Advice: I need help emotionally connecting to the role

Q: I auditioned for drama school last year and although I got recalls for some schools, I was unsuccessful. The feedback from one panel said that I have problems emotionally connecting to the speech. I really have to agree. I sometimes find it difficult to get into the role under the pressure of an audition, especially within just a 2 minute speech. What can you advise to help me find that connection when it matters most?

Simon answers: Essentially, recognise the fact of the artificiality of the audition process. And be completely rooted in your characters & their situations! There's quite a wind blowing as I write. Branches — even whole trees — are swaying quite alarmingly. I doubt if they'll be much damage… Maybe dead branches will come down, but my trees will stay firm — because of their roots.

Growing a character's roots

Who are you? You must bring your character's life history (gleaned from the play and supplemented by your imagination) into your performance. Most of what you ‘bring' won't be obvious to your auditioners. However, it will be immediately obvious if that ‘life history' is not sufficiently rooted.
Tip Carry a small notebook around with you so that you can jot down new ideas as they occur to you. As the character (i.e. in the first person) write notes of all the bits of information (big and small) that you find in order to build his/her life. There's always more!

Who are you talking to? If you choose a speech addressing another character, then it is vital that that other person (and how they are reacting through the speech) is clear to you. It is generally better to imagine an adaptation of someone you know rather than ‘borrow' someone you've only seen on a flat screen — there can be a huge difference in how we perceive others between two- and three-dimensions.
It's not just them (and how they are reacting); it's also important to be clear about your relationship. As well as imagining what your character's lover looks like (for instance), you must also know the feel of their touch, their smell, and so forth — and many more personal aspects.
If you're talking to yourself: Remember that you're talking for the audience — your auditioners. If your talking to the audience: It's often a good idea to imagine someone (appropriate) that you know out in that audience. Also, think of your auditioners as being part of a bigger audience. It is also important that any other people, places and events mentioned in the speech are similarly ‘clear' in your imagination.

What are your circumstances? The setting, clothes and practical items are also part of your character's ‘roots' — in your imagination.
(NB I could have written ‘set, costumes and props', but I believe that it's important to think of everything being ‘real' and not items constructed for a production). I believe that actors neglecting these is the cause of a high proportion of failed and indifferent speeches. It's not just the visual images, it is also what the other senses give you — the ‘brush' of a summer breeze across your face, for instance.
It isn't just the major features that you should think about, but also the apparently minor details — for instance, that mark on a wall
that suddenly catches your character's eye. [Our eyes are like vacuum cleaners — they suck in huge amounts of information]. It can be a good idea to draw a map (or groundplan) so that the whole ‘geography' of your ‘circumstances' is clear for you — and fill out your imaginary location with as much detail as possible.

Beginnings It is particularly important to be clear about what actually provokes the character to start speaking — the ‘ignition' that kicks your ‘engine' into life. Try running a brief ‘film' in your imagination culminating in the event (for instance, a statement or a gesture from someone else) that is your cue.

Tip It can also be very useful to incorporate a simple movement to start a speech — a turn of the head, for instance.

That voyage of discovery Be aware of the ‘voyage of discovery' that shapes your speech. Don't anticipate the end at the beginning. This is a common fault in rehearsal, which is easily corrected — but a remarkable number of people fall into this trap when performing their audition speeches.
It can be very useful to write out a speech with each sentence (or even each phrase) on a separate line — it then appears less of a ‘block' of words on the page and more a series of separate, but connected, thoughts and ideas. It is also a good idea to leave sufficient space between each line to write notes on what the impulse is to go on to say the next thing, and the next, and…

Endings It's also important to be clear as to why a character stops speaking — after talking for two minutes… You need to be clear what your character's final thought is — crucially stopping his/her flow.

The artificiality of the audition process
Auditioning for drama schools (& in the profession) is a desperately artificial process! [Hence that extra sense of ‘pressure']. However, we're stuck with it. And, there are ways round the artificiality — using the techniques that we use to put on a production. If you're in a production you've got lots of physical & emotional support to inspire your performance — provided that the production is well-rooted. In audition — however conducive the panel & surroundings — you don't have that ‘support'. Therefore, you have to be self-sufficient — through rigorously working through the disciplines that are fundamental to the beginning & end of a performance.

You need to be not only well rehearsed (‘well-rooted') but also well prepared for how to cope with all the peripherals that are other people's responsibilities when you are actually doing a production. You are your own stage-management, wardrobe department, front-of-house manager, and so forth.

“Your first speech, please.” Whatever cue you're given to start acting — don't rush into it! First (if necessary) tell the panel clearly the character's name, the play & playwright — akin to the front-of-house announcement that the performance is “about to commence.”
The acting area This is your ‘stage'. Once you arrive in it, first you need to check everything you need is in place — that is the invisible (but clear in your imagination) ‘setting, clothes and practical items' that are ‘part of your character's roots.' However clear these may have been in your rehearsal space, it'll take a few seconds to fit them in to the audition room.

Note If you're using a chair, take a moment to get a ‘feel' of the one in the audition room — it could be subtly (even, significantly) different from the one you've been rehearsing with.

Replanting those ‘roots' Your audition room is new ‘soil'. It takes a few seconds to acclimatise & reconnect with your character's life & ‘roots.'
Finishing When you finish you should keep the final thought in your mind and gently freeze for a moment — just as you would if you're left onstage at the end of a scene in a play. Then fade the imaginary stage-lighting (and close the curtains) at a suitable rate. (That ‘moment' should last about a second — if you're unsure, say a multi-syllable word like ‘Mississippi' in your head). Then – without immediately looking your auditioners in the eye – relax back to your normal self, ready to move on to whatever they want you to do next. If you do make eye-contact immediately at the end of a speech (as you might whilst working with a tutor), you'll invariably encounter a thoughtful stare which can appear intimidating. It's better to give yourself a private few seconds, before re-engaging with your auditioners. Good luck!

Simon Dunmore has been directing productions for over 30 years — nearly 20 years as a resident director in regional theatres and, more recently, working freelance. He also teaches acting & audition technique and has worked (& continues to do so) in many drama schools and other training establishments around the country. He has written several books: An Actor's Guide to Getting Work (now in its fourth edition), the Alternative Shakespeare Auditions series and is the Consultant Editor for Actors' Yearbook. He's also been very involved with the work of Equity & the National Council for Drama Training.

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