There are so many decisions to make when applying to college theater programs and summer programs, but one question we get asked constantly is: “How do I choose the right audition material?” We posed this question to three ArtsBridge Summer faculty who are among the top experts in theater training at American colleges. Vicky Bussert from Baldwin Wallace University, Gary Kline from Carnegie Mellon University, and Ralph Zito from Syracuse University offer their advice for high school students getting ready for college and summer program auditions.
ArtsBridge: What are the most common mistakes students make when choosing audition material?
Vicky Bussert (VB): Choosing pieces that they do not feel a personal connection with. When you choose a song to show notes and vocal ability, the faculty could just as easily vocalize you at the piano. You should use a song to let the faculty see who you are.
Gary Kline (GK): Choosing songs that they think will impress the faculty but are just too big vocally (in terms of range, intensity, technique). When this happens, the song becomes just about hitting notes, when the faculty would rather witness the student’s connection to the material on an emotional level. Another mistake is choosing pieces that are sung in a character voice; they don’t allow the student’s true voice to come out, so it comes off as just imitation. As faculty, we want to hear what you really sound like; we’re not casting for a show, we are casting a class of musical theater majors!
Ralph Zito (RZ): The biggest mistake is choosing material that they don’t understand. They don’t understand where the piece is in the play (it’s shocking how often young students choose material without having read the play!). Or they don’t understand something as simple as what some of the words mean, or what the cultural or historical references mean. Or they don’t understand the piece emotionally. Where many young students go wrong is in presenting material that someone told them would be good for them but which they don’t connect with in a personal way.
ArtsBridge: We often hear that faculty have so many opinions about material choices. How do I manage the particular preferences of faculty at different colleges or even in the same audition room?
VB: It is a mistake to try to figure out what’s happening on the other side of the table. Worrying about what the faculty think takes away the power of it being youraudition. If schools have published a guideline, then follow it, but beyond that you always have to choose material that you have a personal connection to.
GK: Some faculty may prefer pop/rock music, while others just want to hear the authentic voice regardless of the style. Some schools even publish a list of “do not sing” songs. Personally, I never say never, and it’s nice to be surprised when a student succeeds at presenting a song that I wouldn’t have thought would work well.
RZ: An actor may come in and do their two pieces, and I have no idea whether this student has, for example, a sense of humor, so I might ask for an adjustment that shows me that side of them as a person. In an audition setting, when the faculty give you information and make a request, you have to be brave enough to put aside your doubts or hesitations and run as far as you can with the suggestion. I will sometimes give a crazy adjustment note that has nothing to do with the piece, just because I’m looking to explore or discover an aspect of the performer’s temperament that is still not clear to me at that point in the audition.
ArtsBridge: How much does my choice of audition material get judged compared to how well I present it?
VB: There is no “right” song. What I care about is that the choice of material is a vehicle for you to share who you are. It’s helpful if you’ve read the script so that you know the given circumstances of why the song was written.
GK: What you sing is not as important as how you present it. Simple is better. Don’t try to impress with something complicated just because it is showier. Being truthful and authentic is most important. Make it easy for the faculty to see who you are; if you are not genuinely connected to the piece, the faculty may spend the time wondering “why are they singing this?”
RZ: It’s very hard to generalize, but personally I would say 80% presentation and 20% material choice. And that’s where the adjustments might come in (discussed above). That said, very problematic choices about material could lead me to question an individual actor’s self-awareness. For example, if somebody presented pieces all of which were beyond their range of human experience, I might conclude that they are just interested in “acting” and not in exploring the depth of the character’s experience.
ArtsBridge: Is it okay to choose pieces that are current Broadway hits?
VB: Absolutely, but you better have your own take on it. I don’t want to hear you imitate somebody else’s interpretation.
GK: I don’t care. There are songs on Broadway right now that are just perfect for some kids. I heard a student do “Waving Through a Window” from Dear Evan Hansen and it was emotional and real. That said, I wouldn’t go out of your way to look for something just because it’s a big hit right now.
RZ: It’s totally ok, but it changes the parameters a bit. Some of your auditors may not have seen the show. If you do a well-known piece, the stakes get higher in terms of the auditors wanting to see you make it your own, to have a personal connection to the material and a personal point of view, all while still honoring the circumstances and the truth of the piece itself.
ArtsBridge: Can I do a song or monologue on a controversial topic, like race or gender or politics?
VB: It doesn’t bother me personally, but it can cross a line. For example, 10 years ago a student did a monologue about animal abuse; I have stopped people who start pieces like these. I would ask why they chose that. What does it say about you as a person? Material is to help illuminate the student; it’s not something to hide behind.
GK: Monologues on controversial topics are generally fine because plays often contain themes of violence, exploitation, etc. As for songs, there aren’t a lot that are offensive, but there are some that are misogynistic and should be avoided. Remember that the material you choose communicates something about you.
RZ: Sure, as long as it comes from a place of being authentically connected to the material. For example, if you do a piece about white fragility, and you don’t have any understanding about what that means for you as a human being, then I might conclude you are doing a provocative piece for the sake of being provocative.
ArtsBridge: How do I make an old piece relevant in a present-day audition?
VB: Whether a script is 10 years old or 75 years old, good material endures. There is nothing old about essential human truths. What you have to know is: “What is this piece actually about? And what do I know about that? About falling in love? Losing a parent?” An old piece may be saying it in language that’s different from what we use today, but it’s communicating the same truth. Reading the libretto is so important. If it sounds old to you because of the lyric structure, then read the libretto and it will make more sense. To help connect to a piece, ask yourself: “Why does this song exist?”
GK: Making any piece relevant is all about personalizing the song. It’s about making an old song fit your present life or life experience. What’s written on the page is just notes, just paper and ink, and not the soul of the song. I often say to students, “let’s take it off the page.” If you spend time with the lyrics and the context of the piece – music aside – you’ll find your connection. Rhythm, tempo, and notes can come in later.
RZ: If the material is still standing as a classical piece, it is because it is speaking to something timeless and universal. Again, it comes back to making sure that you have a personal connection to the material. You need something that you don’t have and you’re working to get it. When you identify what the universal need of the piece is, the material will become immediately relevant. My favorite experience in an audition is when I experience something new in a piece with which I am very familiar. And that happens when the actor makes a meaningful, personal connection to the content. Not just when someone is trying to shake it up or trying to be novel.
ArtsBridge: Is it ok to sing a rock/pop song in a theater audition?
VB: For me absolutely, but remember you have to communicate something with it. You’re not just singing notes. In a rock/pop song, there is no libretto to guide you as to the context of the song, so you need to create that context.
GK: Absolutely yes. I’m happy to hear someone come in and sing a song that isn’t from musical theater. And new musicals are being written with reference to rock, pop, and other contemporary styles. The most important thing is to sing truthfully.
ArtsBridge: If I’m asked which song/monologue I want to start with, how do I choose? What are the criteria for deciding what to lead with?
VB: You never get a second chance to make a first impression. The first piece is a chance to communicate a positive side of who you are, and the second piece can perhaps show a new side of yourself that we may not have known was there.
GK: Always start with your strongest suit (the piece you connect with the most) that will show who you are most authentically. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be asked to sing a second piece.
RZ: When someone asks what you want to start with, they are inviting you to be in control, and you should embrace that. Start with not what you think will wow the panel, but with the piece you are most comfortable with in that moment.
ArtsBridge: How important is it that my audition material be the same or different from my prescreen material?
VB: Makes absolutely no difference to me. You are already changed as a person by the time you do the live audition, so even the same repertoire is new and different.
GK: Not important at all. The mistake would be to try to replicate/imitate what you did for the prescreen.
RZ: If it’s the same material presented differently, I might be wowed. However, if I were to see exactly the same presentation in both contexts (prescreen, then live audition), I would wonder: “Are you being lazy? Are you just mimicking what you’ve been coached to do?” I might decide to do an improv exercise with a student in an audition in order to investigate.