Dennis Schebetta is an actor/director and award-winning playwright whose monologues can be found in the series Audition Arsenal published by Smith & Kraus. He writes about the creative life on www.fightingthevoid.blogspot.com.
Without further ado (drumroll please) - Mr. Dennis Schebetta
5 Tips for the Auditioning Actor (from a playwright)
As a playwright and actor, I’m honored to have had many talented performers elevate my writing to new heights (like say, Detta, for example). Actors are inspiring, courageous and interesting people. They work damn hard and deserve every curtain call they get.
There’s nothing worse for a playwright than to spend three hours agonizing over getting a certain phrase just right only to hear an actor butcher the words in three seconds.
Don’t get us wrong. We love actors and we love to write for them. We want you to be brilliant which is we try to help you even when you don’t know it. Shakespeare was a master at giving acting help via his lines. A line like, “Out, damned spot, out I say!” only gives one good option for physicality and delivery. Okay, obvious example, but he did have other subversive methods. And he isn’t the only one. All playwrights, Shakespeare or not, give hints that can help guide your choices. Great actors find them. Do you?
To help you, here are five useful tips from a playwright to keep in mind when you’re looking at your audition monologue or scene:
1) Use the words. First off--Get thee to a voice & speech teacher! One thing playwrights hate (and directors, too) are mumbling actors that can’t project without screaming and don’t know how to use the words effectively. Playwrights love the sound of words and so should you. Find a vocal coach (not just for singing), and work that muscle every day. The audience comes to HEAR theatre as much as see it and good playwrights know this. (And yes, we can tell if you’ve had training or not; literally, once you open your mouth.) With training, you can really use the consonants and vowels. Play the language as much at the intention. If your character says “I’m leaving”, then don’t rush through it with “I’mleavin…”. Take your time (just like Detta said with your introduction of your own name). Think of the text like poetry. Use any alliteration, especially if you’re working with comedy, as well as any repetition. Find any words that are simply fun and luxurious to say.
2) Find the beat. Poetry is as much about rhythm as it is about content (“iambic pentamer” is really just musical notation). Playwrights use words as musical notes and are always conscious of rhythm. Think David Mamet or Sarah Ruhl. In some ways it defines the writer’s voice, but playwrights also use rhythm to indicate emotional states. Short and choppy can mean someone in a hurry, or angry—its quick and to the point. Long sentences may indicate something more contemplative or that the character has more power or status than the other. Or, we may alternate the rhythm. If you were to set your monologue to a beat, what would it be? Snap your fingers and play around. Also, pay attention if suddenly your character switches rhythm mid-stream—something revelatory might be happening.
3) Use the location. Location will often inform the situation (aka “given circumstances”). A break up scene in an apartment is different than at a big birthday party. Let us see how the given circumstances affect you in the scene. People are territorial and we will use different words depending on where we are—the playwright chose those words based on that location, not because it’s a neutral state (like the audition room). Also, playwrights love to set things in public places (at least I do) because it raises the stakes. Do you know how many times I’ve seen Edward Albee’s Zoo Story and not once ever saw behavior that reflected the setting of Central Park? So, how does the environment & setting affect your character’s choices? How does it affect what your character wants?
4) Find the arc. Playwrights focus on three areas when writing and rewriting and that’s the beginning of a play, the middle scene (usually the juiciest or toughest), and the ending. In everything we write, long or short, we strive for a beautiful arc (yes, even with sentences). The first priority for us is the ending—we want to make the audience gasp (mentally or literally). Same for a scene or monologue—that last beat or moment maybe won’t make an audience gasp, but should have impact. What’s the importance of the last line and how does it move the story forward? This does not mean play the ending at the top of your scene, because the next thing playwrights focus on is the beginning. That should be as dramatically different from the ending as possible. This creates an arc, taking our characters on a journey from A to B. If your character isn’t going from A to B, why are we watching you? We also like to get the audience’s attention with something that might startle them. We don’t ease into things and neither should you. After that, we find some good stuff for the middle. In your monologue, you might find a funny joke or meaty revelation that creates a 180-degree turn. You might even find the rhythm changing. Take a look at your monologue—it’s likely these moments are already in the text. This arc idea also applies to sentence structure. Maybe not all writers are so anal, but I’ll rewrite a sentence several times, jostling the same words around to see the difference of affect and power in word order. Ask yourself why the playwright starts or ends the line with that word. Playwrights tend to put words with the most impact at the end of a line. This is why directors often give the note, “take the end of the line up.”
5) Find the love. Michael Shurtleff’s book AUDITION has the best piece of advice for actors ever and that’s to look for what the characters love. Before you do that, think of what the playwright loves. Rarely do playwrights devote months or years of our life writing a character we hate. We may be in love with their wit, their ambition, their flaws, or just because they are reflections of our own self (or completely different). If you figure out why the playwright loves them, you might love them, too. And directors have a knack for knowing when actors love what they’re working on.
Of course, each playwright has different strengths and weaknesses (we’re not all Shakespeare) and so I have one additional tip: Ignore everything I’ve just told you.
No, seriously. Playwrights have large egos because they spend a lot of time alone imagining entire worlds that they control. Commit to your choices, even if it seems to contradict the playwright. Playwrights can be wrong even about their own work and the smart ones will admit when an actor has made a unique discovery.
So surprise us.