Speaking Shakespeare: Drama School Auditions

Sitting on the audition panels for several years for the BA Acting course meant I got to see hundreds if not thousands of auditionees perform their Shakespeare monologues and the ones that stood out the most are, quite simply, those that had a grasp on the emotional landscape of their piece. Of course, it goes without saying, you have to know exactly what you are saying as often Shakespeare can be tricky to unravel, but the most important thing is that you attempt to understand and convey what the character is going through on an emotional level, rather than merely attempting to speak the text beautifully. This is what any audition panel is interested in. A glimpse of you and your own interpretation of the speech. This does require some ground work from us actors of course. We need to fully translate it and understand it on a personal level because the language is different from how we speak.

The language is beautiful but it is not meant to be performed as poetry. Yes it is written in verse but that is merely to guide the actor not restrict them. Finding freedom within the verse is the key and by doing that you must delve into what the character is really saying - what they really mean - what they really want. Translating a speech into your own words is always a very useful thing to do and I get most of my students to do this before even attempting to speak it in Shakespeare’s words. No fear Shakespeare is a great website to help you do this. You may not use the words ‘damned’ or ‘torture’ in your daily life so find out the literal meaning and what it means to you. A character may speak to nature but to them nature may be a real, living, breathing, listening confidant. ‘Thou nature art my goddess’.

A drama school is not looking for someone who speaks Shakespeare beautifully. Thank God we are moving on from that. Studying Shakespeare on an intellectual level does not qualify anyone to perform Shakespeare. The best auditions I have seen and that stick with me to this day are those actors that clearly had never performed Shakespeare, had no pre conceptions of it but yet came into the room and spoke it in their truth, made it their own - believed what they were saying - understood it of course - but lifted it off the page and made me believe those words had never been spoken before. After all, that’s an actor’s job. Being bogged down with the poetic nature of Shakespeare will always slightly hinder you finding your natural flow within it and therefore your audience will never quite believe it.

What Shakespeare does so cleverly and what all auditionees should think about when auditioning for drama school is he provides very clear instructions within the verse and the iambic pentameter (the rhythm he writes his verse in) on which words should be emphasised and where the thoughts go. The punctuation provides all of this. If there are a lot of commas and little full stops, it is indicating that the character’s thoughts are unravelling rapidly: For example Romeo’s highly emotive speech when he confronts the Friar about being banished…

Tis torture and not mercy, heaven is here,

where Juliet lives, and every cat and dog,

and little mouse, every unworthy thing,

live here in heaven, and may look on her,

but Romeo may not. He is banished.

The length of Shakespeare’s thoughts give an indication as to where his characters are emotionally. This is often the same with contemporary speeches. So let the punctuation guide you and don’t be a slave to it.

We teachers tell you not to intellectualise things and then we contradict ourselves by telling you to do all this ground work but as with any rehearsal, we actors need to do all of that ground work to enable us to eventually effortless perform it. We must put that work in first in order for us to then forget about the ‘work’ and just be in the moment and be free. That’s always an actors’ main goal and process: finding freedom.

So to summarise: always looks for the truth. Understand what you are saying. Translate it and make it mean something to you. Use the punctuation to guide you on the thoughts in the speech. Find the natural flow. Speak it in your own accent, your voice - not a voice you think Shakespeare should be spoken in.

And If your character is going through something so huge that you cannot relate, look around you. It doesn’t take much for us to find things in the world that Shakespeare’s characters are going through. Look at Romeo & Juliet. Two lovers wanting to be together but can’t due to their families beliefs. Well, we don’t have to look far to see this in our world today do we?

Check out my upcoming auditioning for drama school online summer course on the website. If you want to know more about auditioning for drama school go to the contact me page.

Lee Knight

The Audition Room

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