition outfit”

Recently, I worked the door of a Shakespeare audition where I was looking out for an actress with a scheduled time and we were running ahead of schedule. A young black actress came in wearing a tailored pants suit and just having a name I asked her if she was there for the Shakespeare audition. She mentioned that she was there for another audition and even if she was interested in our audition she wasn’t in her “Shakespeare clothes”. As she left I was perplexed but what she meant and it occurred to me that she was talking about these long dresses that many actresses wear with leggings. I assume that many actresses wear this in hopes of achieving a “period look” to a casting director without going full Elizabethan.

For the last several decades, most Shakespeare shows from small black boxes to community theaters to regional outdoor festivals have migrated away doing Shakespeare in the era that it was written so the idea of trying a “period” look at your audition won’t help you. An audition, for Shakespeare or otherwise, is a job interview so yes you need to look presentable but also confident in your own skin. Putting on a look that makes you nervous, unable to move around in and one that’s not what the majority of productions are doing is counterproductive and won’t get you a call back or the role. Unless the ad or theater’s website is specifying a certain time period, go with a neutral look but something that will make you stand out. Today, people audition in everything from jeans to suits but directors are looking for the person who can do the material and “wow” them, not their outfit.

Also, follow this bit of sage audition advice if you do get called back DO wear the same thing you auditioned in. It will be an instant recognition to the casting director.

6) “Show up or respectfully bow out"

As most Shakespeare shows tend to have large casts, directors need to see lots of candidates and so this can result in seeing 50-100 actors for a single show and groups will look to book as many worthy candidates as possible. The more seasoned Shakespeare group will usually give you an audition time. If you are fortunate enough to get an audition time, keep it. Tons of actors submit to ads but if you are offered a time slot you have already passed an initial selection process. The director or casting person has seen something in your resume that they think might work for their show so take the compliment and show up.

If you absolutely cannot make it, give a reasonable excuse. Look directors know that people get other gigs, have other issues come up or change their minds. A simple email or text just giving notice that you won’t be making the audition time is respectful and makes good business sense. Those who respectfully bow out can get called in for a future audition. Those who just don’t show up, when the slot could have gone to another actor, will be blacklisted by the Shakespeare group and word gets around about repeat offenders. By not showing up to an audition you are just screwing yourself out of future acting jobs.

5) “Don’t piss off the door monitor”

Did you ever wonder what is discussed in the audition room when the door person randomly goes inside in between those who are auditioning? Well, we’re talking about a-holes in the hallway. Its often a preemptive or round up feedback on how a given actor or actors have behaved toward them. The door person is usually the producer, stage manager, cast member or close friend of the director so it amazes me how rude those auditioning can be and then be ‘absolute angels’ in the audition room.

Sorry, your audition starts well before you step foot in the audition room. When you arrive, check in with whoever is there and listen to their instructions. Mouthing off or displaying a snarky attitude to the door person if the audition is running behind or if they don’t have all of the show’s information will only get you a bad review to the casting director.

4) “Don’t be rigid in your monologue”

So you’ve finally made it inside the room and present the perfect monologue with all the polish you can muster but the director then asks you to try it again and gives you a direction to try it in a different way. This is actually a good thing. The director has seen something in you that they want to take the time with you instead of moving on to the next actor. There is no one correct way to do a monologue. The director may want you to slow down, or punctuate a particular moment or simply see how you take direction.

In this situation, follow their direction and DO IT DIFFERENTLY in the same way an acting teacher or coach would instruct you. I can’t tell how many times I’ve done this with an auditioner and they just perform the monologue the exact same way they did it the first time. What looked like a promising candidate in a moment goes to the NO pile. Directors are looking for people they can work with and not so rigid that they are inflexible. In the same vein, change up your monologues to keep them fresh. You may have gotten work with it in the past but a piece can get stale very fast and it will show in your audition.

3) “Have at least one comedic and one dramatic monologue and vary them from traditional to lesser done plays” 

While all Shakespeare plays have elements of both comedy and tragedy they tend to fall nicely into defined categories. Usually, the ad will specify the type of monologue required but if it doesn’t just perform the genre of the show that you’re auditioning for. If you are unsure about where the show falls do some research and see what the prevailing themes are.

History plays can be tricky as you would assume that a dramatic monologue is always called for, however, shows like “Richard III”, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2 are filled with comedic characters. The Romances or late Shakespeare plays are even worse in thematic jumping so a comedic often works best for them as they contain scenes with lots of energy and movement. Whichever monologue you go with, make sure you have them ready to go as they should always be performance worthy. Don’t come in and read from a paper. If you are “sort of” off book with a great new monologue leave it alone until it is show worthy. Nothing is worse than looking unprepared for your prepared piece so work to have monologues ready to go.

2) “Don’t do a monologue from the show you are auditioning for”

You may really want to do a Juliet monologue but don’t do it if you are auditioning for “Romeo and Juliet”. The director will only see you in that role and will most likely not cast you in something else even though you may be open to it. Also, the director is looking for variety. We are lovers of Shakespeare and want to see something in the initial auditions. Doing material from the show should be left for sides at the callback.

1) Be original in your monologue choice – We’ve seen them all

Hamlet’s “Too, too solid flesh” speech, Phoebe’s “Silvius, write me a letter” speech”, Prince Hal’s “Do not think it so” speech and Juliet’s “Gallop a pace” speech, and on and on. The problem with Shakespeare is that it's not a genre but it’s a finite group of work credited to one writer so there will be repeats. However, there are wide variety of monologues and characters to choose from and even if you do an overdone speech they can be given a different spin than what other people have done.

Follow some of these simple rules in selecting and preparing a monologue:

· Seek out audition books that profile offbeat or lesser done monologues for both men and women

· Look beyond the more popular plays. Shakespeare had a hand in some 40 plays but monologues tend to come from less than half of them. Ask for recommendations about material from lesser done plays from an acting teacher and other actors.

· Try doing a cross-gender monologue. If you’re not finding a monologue that speaks to you in your gender try the other. Lady Macbeth can be interesting for a guy as Macbeth can be for a woman.

· See what else the character has. One popular choice for actresses is the first monologue of the Jailer’s Daughter from “The Two Noble Kinsmen”. A great choice but its become so overdone done its now mainstream, however, this character also has 4 other monologues that get into deeper dramatic territory as she gets more desperate. Mark Antony’s “Cry Havoc” speech is done quite a bit but he also has the funeral speech and has stuff in an entirely different play – “Antony and Cleopatra”. If a character is having an interesting conversation with another character then try combining their dialogue into a monologue.

· Take a usual monologue but do something different with it. – Anthony Hopkins said that when playing a villain he looks for what makes him funny and when playing a hero he looks for what makes him flawed. It's looking beyond the obvious that makes theater interesting and more human. Prince Hal’s speech (Do not think it so, you shall not find it so) to his father is usually done very emphatic and serious which can be very boring so try it with a snarky and confident attitude. Viola’s ring speech is often played in a constant state of confusion and usually rushed through. Try it instead as a detective exploring a crime scene and give each discovery weight and reaction. This slows it down and fleshes out the comedic beats with facial and vocal reactions that really bring out her fun character.

The important thing with monologues is that “one size” DOES NOT fit all. Suit the monologue to fit the company you are auditioning for. If you are going for a first-time company, stick with a traditional one but try a unique and irreverent spin. If you are auditioning for a company that is into doing lesser done works, bring out the piece from “Coriolanus”.

While some of these guidelines seem obvious its amazing how often people don’t follow common sense. Overall, do some research and know who and what you are auditioning for, show up, be courteous to everyone and make a memorable impression with your piece. The rewards that come from a Shakespeare experience will make both your craft and resume more marketable.

Photo: Elm Shakespeare Company. New Haven, CT