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On Auditioning

by Ann Penistan

Copyright (c) 2000 Ann Penistan, all rights reserved world-wide

I was based in Germany over the past two years where I had the opportunity to work with an actress in Switzerland. She has had 10 years of experience in the professional theatre and has worked consistently since she started her career. I have changed her name to Marie for confidentiality reasons. She came to me because she had been finding herself in difficulty with auditions and had heard that I may be able to help.

Nerves and feelings of dread were a problem for her days before and after the audition. Within a short time of our working together, she had many insights and a deeper understanding of her difficulties. She began to enjoy the auditioning process and was learning many things about her experiences. This was a big change from the nervousness and twisted state she often found herself in during the days surrounding the audition.

The issues Marie and I embarked upon are not particularly unique to her. I have worked with numerous actors, musicians, and dancers over the years and these sorts of problems have often come up. It struck me as we were working that because these sorts of issues are so common it might be helpful for others if I wrote an article about her process. Therefore, with her permission, I have used her classes to put this across as clearly as I can.

The issues she had with auditioning are common among performers, though it is rare that these are seen as problems that can be conquered. Often audition nerves and the various symptoms that accompany them are the brunt of many jokes and given free reign at dinner parties or in the pub. They are treated as a given in the process of auditioning. Entertaining these stories are, however, do the nerves and other surrounding problems have to be accepted as an integral part of auditioning?  These are very unpleasant experiences and unfortunately, the unpleasantness goes on for much longer than the actual ten or fifteen minutes most auditions take. Some people are caught up days before and sometimes for days after the experience.

When all goes well at the audition people feel good and often don’t think about it much afterwards. All too often, though, it is more likely for auditions to go badly, causing more symptoms and raising more issues.

Here are some of the common issues that come up:

  horror images of all the things that will go wrong in the
    audition,
  imagining how you should read the script for the audition
    the very first time you read it,
  wondering how to perform your piece to impress them,
  wanting to do a good audition and afraid of not doing a
    good one,
  wanting to act better,
  wanting to prove you are good enough, yet feeling that
    you are not good enough,
  feeling bad after the audition and going over and over it,
  self-consciousness about “Am I going to look right?”

With these issues also come a variety of symptoms:

  dry mouth and throat,
  unsettled for a few days before and after the audition,
  nervousness and anxiety,
  feeling vocally stressed or tired,
  feeling physically not prepared,
to name just a few…

Ways people find of dealing with the symptoms and getting through the audition:

  spending loads of time and using a variety of methods to get to
    a place of feeling calm and centred,
  convincing yourself that you are fine (though not very
    convincingly),
  minutes before the audition doing amazing amounts of breathing
    to calm yourself down (though not very successfully),
  afterward, telling yourself, “It doesn’t matter anyway”, and
    coming up with excuses for not getting it, like “not being right
    for what they want”).

What if auditions could be an opportunity to learn about one’s experiences; an opportunity to make some changes, as opposed to getting caught into the same traps and insecurities that seem to keep coming up with alarming consistency?

Would it be possible to be on a path leading to more effective and skilful auditioning instead of searching for ways to soothe the symptoms?  So often many of the things we do to relieve the symptoms do not work. If they work, we are happy for the time being, but, often, eventually the symptoms come rushing back.

Though some people learn by themselves to cope with the demands of auditioning, there are times when these unpleasant symptoms do not go away and then we need help. If we could discover what was behind these unpleasant symptoms and find the real causes of the issues would we then have the information we need to know how to proceed?  In my experience, the discoveries and the learning are abundant when we start to uncover what is going on with both the problems and our ideas about how to make things better. We can then understand the problem and take steps to change it.
 

The Classes

This unpleasant and
nerve-wracking
experience had
become a familiar
and repeated situation

When working with Marie on her auditioning process we began to uncover a number of problems that she kept coming up against. She was having her first experiences with film auditions, though she had previously done a lot of theatre auditioning. I asked her if this current pattern of problems was different for her from those when auditioning for the theatre. It had been a while since she had done any auditioning, but no, this wasn’t that different for her. The theatre auditions had the same nervousness, upsets, and lack of confidence that she was going through with these film and television auditions. This unpleasant and nerve-wracking experience had become a familiar and repeated situation for her whenever she had any audition coming up.

To begin, I asked her at what point did she start to become concerned or uncomfortable about an audition. She said the moment the fax came in with a script for an audition. I asked her to trace what happened the moment the fax came in—to describe as accurately as she could what she was doing and what were the actual events, thoughts and feelings that happened when the fax came in.

“As soon as I hear the fax machine go off and I know it is the script I have to look at, I think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to look at it’. Then I think, ‘Oh, I have to look at it’. After that, I think, ‘Oh, I don’t feel so good. I have to do something to make myself feel better to be in a good frame of mind to look at it.’ So I’ll go for a walk or do something I like to do to make myself feel better. When I feel better, I think, ‘Oh no, I have to look at the script’, and I will start to feel worse again. So I will go and do something to make myself feel better.

If the audition is three days away, this can go on for one and a half days. So then eventually I will force myself to look at the script. At that point I don’t know what to do to learn it and I think I should know. When I sit down with the script I feel bad because I think I should know what this is about.”

During this process, Marie said that she felt very uncomfortable. She felt sick because she didn’t know the script when she thought she should. When she really didn’t want to look at the fax this would be accompanied by tension in her neck and face as well as being nervous in her stomach. She was aware of feeling generally pulled down and scrunched into herself when she was caught in the middle of these thoughts. These feelings were what she wanted to change so that she would be in what she thought was a better state to look at the script.

When she finally got around to forcing herself to look at the script, this is what followed:

“I start thinking I don’t know what to do with the script. I begin to wonder what they will want from me. Then I start to think about how to impress them so they’ll think, ‘WOW, she is really good’. As I go back to focusing on the script I begin to think, ‘I’m not going to be any good at this audition’. So I will focus harder to learn the script and try not to think about the audition so I can learn the script.

I really want to do a good audition and I can’t do a good audition when I’m going through all this.”

Thoughts that she has
to impress people and
that unpleasant things
might happen in the
audition...

All this was also accompanied by feeling sick and nervous and physically scrunched in. Interestingly, these feelings only came up when she was working on a script for an upcoming audition. If the script wasn’t for an audition, she could pick it up and not get any of these feelings.

As we explored this contrast, it became clear that before an audition when she has these feelings, she also has a whole interpretation that comes into the actual moment. The thoughts of the audition three days away are rarely thoughts of how wonderful it will be. They are most often thoughts conjuring up shivers and nervousness; thoughts that she has to impress people and that unpleasant things might happen in the audition.

In order to help Marie see her ideas and interpretations in the very moment she is feeling uncomfortable, we took a closer look at what she was caught in:

“I start thinking I don’t know what to do with the script.”

This is actually true, as at this point she had not looked at the script. However, to not know what to do with the script was, for her, a bad thing and inappropriate. She felt she should know. Her idea that she should know did not fit the actual reality that she doesn’t know the script at this point. It does not feel good to fight reality.

Marie wasn’t actually taking in the fact that, at that moment, she can’t possibly know. To not know then is not a bad thing or a good thing. It is simply what is true at the moment.

Next she says:

“I begin to wonder what they will want from me. Then I start to think about how to impress them so they’ll think ‘wow, she is really good’”.

Looking more closely, she could see that in this moment she has no information about what they will want, and she has no information as to what will impress them. This is impossible for her to know. How could she manage to impress the people auditioning her if she didn’t actually know what they would want to see and hear because she didn’t even know them let alone be able to get inside their heads?   Since she doesn’t know what they want, and she believes she should, it makes sense for her to feel like she won’t do a good audition. However, she had put a lot of energy and time into precisely these things and was constantly finding herself more and more caught and feeling terrible.

In addition, she could see that trying to act better was a pretty tall order since she didn’t know how well or badly she would be acting once she got to the audition. In addition, if she thinks she won’t do a good audition it makes sense for her not to feel good because of course a bad audition is not what she wants.

This vicious cycle actually
makes sense within the
terms of her interpretation

Given that she is having a difficult time, at this point she has to force herself to read the script, but this forcing simply augments more of the upset feelings. From her usual way of seeing things, it makes absolute sense to walk away until she feels better, which, of course, is what she sometimes did.

Understanding the Vicious Circle:

It was important for her to understand how this vicious cycle actually makes sense within the terms of her interpretation. Most of the worry and fear of looking at the script had to do with her thoughts of wanting to impress the people auditioning her; or her thinking she should know this script; or her trying to figure out what they want from her; or her trying to fix herself up so she would feel better. These are the thoughts and reactions happening at the same moment she has her symptoms. The symptoms had nothing to do with the actual audition which was still a number of days away. Yet, the ‘audition’ was already becoming a ‘problem’. Needless to say, by the time she actually got to there she was feeling pretty bad about it all.

To her, every time a script arrived she would get the same thoughts and feelings. Thus, each incoming fax was reinforcement that the script and the audition will not feel good because she always feels the same way each time. This is how she is caught in the cycle. To her, learning the script is difficult; auditions are full of hard work and strife and feeling twisted up inside.

It is important to note the significance of the fact that, at this point, the audition was still some days ahead. There was no audition happening during this unpleasant experience of working on the script so we can see it is not the actual audition that is causing the problem, so much as all the unconstructive thoughts and feelings that are coming up in the moment. This may seem obvious, but it was not at all obvious to Marie. We discovered that in the middle of the moment when she was feeling those symptoms, she actually believes it to be true that she must find a way to impress the people auditioning her. She was actually experiencing those horrible things that could go wrong in the audition as if they are happening at that very moment.

The lessons were getting all
the information about her
experiences out on the table

Thus she began to associate these feelings with the audition itself and not with what she was actually thinking and imagining in the moment that she was experiencing her symptoms.

At this point in the lessons, what she and I were doing was to get all the information about her experiences out on the table. At least as much as she knew of at the time. All this information comes from her direct, actual experience. As we explored around the problem a few times, she began to see more clearly the sequence of events that lead to the experiences she found herself in and what she would then habitually do in the face of those upset feelings:

She would experience feeling bad and would then not want to look at the script. She would think, “Oh I HAVE to look at the script”, and then feel even worse. So she would go and try to do something to feel better. However, it didn’t take many questions from me for her to realise that anything she had tried to get rid of these symptoms had not worked.
 

Doing Something and Finding Ourselves in Something:

Here it was essential to help Marie distinguish the difference between finding herself caught in something and her actually doing something. She often found herself in uncomfortable feelings or thoughts. She had not done them to herself. She was not walking around thinking, “Oh there is the fax, now I have to make myself feel bad about it”. She was finding herself not wanting to look at it, and finding herself feeling bad about it. The bad feelings when the faxes come in were happening to her—she was not doing the bad feelings. Yet she had been trying to undo or change them.

In a similar way, she felt she could not work on the script if she wasn’t in the “right frame of mind”. She had an idea that she had to be in a different place from where she was in order to learn the script, yet that “right frame of mind” never seemed to stay around for very long, even if she was lucky enough to find herself in it at all.
 

The Delusion of Changing the Feeling:

Do we actually have the ability to change our thoughts or feelings at will?  Have you ever tried to think yourself happy?  Or to be fine when you know very well you are feeling absolutely dreadful?  Or to simply be able to stop being nervous by choice?  These experiences are not things we do and therefore can undo—they are responses or reactions. Marie had been thinking they were caused by the audition, were inappropriate, and should not be happening. Therefore she had to change them.

However, her feelings of nervousness and tension are absolutely appropriate to how she perceived things. But it was not the audition that was making her feel bad. It feels bad to be trying to force yourself to change your feelings in order to look at a script. It feels bad to be imagining unpleasant things happening in the audition as if they were real. Thus her feelings were continually accurate to her interpretation.

We can understand why
trying to change the
symptoms doesn't work

If we can see how the experience of all these symptoms is appropriate and ‘natural’ given the interpretation, we can understand why trying to change the symptoms doesn’t work. It also doesn’t give us any information to help us learn about how we got to this uncomfortable place to begin with, and why we keep coming back to it. By unravelling the thoughts as well as the reactions behind these experiences we begin to see that it is the person’s idea or belief system that is the problem. The symptoms are simply the experience of what it feels like to live under these ideas.

If we are trying to do something that is impossible, our highly-evolved system will let us know this by giving us a wake-up call that something is wrong—tension and feeling uncomfortable, or anxiety and feeling sick, etc. From this point of view, tension is the experience of trying to change something you cannot change; a continual trying that cannot go anywhere. Unfortunately, Marie was trying to change all these feelings of tension and difficulty and sickness without actually understanding what was creating them. How can we actually change something if we don’t know what is the problem in the first place?
 

The Wake-up Call

The wake up call is the moment when we are aware of something being wrong or funny or odd. This is our beautifully designed system screaming out that there is a problem, but so often we misinterpret that feeling and think it (the feeling) is the thing we have to change.

By getting this information out on the table Marie was able to see where she was caught, and the series of events that had preceded this. With this information about what was really causing the problem it was possible for her to start to make some experiments to actually change it. Since she had a number of auditions coming up soon we had a perfect opportunity.
 

The Experiment

I reviewed what we had uncovered so far. When the fax comes in she thinks, “No, I do not want to look at this”. She experiences the dread, but then the thought comes, “but I have to look at it”. This increases her tension and conflict, until she takes the action, or better put, the reaction of going away to do something else to get rid of the feelings and thoughts, so that she would be in a better state later to work. The symptoms happened to her, she didn’t do them, but she did do the ‘trying’ to change her feelings. This is what she always did.

A practical experiment to find
out what would happen if she
didn't do what she always did

So, what we had uncovered suggested a very practical experiment. To find out what would happen if she didn’t do what she always did.

The next time a fax comes in, and IF she is aware of the wake-up call of feeling uncomfortable when she is thinking, “NO I DO NOT WANT TO LOOK AT THIS, OH, I HAVE TO”, that she actually make a choice to not take the next step she usually takes: the deciding to go away and do something else in order to feel better. Instead, she could make an experiment to actually find out what happens if she just allows herself to feel what she is feeling and to not try to change this in any way. To look at the script with all these horrible feelings still happening.

Every ounce of her being will be screaming out to run away from this script since this is her habit and habit is a sneaky and powerful thing.

In the face of all these feelings, what would happen if she didn’t buy into the habit but instead to simply go on allowing herself to feel what she is feeling and think what she is thinking?  To let that which is happening to happen and to not react to it.
 

Marie’s Learning

Over the next few classes Marie discussed her experiments. She was finding that the more practice she had in simply letting herself feel bad as she looked at her script and not go into reaction over it the more the difficult feelings were beginning to dissipate.

She was able to look at her script with those feelings, and if she didn’t react she found she could read the script more easily. Each time she noticed she was beginning to imagine what she should do with the script before she even knew what it meant, she was be able to recognise that she was trying to figure out something she wasn’t ready to do yet. This gave her the information that she didn’t know the script yet and to approach it without trying to figure it out.

She was becoming increasingly aware of when she was hurling herself into the future of the audition. As she experimented she discovered she did this much more than she had realised. With the practice of not taking the next step into her habit, she also found that she no longer had to do anything to make herself feel better. She discovered that looking at the script was becoming much less complicated.

She was able to recognise more quickly when she was trying to act the script for the people auditioning her, when, in actual fact, she was just reading it for the second or third time to find out what is was about. Reading the script to find out what it was about gave her more information about the script and also was an experience of ease as opposed to feeling sick and pulled down or scrunched.

Over the next few months she was caught in her dread and imagination less and less. When she was finding herself caught in her habit she was becoming better and better with not trying to change her feelings or make herself different so that she would be “OK”.

She was feeling better about the
whole process and also began to
get some film and television work

Her auditions were getting easier and she was learning much about the auditioning process. She was feeling better about the whole process and actually enjoying herself. She also began to get some film and television work.

A few months later she was asked to audition for a theatre company she had once worked for. The roles she was auditioning for were very exciting to her. She found many of her old habits were coming back in force as this particular audition provided a large stimulus for her nerves and anxiety to kick in. I was not in Switzerland at the time so she sent me an e-mail and we arranged a couple of classes over the telephone.

She has articulated the events of this audition extremely well in her e-mails. They also show how much she had learned and was continuing to learn:

“Thank you so much for all your help with these audition issues. The actual event went fine and I'm noticing a nice lack of the guilt that often follows.

By the time I was waiting outside the door for the audition my experience had changed from other times; instead of trying to be in an acceptable state to perform I was making a conscious choice to not do any thing to change my state or escape the feelings of fear and anxiety washing over me. I made this choice about once every 3 seconds as my urge to do deep breathing, pace or get drinks of water to make myself feel more adequate was very strong. However I recognised that doing things to change my state was part of a whole cycle of ‘I must fix myself up, I'm not good enough like this,’ and I wanted to see what sitting and waiting was like if I didn't get into that.

Then I would worry about my audition, imagining myself in the room, with all kinds of horrible things happening to me. Luckily I had had some practice in noticing this from the work we did on film auditions, and from the constant practice of the last three days. (There had been a six-hour break last evening when I noticed that I was not projecting myself into the audition, and while this was pleasant, I felt peculiar too, as if a waterfall had stopped.)

My original intention of “doing a good audition” had changed to “see what happens if I don't try to impress them, don't try to act better, and don't try to change my state in order to act”. (This may seem like a tall order but it came out of what I had been experiencing.)

The experience I had was very pleasant, awkward at first, and quite playful after that. Sometimes I would notice I wanted to “act better” but I didn't make a big deal of it or have a big reaction; wanting to act better seems so usual for me it would be a surprise if I didn't feel that way. I feel I’ve learned a lot about my own experience with this audition, and since that had become my intention I feel really good. I would need more experiences like this to make more conclusions.

I also hope I get the part.”

She did.
 

Addendum

It is now nine months from the time we started. After reading this article she wanted to add a few things. She says she realises how far she has come because she is rarely caught in these issues anymore and some of them are completely gone. She also added:

“While being caught up in all this, I didn’t think it was unusual that it was taking me so long to learn the script. It wasn’t unusual because most actors I know have trouble with auditions. We all talk about it and nobody likes them. But I didn’t like the feeling of dread before I could look at the script. And it seemed to me a bit of a waste of time to spend one and a half days feeling dreadful and not getting any work done. If I forced myself to look at the script while feeling dreadful, no work was done. And if I took a break until I felt better I would only feel dreadful again when I started.

I never questioned my feeling of, ‘I hope I do a good audition’. Never questioned, ‘I want to work hard to do a good audition’. If I asked myself what is a good audition I wouldn’t know but I was sure other people know. I never questioned the impossibility of doing something that I didn’t know much about. What is a good audition?  I didn’t know what a good audition is. Yet I was trying to achieve one. And why wouldn’t I, as everybody knows a good audition means you get a job.”

~~~~~~

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About the Author

Ann Penistan Ann Penistan began her teaching experience as an Alexander Technique teacher in 1986 with a background in theatre.

She taught privately and at the Ryerson Theatre School as well as with the Northern Lights Dance Company in Toronto, Canada from 1986 to 1993. In 1987 she was the assistant Alexander coach to Kelly McEvenue at the Shaw Festival. She then went on to become the head Alexander Coach and stayed at the Shaw Festival for 10 seasons. From 1989-1994 she was also coaching at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Stratford, Canada. In 1992-1993 she studied voice at the Central School of Speech and Drama for the Advanced Diploma in Voice Studies.

She has worked privately with many of Canada's leading actors for specific projects as well as on-going coaching. Highlights include working privately with Brent Carver throughout his role as Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman, directed by Hal Prince. And with Colm Feore for his role as Glen Gould in 32 Short Films about Glen Gould, directed by Francois Girard.

From 1993-1997 she was the assistant director to David Gorman at the Centre for Training, an Alexander Teacher Training program in London England. The training of teachers gave Ann the opportunity to question and study the process of learning and teaching in depth. The knowledge she reaped from this time has greatly benefited many musicians and actors in their approach to rehearsals, practice and performance.

Ann now uses the LearningMethods work to give workshops to theatre companies, universities, Alexander teachers, and performers across Canada and in Britain, Switzerland and Germany.

Ann Penistan
E-mail:
Web:  www.learningmethods.com/annie/


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