So, for the first time in more than ten years I auditioned for a non-musical play. Not just any play, but one of Shakespeare’s plays. This may not seem like a big deal, as I spend half my life auditioning for things, but this was nothing like your typical opera audition. What is a typical opera audition, you ask? While whole books have been written on the subject, I’ve tried to winnow it down to the main points in the following table:
Opera vs. Theater Audition*
|Opera Auditions:||This Particular Theater Audition:|
|…are likely to be scheduled several weeks in advance.||…I had less than a week’s notice.|
|…assign very specific audition times (i.e. 2:38pm)||…I was told to come at 4pm and had to sign-in when I arrived. The time of your arrival determined the time of your audition. I was early.|
|…either charge an exorbitant application/pianist fee ($20-$40 on average) or you have to hire your own accompanist to play for you ($35 is typical) – that’s PER 5-8 min audition!||…was free! Most theater people that I’ve spoken with think that paying for an audition is ridiculous.|
|…are rather formal so you have to dress up. I’ve seen everything from upscale casual (I’ve only ever seen men do this) to formal wear. Business attire is the norm.||…was totes casual. I saw a lot of t-shirts and jeans, a couple of girls in dresses and one dude in a suit. I wore black pants and a tank top cause it was nice out.|
|…expect you to come prepared with five arias in four or five different languages representing various periods and styles (i.e. an Italian baroque aria that’s fast vs. an English contemporary aria that’s slow)||…required one Shakespearean monologue. (More on that in a minute.)|
|…have a fairly rigid format: greet the audition panel, hand them your materials (resume, headshot, sometimes a bio) if they don’t have them already, briefly confer with the pianist about repertoire and tempo, stand in the crook of the piano, announce your first piece and start singing.||…was (again) totes casual. There was tons of chit chat both before and after I actually performed. Oh, and for theater they expect you to print your resume directly onto the back of your headshot instead of on a separate sheet of paper. Much more efficient + saving trees = win.|
|…will allow you to sing at least one, if not two full pieces.||…I performed my one monologue and talked to the directors for a while.|
|…typically takes 5-10 minutes.||…took about 5 minutes.|
*Note: I am referring to one particular audition here, not all theater auditions in general. Though I’m guessing (based on conversations I had with the other actors who were there) that it’s pretty consistent with the sort of theater audition that requires an appointment or has some sort of pre-screening process, like the kind that might be set up by an agent. It was nothing like your typical cattle call. The experience of a theater (particularly a musical theater) cattle call audition is deserving of a blog unto itself, so I’ll not attempt to describe it here.
The audition was for a production of Shakespeare’s MacB- I mean, his Scottish play. (I wasn’t sure if the curse could activate simply by typing the name, so I thought I’d play it safe you know, in case any of you felt like reading this aloud and happened to be sitting in the backstage of a theater. I’m courteous like that.) Okay, so it isn’t exactly the Scottish play, at least not in the strictest sense of the word. It’s actually a radio theater adaptation of MacB. It’s a sort of staged reading with cool sound effects and original orchestration. Think: ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ except less folksy Garrison Keillor and more dark and twisty Shakespeare. I guess you could call it the Scott-ish play.
In any event, I had never performed a Shakespearean anything before, so when it came to choosing a monologue, I needed help. Luckily, thanks to Facebook, I’m still in touch with my college acting teacher and she graciously pointed me in the right direction. After reading through dozens of excerpts, I eventually chose Rosalind’s monologue from Act 3, scene 5 of ‘As You Like It,’ mostly because it’s the one I understood the best after only one read-through. Plus, I was pretty sure it was funny. It goes a little something like this:
And why, I pray you? Who might be your mother,
That you insult, exult, and all at once,
Over the wretched? What though you have no beauty,–
As by my faith, I see no more in you
Than without candle may go dark to bed,–
Must you be therefore proud and pitiless?
Why, what means this? Why do you look on me?
I see no more in you than in the ordinary
Of nature’s sale-work. Od’s my little life!
I think she means to tangle my eyes too.
No, faith, proud mistress, hope not after it:
‘Tis not your inky brows, your black silk hair,
Your bugle eyeballs, nor your cheek of cream,
That can entame my spirits to your worship.
You foolish shepherd, wherefore do you follow her,
Like foggy south puffing with wind and rain?
You are a thousand times a properer man
Than she a woman: ’tis such fools as you
That make the world full of ill-favour’d children:
‘Tis not her glass, but you, that flatters her;
And out of you she sees herself more proper
Than any of her lineaments can show her.
But, mistress, know yourself: down on your knees,
And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love:
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can; you are not for all markets.
Cry the man mercy; love him; take his offer:
Foul is most foul, being foul to be a scoffer.
So take her to thee, shepherd. Fare you well.
For those of you unfamiliar with the poetry of the Bard, let me break it down for you:
(Rosalind, dressed as a man, addresses Phebe who has just spurned Silvius’ advances.)
You so butt-fugly,
You be crazy not to wanna git wit dis playa.
Shit. You think I wanna tap that?
Now you really be trippin.’
[N-word expletive], why you want dis ho fo yo baby mama?
Yo kids would be mad ugly.
Bitch, you need to git on yo knees and stop runnin’ yo mouf,
You know what I’m sayin’?
So yeah, I live in Harlem…and I’m clearly going to hell. Anyway…
In a fit of procrastination, and because I like the rush of adrenaline that I get when I wait until the last minute to get something done, I didn’t start looking at the monologue until yesterday…afternoon…effectively giving myself twenty-four hours to memorize a Shakespearean monologue before performing it in front of people who do Shakespeare for a living.
Now, I openly acknowledge the fact that I couldn’t even attempt something like that if I didn’t have a kick-ass memory, which I do. It’s a gift I discovered pretty early on in life. I distinctly remember one afternoon around Christmas time when I was in kindergarten or first grade, freaking my mom out by singing every word of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ from memory. It’s a skill that also came in handy for not learning things in school. Rather than studying for weeks in advance of a test and you know, actually learning things, I could cram the night before, memorize everything I needed to know just long enough to regurgitate it on paper the next day, before letting it trickle right back out of my brain…and still get an A. In my junior year of college, I reprogrammed a majority of my solo recital (with entirely new material) a week before the performance. A few summers ago, I learned the entire score to a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta… in the car on the way to the gig. I could go on and on but I won’t. Cause that’d be annoying.
The point is, I never learned my lesson, and you wanna know what? I don’t particularly care cause it went great! The directors seemed to like me, they laughed in all the right places and asked me tons of questions about my schedule, so that’s generally a positive sign. It turns out one of the directors was himself an opera singer in his day and that’s one of the reasons they decided to give me (a singer with not one theater credit on my resume) a chance to audition. I confessed to never having auditioned for a play before, but the director said that I should ‘continue branching out’ because he thinks I have ‘definite chops’ and he didn’t even follow it up with ‘…for a singer.’ Which is awesome.
On the whole this audition was… (must fight the urge to write ‘a whole n’other’ – gah!) …an entirely different experience for me. Aside from the format, attire and preparation expectations, perhaps the most obvious difference was that for the first time in over a decade I was entirely alone on a stage. I guess because I’ve been singing opera for so long I forgot what a luxury it is to have an accompanist up there with you, not only because of their musical contribution, but also for the moral support they provide. A great accompanist (and I’ve worked with some of the best) will follow you, breathe with you, anticipate what you need before you even know you need it. If I mentally ‘check out’ for a second and jump a section, I know they’ll find me and get me back on track.
The other great thing about singing (especially singing in a foreign language) is that even if the worst happens and you forget all the words, you can still keep singing. I’ve made up countless words to dozens of arias, and often, no one is the wiser! That’s a lot harder to do in a monologue with no melody to distract from any potential brain farts. And while opera auditions can feel rather stuffy, there is a certain comfort in their predictability. I’d forgotten how scary (and how exhilarating) it feels to be all alone on stage, stripped of the formality of operatic performance practice. It was definitely a challenge that forced me to use some muscles I haven’t exercised in a long while (which could be any of them, really.)
I guess the sad thing is that I haven’t been this excited for or had so much fun at an opera audition in years. It was great to be able to choose my own tempo (and change it at will!) without reference to composer, pianist or conductor. I really like the ‘sink or swim’ mentality of having to rely only on your wits, instincts and the cadence of your own voice to tell the story. It was so refreshing to be able to set aside the trappings of the melody and predetermined rhythms of the musical score and focus solely on the text.
Don’t get me wrong, I still LOVE music and singing (though I’m not terribly crazy about the opera biz at the moment, but that’s a subject for another time) and I’m not saying I want to give up all the routine and financial stability of an opera career (ha!) to become an actor, but I definitely want to keep exploring other art forms. Who knows? Maybe I can take what I learn from these new experiences and apply it to opera, thus making me a better singer. At the very least, I suppose I could translate a few more Shakespearean monologues into Ebonics and give myself a laugh…