Stop Getting Hysterical in Auditions, Please

Backstage   •   May 18, 2017

When I coach actors in preparation for an audition, the most common mistake I find is indulgence in unnecessary emotion, which then becomes disruptive to the performance. Years ago when I assisted at auditions, I would routinely watch actors enter the room, introduce themselves in a very smooth and professional manner, and proceed to launch into an angry tirade culminating in predictable tears.

One time an actor got so worked up that he kicked his shoe right off his foot and launched it to the ceiling where it left a scuff mark. At that point, the director ceased evaluating his performance and wondered if she would be held responsible for paying to have the scuff mark cleaned off.

After sitting through several auditions like these, one director even asked if I would kindly stop sending in “these lunatics” who were using acting as an outlet for their emotional dysfunction. Granted, the director was frustrated and blowing off steam in an unproductive way, but actors can learn from this snide remark.

Let’s face it—actors love showcasing emotion. They think an audition is a chance to prove that they can feel. But directors already know you can feel; you’re human, aren’t you? What they want to know is can you act. Nothing is less interesting to watch—and more annoying, for that matter—than naked emotion abstracted from action.

Think about it. When you see a grown adult freaking out loudly on the subway, are you compelled to empathize or do you assume the person is having a psychotic episode and get as far away as possible? If you see an adult desperately searching for a lost child, aren’t you more compelled to get involved? That’s what you want from the director in an audition: engagement, empathy, and a vested interest in the narrative. Emotion won’t necessarily achieve that. But honest and committed action will get ‘em every single time.

You know from your training that an active performance equals a successful one. You probably don’t need to be reminded of this when you’re rehearsing a scene with a partner. But I can’t tell you how many actors forget to keep their audition monologues active. It’s harder when it’s just you, with no scene partner to affect. But the same rules apply even in a monologue. Your character is only speaking because he or she is trying to achieve something. So don’t forget to ask the basic questions:

  • What does my character want?
  • What stands in the way of getting what I want?
  • What actions do I employ to overcome the obstacles?

Then commit to your objective as truthfully as you can and make the monologue about achieving it, not about showcasing emotion. If the director sees you playing five or six varied actions within one monologue, he or she will learn more about who you are as an actor than any sobbing frenzy could ever communicate. Not only will you prove you can act, but that you know how to analyze the text, ask the right questions, and do your homework. In short, you’ll show the director that you bothered to learn your craft.

Obviously, a successful performance requires genuine emotion, but remember the wise words of your acting teacher: emotion is the product of action. People try to achieve a goal, get frustrated, and cry or get angry. Nobody ever speaks at a funeral hoping to cry. Nobody enters a negotiation hoping to scream at the opponent. We try to get through life holding ourselves together with dignity.

Regrettably, the obstacles and stakes loom so large that we suffer a breakdown. But the emotional breakdown is only compelling if we watch how hard you have to work to hold yourself together. If your character is drunk, show the director how hard you have to work to walk a straight line, don’t stumble around like an idiot. In other words, your goal is in appearing strong, not weak—just like in life.

Remember the word “drama” comes from the Greek verb meaning “to do,” not “to feel.” And there is a reason why your job title is “actor,” not “feeler.” Your job is to do, not feel. Commit to the action so that no one feels compelled to have you committed.