Every year, at around this time, high school seniors are pressing their best shirt, getting a new pair of sensible shoes, and heading off to interview at their school of choice. Others, however, have spent the past few months preparing materials for an audition that is just as important as anything else in their application. Though the audition may only take two or three minutes, the pressure is palpable, and for students who felt they have prepared for years for the opportunity, it can be very stressful.
That’s why we sat down with Priscilla Lindsay, Professor and Chair at the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre & Drama, who was kind enough to demystify the process for us, let us in on what goes into auditioning students for their prestigious BFA program, and give advice to young actors on how to make the most of their auditions.
Could you tell us a bit about the process of auditioning at Michigan specifically?
Lindsay: Well, prospective students who want to audition for the performance track at Michigan apply to the University of Michigan with the common app, and “check” that they’re interested in the performance track through the Department of Theatre & Drama within the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. If they’re accepted by the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, that means their materials are in a row, their grade-point is what it needs to be, and so-forth. Then, their name comes to us and they’re scheduled for an audition, either in Ann Arbor—and they can list their preference for where they’d like to be—or in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Several faculty members see the auditions in each city, and in Ann Arbor the entire performance faculty is present.
And, ultimately, how many prospective students are accepted into the program?
Lindsay: We want to end up with a class of twenty. In the past — I’m talking five years ago — we accepted double the numbers we wanted; we would end up with about twenty. That’s no longer true. About three years ago, we took almost that many and we had twenty-seven students accept. Now, we basically accept — at least in the first go-round — about twenty-six, because we’ve found that most of those students come to the program.
What are the differences between a BA program, a conservatory, and a conservatory-style BFA program like Michigan?
Lindsay: A BA at another school, not Michigan, is going to be a very broad-based, general degree. You can obviously have an emphasis in acting, directing, probably playwriting, and so-forth, and have a chance to audition for plays. But you’re going to get the broadest base of education across the university or school in terms of literature, sciences, and I’m sure other arts. A BFA conservatory program—which ours is—is very similar to what Carnegie Mellon, NYU, Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Emerson, Pace, a lot of the Big 10 schools too. Many of those schools, however, are a lot more conservative about the number of credits the students are allowed to take outside the core curriculum. It’s a very concentrated, very focused curriculum. Our conservatory-style training program—we call it a conservatory—allows for 43 credits outside of the Performance Major. In fact, it not only allows but insists upon that. Our students should take advantage of what this school has to offer, because the faculty agrees that no matter what you take at this University it’s going to inform you as a person, as an artist, as a member of this department, and it will influence who you become for the rest of your life. That’s what we think we have to offer; a rigorous core curriculum for performance in the midst of a world-class University.
What are you looking for in actors and actresses that come to audition?
Lindsay: We’re looking for intelligent, creative, young artists who already have a sense of self and who are able to take adjustments when we ask for them. Who are able to listen to what we’re asking for and respond to those suggestions. We’re looking for young people who think on their feet. The ones who rise to the top, in my opinion, are the ones who take chances. They show a range of capabilities in terms of emotional maturity, and a little sense of style, perhaps. They have a sense of confidence about themselves. They know how to project their personality through the material they choose. And they actually have to have had some training ahead of time—that’s just the bottom line. Now, every once in awhile, we sense that a person— although lacking training—has a ton of potential, and then we assess that as well. Keeping in mind; this class of 20 has to move together through four years, and we don’t have a cut system. We take the 20 that we take and we stick with them through all four years.
Jerald Schwiebert, who taught at Michigan for many years, was well known for reminding students to be brilliant at the things that take no talent. What do you feel those things are?
Lindsay: Absolutely. Absolutely, that’s important. It’s not something, though, that I can necessarily see in an audition.
Lindsay: Obviously I can tell if you don’t know your lines. But I can’t always ascertain whether a person has good work habits. I also can’t always figure out if this person is totally committed to being an actor. They’re doing it because of the fame and glory and the sexiness of it, but they’re not really thinking about it as a career. The reason I know that is because every year we have students who show up and about halfway through the first semester of their freshman year, they’re like deer in the headlights. They can’t believe how hard it is, how much you have to buckle down, and how repetitive some of the work is. In a sense, there’s a piece of learning how to act that’s like playing the piano. It can be a lot of repetition with technique that just takes practice. Some people say, “this is not what I thought.” I can’t always see that in an audition.
What are some things you see in auditions that deduct a few points automatically, that prospective students may not realize are a bad thing?
Lindsay: There really are not rules, but the thing that is a sure sign that something’s not right is if you don’t open up and show us who you are. If you’ve learned something by rote, and you’re repeating lines, and we don’t see any emotional commitment on your part, that’s not a good sign. Sometimes, we right down “the real deal,” when we know, we know this person has acting chops. It’s obvious. There’s an electricity in the room, maybe a slight sense of danger. There’s something going on, and it has nothing to do with how sophisticated the person is, and honestly it has nothing to do with the choice of material. There has to be a sense of comfort within their own bodies, and a sense that they want to communicate. They want to share something. That’s exciting. We all sit up in our chairs and our spines start to tingle.
Speaking of the selection of pieces—generally schools ask for some element of contrast. Either contrasting contemporary monologues, or a contemporary monologue and a contrasting classical monologue. But that’s a phrase that can confuse some people who have never heard it before. What can you tell us about the idea of contrast in monologues, and what you’re looking for in the pieces people bring in?
Lindsay: “Contrasting” is taken in the broadest sense. If you’re not comfortable with a classical piece—meaning Shakespeare, Moliere, even up through Shaw, Ibsen—if you’re not comfortable in those genres? Sure, do two modern pieces, and the contrast should be in the attack, the emotional quality, and the difference between, say, a serious piece and a comic piece. You don’t want to do the same character twice. Believe me, we see it all the time. Someone stops a piece, goes into the second one, and it’s the same person. They’re not showing any range, a different attack. They’re not showing me how these two characters think differently, or act differently, how they use different techniques and skills to get what they want. I want to see someone do two pieces that are age appropriate, show me two different people. I don’t want to hear, in the choice of pieces, storytelling. I don’t want to see two pieces where the auditioner says, “yesterday, I went to the store. I went down the aisle and there was a can of tuna fish. I picked it up, and this woman bothered me. She said, blah-blah-blah.” That’s a story. That doesn’t show me how the character makes a decision, is grappling with some issue, is arguing with somebody, is working out a problem. The most important thing is to see how that actor thinks. Often, if we can’t see that, but we still think there’s something there, we’ll give an adjustment. We’ll give them a problem to solve, and have them do the piece again. That’s to see if the actor can actually deal with an issue in the present tense and work something through. Give themselves an obstacle. Give themselves a problem to solve. That’s what’s interesting about a piece.
There’s an 18-year-old kid. They’re in the hallway, waiting to go in for their audition. The whole faculty will be behind those tables. If you could step out of the room and say one thing to that student before they go in, what would it be?
Lindsay: I’d say, “take a big old deep breath, and try to have some fun. Take a deep breath, and look upon this as your chance to figuratively shake hands with every one of us.”