Nailing the 5 Key Elements of College Auditions by Caroline Liem

Nailing the 5 Key Elements of College Auditions by Caroline Liem

My latest article for Backstage is all about the college audition process after you have prepared your materials. For the abridged Backstage article please CLICK HERE.

Each year around this time thousands of young actors vying for a spot in an undergraduate college theatre program prepare their auditions. There is considerable competition, if you look at the numbers, and the sheer amount of organization it takes to keep track of audition dates, locations, material, not to mention what you’re going to wear, don’t forget lips and eyes, can really take a toll. In an effort to quell some nerves, gain some perspective, and best prepare and focus attention on the more important areas of your upcoming auditions, I have invited the guidance of those who can speak first-hand, professors of top theatre programs who you will likely meet during your audition process. With many thanks, they includes:


Robert Anderson
Associate Professor in the Dept. of Theatre, Acting, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Tim Davis-Reed
Professor of Practice, Acting, Asst Program Coordinator for the Acting Area, Syracuse University

Grant Kretchik
Associate Director, Head of BFA Acting, Pace School of Performing Arts

Barbara Mackenzie-Wood
Raymond W. Smith Professor of Acting, Carnegie-Mellon University School of Drama

Joe Price
BFA Program Director, University of Minnesota-Guthrie Theatre Department of Theatre Arts & Dance BFA Acting Training Program


Unified auditions allow students to audition for numerous acting/musical theatre programs in one location, New York/Chicago/Los Angeles over the course of a few days. The advantage is traveling to a single destination, saving time, travel budget, meet other students from around the US and world and get a feel for how you measure up.

Some drawbacks to consider are colleges/universities have a short amount of time and a minimum of audition slots available, so there may not be as much attention given as there may be with an on-campus audition. There’s also something to be said for visiting the schools at the top of your list, to get the feel for the department, staff, and culture of the school.

Having sat through my share of college auditions and speaking with students who have gone through this process, these professors all echo the same sentiments regarding preparation and performance of your audition. They are representative of most of the programs you will be auditioning for, and you will likely be standing before one if not all of them, so read on, and take note!

First and foremost, your auditors want to create a comfortable and positive atmosphere where their applicants feel they can perform their best work. To that end, know they are on your side. They want you to be amazing. They are casting a department, and they want you to be a part of it. Your audition begins the moment you walk into their rehearsal hall, conference room, office or stage. We are a visual. What you wear matters.

DRESS Think in terms of “gong on a cool date with someone who shares the same style as you, “ says Grant Kretchik, PPA. What is your most to your “put together” style of that shows who you are. “I would just love it if student auditioners would dress like themselves, like young actors, instead of the ‘Sunday Go to Meeting’, ‘Going Clubbing’ or a ‘Temp’. I want to meet them, see them,” says Robert Anderson, UIUC. “I want them to be comfortable in their skin, pants and shoes.” Wear clothes you can move in, that fit you and shows some thought into how you want to be perceived. The traditional jewel-tone dress and character shoes or suit and tie no longer apply, and if you insist on wearing them, you may be asked to loosen that tie and take off those shoes.

Follow the guidelines addressed on their websites. Each will vary in length of time for each monologue and bars for songs. They will time you. And they will stop you. Do not create an unnecessary awkward moment. Time your pieces.

MATERIAL Choosing one classical and one contemporary piece is not necessarily contrasting. “You must be contrasting in the material. Avoid choosing a character who is experiencing the same circumstances in both your classical piece and your contemporary piece,” says Grant Kretchik.

For your songs, bring in sheet music that is clean and easy for the accompanist to follow. Like an acting monologue you need to be ‘connected’ to the material.

Choose pieces you are passionate about. “I can always tell when an actor just ‘likes’ a piece…Know why you chose your pieces, and have a thoughtful response. We are looking for our future colleagues, depth, and someone to spend the next 4 years with,” says Joe Price, UMN. It doesn’t matter if it’s overdone. What matters is allowing your auditors to see YOU in your work.

They have seen just about everything. But there is no one like you, so show them. Robert Anderson dares you to answer, “Who are you? What gets you going? What authors do you love? Who do you want to be? What gets you mad, happy, passionate…what turns you on?” Have the courage to share who you are.

Auditors are looking for the “You” in your pieces. “Young actors should not stress too much over picking the “perfect” material. I really believe that the choice of the material doesn’t matter – what you do with the material does. Young actors stress over picking material because they want the monologue to do the work for them. The thinking is ‘if I find a great monologue, or the perfect song, they will think I am great doing it.’ Your job is not to show me a great monologue or song. Your job is to use the material to show me YOU.” Tim Davis-Reed, Syracuse.

Are you ready to talk about your pieces and take a redirect? You must read the entire play. Barbara Mackenzie-Wood has been auditioning students for Carnegie Mellon School of Drama for 15 years, and she will be on tour this year. Her reminder to young actors, “…be prepared to answer specific questions about the play and the monologue.” Be ready to answer thoughtfully and conversationally “What just happened before you (the character) begins this speech, where have you come from, who are you talking to and why you are saying these words. Know the speech so well that if we ask you to make an adjustment to the piece it will not throw your concentration. We are looking for flexibility and the actors ability to play and take direction.”

In the case of an audition given following a pre-screen, where you are asked to perform the same material, they are looking for you to elevate the work they viewed previously in terms of specificity, connection, intention. Sometimes and third piece, or stretch piece, is requested. What role would you never be cast in that you would love to play? That’s the one you choose, and make sure you’ve read the play and you’re prepared to specifically discuss your choice.

INTRODUCTION of you and your pieces. READ YOUR ROOM. Most rooms will informal, but that is not always the case. They want you to be comfortable, and to that end there may be a little small talk at the top designed to subdue nerves and create dialog. Joe Rice appreciates “availability and openness right off the bat. Keep it basic in your introduction of your name and pieces. Messing up the title of your pieces is ok, as long as you are relaxed about it. I can tell when a student’s been coached to the nth degree.” In casting we look at how you recover from your bobbles and mishaps. It’s no different here. Play the room, and allow them to see who you are, and maintain some humor about it.

AUDITION ROOM Enter your room, and it is your room, with confidence. “Walk in like you want to be there. We need you,” says Grant Kretchik. Whether it is a conference room, stage, rehearsal space, office…it is your room. Joe Price agrees, “Everyone at these programs are good people. We’re trying to solve the problem, and actors give too much power. They have way more power than they think. Don’t give it all to us.”

INTERVIEW “Go into the process thinking you are interviewing us as much as we are interviewing you. You are about to make a very big life choice that can also include a significant financial investment, and it should be an informed choice. Have an opinion about what you want in a training program. I am always surprised when I speak to a group of auditioning students and their parents and ask ‘any questions?’ how few specific questions about our program come forward,” says Tim Davis-Reed. The process is seemingly set up to make you feel like you have no power in the interview. This is simply not true.

Do your research. What is the department’s mission? The school’s mission? What is their style of training, and does it align with where you want to be at the end of your four years? Is there opportunity to study abroad or with a regional theatre through their department? Joe Price auditions many perspective students who have no idea about his program and the legacy of its regional theatre. “I appreciate it when the actors know about the Twin Cities, and that we provide classical training…Know what The Guthrie is, what the school and department is about, its alumni, and faculty. Ask specific questions, and tell me what you like about my program.”

Also, be ready to talk about yourself. Why acting? Why do you want to do this with your life? And how does each one of the schools specifically meet your criteria and dreams. Sometimes the professor auditioning you will be much more interested in the person sitting in front of them, talking about their passions, than the actual audition, and that has merit.

The entire college audition process is subjective. As Tim Davis-Reed eloquently shared, “We are making an ‘educated guess’ as to whether this young person would be a good ‘fit’ for our program. We make mistakes. We miss an occasional diamond in the rough. If this is really what they want to do with their lives and we don’t think they are the greatest thing since sliced cheese, why on Earth would they trust our opinion in the first place?”

Enjoy the process and prepare for it. Maintain your joy. And go be amazing!

Unifieds –




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