April is known for many things, but actors and performers look forward to this month for one reason in particular: Shakespeare’s birthday.
Every year, across the world, enthusiasts and specialists alike come together to celebrate the Bard and his unrivalled work, from rereading poems to putting on plays. However, this isn’t to say Shakespeare’s work is always easy to access: for many performers, it’s a hard task getting a grasp on his pieces.
Mastering the Shakespeare Audition is the solution for actors of all ages and experience, whether auditioning for a professional role or a place in drama school.
For actors, it’s common to have no idea where to start in preparing a Shakespeare audition speech, yet many auditions require them. Luckily, this handbook, written by drama school legend Donna Soto-Morettini, breaks through the noise, serving as an actionable guide for grasping Shakespeare’s canon.
In this extract below, Soto-Morettini tackles some of the most prevalent fears and anxieties actors have about performing Shakespeare, revealing how there’s no ‘wrong’ way to perform the Bard’s work… except for, counterintuitively, being worried you’re performing it the ‘wrong’ way!
The Particular Fear of Performing Shakespeare
I have just done a rough calculation of how many Shakespeare monologues I’ve heard in auditions over the span of my career so far. I won’t bore you with the maths, but I think it comes to well over 8,000. You learn quite a lot after all those experiences, even if you weren’t particularly expecting to. But perhaps the most important things I’ve learned have had to do with the level of fear that the Shakespeare monologue and Shakespeare’s language inspires in most actors.
There are many things that frighten us: spiders, heights, wide open spaces, small enclosed spaces, death, the loss of a loved one, but whatever it is we fear, there are only two things that can lessen that fear: knowledge and experience. I’m not suggesting for a minute that knowledge and experience will dismantle fear – far from it. They can, however, lessen fear in most cases – and increased familiarity with anything can take some of the edge off of fear.
I’m going to try to tackle the fear of Shakespeare; of his language, of the ‘rules’ of performing Shakespeare; and the fear of doing Shakespeare monologues in this book. I’m going to try to do that in the most efficient, simple and straightforward way that I can. But in order for you to get the most out of all this, you’ll need to try to let go of some of your fear – especially the three fears I most often encounter: fear of getting it wrong, fear of being a ‘hammy’ actor and the fear of not knowing where to start.
1. ‘I’m afraid I’ll get it wrong’
I hear this often when I’m working with actors, but if you’ve carefully prepared and spent the recommended amount of time here on your preparation, you can’t be wrong.
You can be dull. You can be irritating. You can be too quiet. You can be fake. You can be emotionally rather empty. You can be fuzzy and unspecific. But you can’t be wrong. This applies not only to your audition monologue as you perform it, but also to your preparation work in this book.
As long as you’ve read through each section and you understand what you are trying to do, you can’t be WRONG. For every exercise, I’ve provided a couple of different ways to do them in the ‘sample’ sections – but we are not talking about science here. We are talking about ART. And art means never having to say you are wrong.
But, of course, art also means ALWAYS having to say you are prepared and that you’ve put many hours into that preparation. Art also means bringing your passion to whatever it is you do.
You won’t find out exactly how to connect your heart with performance in this book. You won’t find out how to do that in ANY book. But if you start with curiosity and some ability to empathize with others, with a little work you’ll get better and better at finding out just how well you can express what’s in your heart through Shakespeare’s incredible words.
2. I’m afraid of being too ‘hammy’ or ‘over the top’
We’ve looked briefly at how quieter, mumbled sounds can sometimes feel ‘natural’ and ‘conversational’ to actors and we know that these sounds aren’t adequate to the task we are going to be attempting here. That means we need to work on getting comfortable with making bigger, bolder, more expressive vocal choices when we work on this heightened text.
Before we give in to this fear, however, we need to ask what ‘hammy’ or ‘over the top’ means. Is it possible to be ‘hammy’ if you are working with what feels truthful to you and that which feels connected to the imagined world of the text around you? I have seen actors make extraordinarily big choices, but they weren’t ‘over the top’ because the actor had such a strong sense of belief in what they were doing. This means that your real fear isn’t about being big, or ‘over the top’ – it is about not being able to believe in yourself or in your imagined world.
The more we work with bigger sounds and the more we strengthen the sense of our imagined world, the less powerful this fear will feel for you.
3. ‘I don’t know where to start with Shakespeare’
This is the third most common worry I hear when working with actors and it is also the main reason why most actors simply throw themselves into an emotionally charged reading of a monologue from the start and then follow that up with a couple of hours of trying to cram the piece into their memory.
I promise you that once you work your way through this book, you’ll have a lot of ideas and a lot of tools to employ in the process of preparing and performing a Shakespeare audition and you’ll grow more comfortable with the idea of leaving emotion and rote memorization aside in the early phases of the work.
To that end, we’ll be using some powerful weapons that will take us right to heart of what each monologue is about, how it is structured, what kinds of expressive sounds we have at our disposal and what kinds of clues to meaning and action lie buried within the text itself. Once we’ve done all that work, we’ll be ready to play.
Once you let go of these fears and get through all our preparatory work, your final job is to enjoy playing.
Shakespeare wrote plays, yes?
And you can’t play with the big ideas and the big passions that he wrote about, if you are worrying about being wrong or ‘over the top’. Because no one wrote more playfully, more passionately, more enjoyably for an actor than he did. So, although we are going to start with some technical things (the mastery of which will set us free), the job you have, once we begin the acting part, is simply to play – the way you did when you were a child.
Remember that feeling? The one you had when you were younger and you decided to be a detective? Or a bank robber? Or a monster? You just did it, didn’t you? You just threw yourself into that world and pretended that it really did exist. That’s all you need to do in the later phases of experiment and exploration here. Remember that feeling of playing with abandon. Without being judged. Just throwing yourself in at the deep end of imagination and enjoying the feeling of exercising every creative muscle you have.
There’s a reason it is important to keep this in mind while you are working and it is this: The dullest, most uninspiring Shakespeare performances that I see are almost always the result of the performer worrying that they will get Shakespeare wrong. You might just have to trust me if what I’m about to say feels counter-intuitive BUT – it is much better to put your heart into risking your quirky, one-of-a-kind interpretation in a bold way than it is to be careful and worried about being wrong…