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Acing an Audition - a Nervous Actor's Guide

A black and white image of a microphone in a spotlight.
Standing up alone on a stage, with the lights on you, is terrifying. Image by StockSnap from Pixabay.

When I auditioned for the very first time, I was a nervous mess of an eighth-grader. We were doing a very small stage production as a class, and I was guaranteed a part of some description, but I had never acted before, and I didn't like standing in front of my classmates and being judged. At the time, I didn't have the Internet to lend a hand - I was free-falling into my cold read with nothing but my wits and a lot of stomach butterflies.

Now that I've done some professional work, it's fun to look back and laugh at how nervous I was, and think, "Hey, I actually did pretty well!" But I also know that life would have been a lot simpler if someone had sat down with me and said, "here's how you do this."

So that's what I'm doing here. I'm sitting down with you, my nervous auditionee friend, and telling you how to take a deep breath, grab your sides, and get yourself ready to stand up there and ham it up. I can't guarantee you'll get the part - no one can, but more on that later - but I can help you have more peace of mind before, during, and after this scary process.

Prep Work

This is all the stuff you do before you even think about getting on stage. Welcome to between one month and two weeks before the audition, when the dates have just been posted and you've just scheduled your slot. Here, you're going to want to get the details right, so ask yourself a few questions before diving in:

  • What am I auditioning for?

This is fairly straightforward. What kind of show is this? Is it a straight play? A musical? A review? A showcase? Different kinds of productions will have different requirements for auditions.

  • Where and when am I auditioning?

The location of your audition is important because it determines your schedule for the day. If it's far away from your home, you have to think about travel methods and time. Always remember to leave more time than you think you'll need; it's much better to be too early than at all late.

  • What level of production is this?

If you're auditioning for a school play, the rules are going to be far more relaxed than they would be for a paid professional production. Community theater is a great in-between if you're not sure where to go after you leave school or if you want to go one level up but don't feel ready for professional productions yet.

  • Who am I auditioning for?

Know that if you're auditioning for the lead, you're going to have to be willing to dedicate a huge amount of your time and energy to the production, no matter what level it is. Make sure that you have a solid reason for auditioning for a certain character - you have a passion for them specifically, they have the right vocal range for you, the character type is one you've played before, etc - so that you can show that reasoning off to the auditioners.

Speaking of them, do your research on who is running the audition. Make sure you know their names, their experience in the industry (if applicable), and if they have any well-known quirks or preferences you need to be wary of. Google is your friend!

Once you have all of those questions answered, it's time to get down to brass tacks. Depending on the audition, you might need any combination of the following prepped:

  • A short monologue

  • A few measures of a song

  • A short dance routine (this is usually taught at the audition, so you won't need to prep the moves specifically)

  • A scene or set of scenes from the production (these are called "sides" and are usually provided for you with the audition information)

Picking and Finding Monologues

A monologue is a single-person speech, usually directed at the audience but occasionally directed at another character in the work. These can be as short as a few lines or as long as several minutes, and range across the emotional spectrum from comedic to dramatic. A monologue might be stand-alone (written to be performed without any other material) or an excerpt (a section pulled from a larger work, such as a full play or movie).

When looking for an audition monologue, you're going to want to tailor the tone and language to the show you're auditioning for. Use comedic monologues for comedies or comic relief characters, use dramatic monologues for tragedies or tragic characters, et cetera.

Make sure that the monologue you choose is from the same time period and region as the show you're auditioning for or an appropriate analog for fantasy pieces. For instance, if you're auditioning for The Crucible, you'll want to pick a monologue that uses language similar to or from the Colonial era (the 1600s) in North America rather than something that uses modern European slang. You might also pick something from the 1950s, given the era the play was actually written in.

Finally, make sure that the monologue you use is an appropriate length. Most auditions will only give you enough time for a monologue that is one minute long or shorter, sometimes even as short as thirty seconds. When choosing, time how long it takes you to do the monologue while reading it. If it's more than fifteen seconds over your limit, consider choosing another piece or trimming the one you've chosen down. With practice, you can shave your time down, but no amount of shaving will turn a two-minute monologue into a comprehensible thirty-second monologue.

You can find an enormous selection of monologues online for free. Some good sites are:

  • Ace Your Audition - Not only does this site have some excellent, unique monologues, but it's also got more information about the proper length, style, and origin of monologues for specific kinds of production. It's also easily sorted into male and female and comedic and dramatic. I like this site because its monologues are in PDF format, for easy printing and saving.

  • NY Castings - They've got new monologues all the time, meaning you're less likely to find one that's been overdone. Again the monologues are sorted into easy-to-navigate categories for your convenience. It also has a wealth of articles with advice for auditionees.

  • Monologue Genie - One cool feature about this site is that it separates monologues by time as well as style and speaker gender, which is super helpful when you've got a short limit you need to work around.

What to Sing

Singing in auditions is, to me, always more terrifying than performing a monologue. In a monologue, you can improvise if you forget a line; it's much harder to do that in a song. On top of that, when you're singing, you need to worry about breath support, hitting the right pitch, and timing yourself with your backing track (if you have one). Singing, even if it's just a few bars, can be frightening.

Fortunately, there are some good things about singing as well. It's easier to remember lyrics because they follow a predictable pattern, and usually rhyme. You also get to show off your range and, if you're a belter like me, that can mean wowing the audience with a note that nearly makes your head spin. Plus, singing is fun! It's a skill to be proud of.

When singing for an audition, you'll usually have a very limited amount of time. This can be set either by bars (meaning a set amount of measures in the sheet music, which are the little blocks formed by - as the name implies - black bars on either side), usually no less than sixteen, or by time, usually no more than thirty seconds. This means you'll want to pick a song that moves relatively fast and has one short portion that shows off a decent part of your range (which is the scope of notes you can hit and how well you hit them).

Showing off your range looks different for different kinds of singers. It helps to know what your vocal part is.

  • A soprano sings the highest notes in a song. Their voices are usually breathy and light but can be extremely powerful if they learn to high belt (a belt, by the way, is a powerful note that takes a lot of air to push out). These would be people who can sing Glinda's part in Wicked.

  • An alto sings the notes in the range below sopranos. These are typically the folks who can sing the most impressive belts and have a lot of power behind their voices. These are the people who can sing Elphaba.

  • A tenor sings the notes below altos. Tenors usually play the heroes in shows, or the romantic leads, because they can do that thing where they go from a swooning low note to a sweet high note with no problem. These are your Fiyeros.

  • A bass has the lowest vocal range. These are the ones who, when they sing, the whole world seems to shake. I'm not sure there are any base parts in Wicked, so we'll go ahead and say that anyone who can sing Misty Mountains from The Lord of the Rings is a bass.

  • There are also baritones, who rock the space between tenor and bass but are harder to explain without knowing what the other vocal parts are.

Typically, women have soprano and alto voices, and men have tenor, baritone, and bass voices. Obviously, this isn't always the case, but it helps to know that when looking for characters with songs in your range.

If you're auditioning for a musical, with very few exceptions, you'll want to always audition with a musical theater song. Try to pick songs with the appropriate mood for the show you're auditioning for - happy songs for happy shows, sad songs for sad shows, that kind of thing. You'll also want them to be appropriately fast or slow depending on the typical tempo of the music in the show, to prove that you can keep pace. It helps to think about the motivations behind songs as well; if you're auditioning for a character whose arc revolves around finding who they are, using a song about purpose or destiny is a good fit, and will help the auditioners see you in the role more easily.

You can find some excellent audition songs simply by listening to a lot of musicals. Save songs that fit your range and are fun for you to sing to a playlist, and sing through the playlist in the car or when you're doing chores. This is what I do to keep my repertoire of songs fresh and in my head. That way, when an audition comes up, you've got a ready batch of songs to pull from, and you already know which parts of each song you're best at.

If you need to find a song, these sites can help:

  • Theater Trip - This site lists songs by vocal part, composer, and song type. It's also got sheet music available, which is amazing.

  • Stage Agent - The search function on this site is fantastic. It lets you enter in your gender, vocal part, and age to see songs that might work for you. When you click a song option, it gives you context, sheet music, and practice material. Some stuff is locked behind a paywall, but it gives more than enough info to get you started.

  • Music Notes - The songs on this site aren't as well organized as the others, but it does give you plenty of options as well as short and long cuts alongside the full song.

What NOT to Use

Now that you know the basics of what you need to prepare, you should know what you absolutely shouldn't bring to the table. Again, this will depend on the level at which you are auditioning, but there are certain rules for picking audition material that aren't often explained to first-time auditionees.

  • Try not to pick something that has a lot of cursing in it if you're not auditioning for a show that specifically has cursing in it. This can come across as crass or unprofessional.

  • It's best to avoid monologue pieces that are from particularly famous or popular productions. Your auditioners have probably heard a thousand versions of Shakespeare, A Raisin in the Sun, The Crucible, and other shows people study in school. Try to pick something unusual but fitting.

  • The same thing goes for song choice. Try to avoid anything that has been on Broadway in the past five years or so, as those will be the go-to songs for everyone because they're at the forefront of public thought.

  • In the same vein, unless the auditioners specifically ask for it, don't pick a song or monologue from the show you're auditioning for. This is generally because it would be extremely repetitive to hear a hundred people sing the same part of the same song, and would make it hard to differentiate and remember each auditionee individually.

A close-up of pages of a screenplay that have been marked up in black pen.
Marking up your audition material is a great way to get it solidified in your mind. Image by Oli Lynch from Pixabay.

At the Audition

Okay, you're all prepped. You've got a song picked out, your monologue memorized, and the audition day is here. What now? This is the part that's the most frightening - this is when you have to get up on an empty stage, alone, in front of a room full of people whose job it is to judge you.

It's worth noting at this point that, while yes, it is the auditioner's job to judge you, it is not their job to judge you harshly. They want you to succeed as much as you want to succeed; remember, they're here to find some amazing talent for their project. They want you to do well! Everyone on that panel wants you to absolutely nail your performance. They're on your side.

That being said, let's get into what to do in the final leg of the audition journey.

Last-Minute Prep

The day before your audition, make sure you've got everything you're bringing with you set up and ready to go. Your absolute essentials are going to be:

  • Your materials binder. This has any sides you were given, the sheet music for your song, a copy of your monologue, and additional copies of each in case there are multiple auditioners who need to see it. Your sheet music should be clearly marked with where the part you're singing (your cut) starts and ends, and any additional notes the accompaniest might need.

  • A bottle of water. Your throat will be dry from nerves. Trust me. Having a bottle of water on hand, especially one that's got a little lemon in it, will be a massive lifesaver.

  • Some cough drops or mints. For much the same reason as the water bottle. Sucking on a cough drop or mint before your turn both helps prep your throat and keep you calm.

  • A set of comfortable athletics clothes. This is if you know there will be a dance call. Remember to wear comfortable shoes that let you move easily.

  • A business card. It doesn't need to be professional, it just needs to have your name, phone number, and other contact details in case you need to write them down anywhere. Even if you think you'll remember them easily, it's good to have them in writing in case you're too nervous to think.

You might also bring makeup to refresh before you get onstage, additional hair bands or a comb, and additional business cards. You should also have some sheet music for a backup song and a backup monologue, just in case you find that yours are coming up frequently or the auditioners ask for additional material.

The night before your audition, do a "dress rehearsal." Set up a space as your stage, get your materials together, and, ideally, ask a family member or friend to be your "auditioner." Stand up, run your audition exactly as you will during the real thing, and then sit down. Do this a few times to get yourself in the headspace of being able to do it without thinking too much.

Keeping Your Calm Onstage

Your main audition will typically follow some simple, logical steps.

  1. Your name or number will be called, and you'll walk on stage. Walk quickly, but carefully. You don't want to fall!

  2. This is the point at which you'll hand your sheet music to the accompanist. Remember to thank them!

  3. You'll present your "slate." This means stating your name and/or audition number and the part you're auditioning for. Do this confidently - you know your name!

  4. You'll perform your pieces. The order will vary by audition, so practice both ways - monologue then song and song then monologue.

  5. You'll slate again. Same as before, just say your name and/or number and part.

  6. Then you're done! Collect your sheet music, thank everyone, and walk off confidently.

Six steps, that's all there is to it. It'll be the same for every person in the audition space. It'll be easier to stay calm if you think of the audition in little steps rather than one big event. Take a breath every time you complete a step and check it off in your mind.

Another small note - when you're nervous, you'll tend to move, speak, and sing faster. Be mindful of how quickly you're moving and make sure to consciously slow down. Take a deep breath and focus on what you're doing, not what you've done. If you make a mistake or feel that something could have gone better, don't acknowledge it while you're on stage. Focus your attention on what you are doing in the moment and do it to the best of your ability.

Cold Reads

Cold reads are what we call performing a scene from the production you're auditioning for, alone or with a partner, that you have not prepared ahead of time. These are usually done to see how you interpret a character, how your voice fits the writing, and your chemistry with other auditionees. I'll admit, cold reads are often my least favorite part of an audition; no one likes being put on the spot!

There is a way to get around this sometimes, though. Before your audition, if it's possible, try to see the show you're auditioning for. This way you'll have context for the scenes, no matter what they are. Try not to copy the delivery in whatever performance you watched, though - your auditioners are looking for your interpretation and what you can bring to the role.

If you can't see the show before the audition (if it's a new production, for example), take a moment to read through the scene. You're looking for a few key points.

  • What is the scene about? Look for the big question or point of the scene, whether you're defending something, denouncing something, or discovering something.

  • Who else is in the scene? Determine your character's relationship to the others in the scene. Don't be afraid to ask questions!

  • What is the voice of your character? Look for clues as to whether they're confident, nervous, defeated, etc. You'll also want to look for practical indicators, like whether they have an obvious accent.

One more important thing about cold reads: try very hard not to have your face glued to the script. Look at your scene partners, and react physically. You're in an acting audition - so act! Make character choices, move around, and have fun with the scene. You want to be fun to watch.

Dance Calls

Dance calls are the portion of an audition where you show the auditioners that you are capable of learning choreography. You'll be taught a short, simple routine, given time to practice, and then you'll be asked to perform the choreography in small groups.

Now it's important to remember that in these calls, you are not expected to be perfect. What your auditioners are looking for is the ability to listen to and absorb directions, basic coordination, and a dedication to performing to the best of your abilities. If you mess up or feel that you've messed up the routine, keep moving to the next piece. Being able to cover a mistake is just as important as being accurate.

For your dance call, make sure you're wearing comfortable clothes like you would wear to work out and shoes that you can move easily in. The best option for stage choreography is either character shoes, meaning a simple set of thick-heeled shoes, or jazz shoes, which are form-fitting and help you grip without inhibiting your movement. These can be expensive, though, so if you can't get your hands on these, make sure you're wearing shoes that have solid traction on the floor and don't restrict your ankle movement.

A black and white image of people sitting in front of and facing a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out on a city.
The people in the chairs beside you can be your greatest allies. Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay.

After the Audition

When you've finished your performance and you've stepped off stage, you can take a moment to acknowledge what you could have done better, but try not to hyperfocus on it. Instead, acknowledge what you've done well and congratulate yourself on having the courage to stand up and audition at all.

Thanking Your Auditioners

I mentioned this briefly in the steps of an audition process, but one of the most important things you can remember to do is thank your auditioners, including your accompanist, for their time. These people are spending a long day sorting through very talented actors for the perfect cast for a production they are passionate about; they care as much as you do about the show and their dedication deserves recognition.

Not only is this polite, but it also shows that you care about their time. On top of that, saying "thank you" makes you easier to remember. Kindness is memorable and a point in your favor.

Talk to Each Other!

Talk with the people around you after your audition. These aren't strictly your competition - these are your potential castmates and your peers. You'll catch more flies with honey, and in an industry where who you know is as important as what you know, making connections is something you should prioritize at every opportunity. You never know who's going to have a good tip on the next audition, or who you might be able to give a good tip to later on.

Plus, it's good to have each others' backs. You're all nervous about the audition, and it's easier to be nervous together. Cheering each other on will help all of you do better in the long run, and makes auditioning far less scary and far more fun.

Waiting for the Cast List

This is potentially the worst part of auditioning - waiting for the results. You probably won't know for days whether or not you got the part you wanted, or whether you've gotten in at all. It takes a long time to select the right actor for the job, and that time gets longer the more characters you have to select and the more auditionees you have to choose between. Have patience with your auditioners - rushing them won't increase your chances of getting the role. In fact, it might make it worse; you don't want to be seen as pushy.

Try not to obsess over the list. Keep an eye on it, ideally by setting automatic alerts, but don't get glued to the door or screen. Work on another project, prep for your next audition, or do something fun while you wait. I hear video games make a brilliant distraction.

When to Move On

This is the part of the process everyone dreads. If you get the part, fantastic! Congratulations! Now the hard work begins.

If you didn't...

Look, it's fine to take some time to be upset. Not getting the part can be crushing; for me, it always feels like a failure. It's only natural to be disappointed by a lost part, especially if it's one you're super passionate about. Let yourself feel what you need to feel about the news - there's nothing wrong with having a solid cry about it.

But once you've had that time to be upset, you'll need to pick yourself back up. It's time to focus on what went well. You, amazing you, stood up in front of a crowd of strangers and performed material under a tight crunch of pressure. You put your all into it, you gave the absolute best performance you could have in the moment, you were as prepared as you could have been, and you did it.

And that's something to be proud of because there are so many people in the world who can't do what you do. There are people who wouldn't make it to the stage, who would be too afraid to put their name down for an audition slot at all. But you did. You did, and you should be proud of that alone.

Accept that you did the best you could, and then, it's time to look for the next production and let the process start all over.

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