As a former student in ENG220, a.k.a. Intro to Shakespeare, I considered it a natural extension of what I learned during that course to audition for Hart House Theatre’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet. The opportunity seemed worthwhile, if only because it would provide interesting material for an article. But, I must admit, I briefly pondered the doors that might open if I actually snagged a role. I had, after all, played a driven defence attorney in a grade-school production of The Trial of Goldilocks. Besides, I had an entirely theoretical knowledge of Shakespeare, thanks to ENG220.
The week before the audition, I primed myself with a few quick readings of the speech I had decided to deliver when my time came to enter the spotlight: Viola’s passion-filled monologue about disguises and gender-bending from Twelfth Night.
The Thursday afternoon of my audition, I strode with purpose to Hart House with a half hour to spare, propelled by the small rushes of adrenaline warming my chest. I hurried up to the third floor and walked towards the small waiting space just outside the South Sitting Room, and my sense of purpose bubbled as I sat among the other hopeful actors.
But as I began to take in my surroundings, the warmth of adrenaline I had been enjoying dispersed and immediately thereafter seemed to drain directly from my armpits. As I looked at the faces of my competitors, I could feel their intensity. Some held practice sheets in their laps, reading silently but studiously. A Juliet-type paced the floor with her hands clasped behind her back, wearing a floor-length dress that screamed “Elizabethan maiden.” Another sat on the floor with her arms huddled around her legs, muttering in panicked tones.
As I glanced at the professional headshots that many of the actors had with them, I realized that the Facebook profile picture I had submitted to the judges paled in comparison. It seemed a good moment to review the advice professor Philippa Sheppard, an experienced Shakespeare scholar here at U of T , had given me the evening before.
“For amateur actors, often the toughest aspect of an audition is what to do with the body,” Sheppard had told me. “Stiff arms by your sides is to be avoided, but so is semaphore. The auditioning actor needs to think carefully about how to punctuate the monologue with just enough movement, facial expression, and gesture to keep it exciting, but also natural, and to show the director that you know how to fill ‘the empty space.’
“Variety of pacing, volume and tone is important. Having said that, clear diction and good projection of the voice is a must.”
Although I tried to focus on coming up with ways to fill “the empty space” of the audition area, it was impossible to block out the other auditions that were going on inside the South Sitting Room. I heard a variety of exciting, loud and confident deliveries, which made me feel even more anxious. The muffled footsteps that I heard coming from the audition room were even more disconcerting, since I had only practiced Viola’s speech from the comfort of a chair.
“Well, she could be delivering those lines from a chair,” I thought to myself, as I began to fret over how to combine a coherent reading with fluid physical expressions.
The audition schedule was running a bit behind, and the extra time spent considering how to best present the speech boosted my morale slightly. When Carter, a bright-faced member of the judging panel, finally stepped out to call my name, I responded with a jaunty smile and stepped into the room, shoulders back, and chin held high. I tried my best to look like a dignified Viola.
I was warmly received by the judging panel — Lucy, Jeremy, and Carter — who asked a few administrative questions.
“So, have you acted in any productions before?” inquired Jeremy, the play’s artistic director, with a friendly smile.
“Ah. No,” I replied after deciding not to tell the judges that The Trial of Goldilocks was the pinnacle of my acting experience. I tried to flash a charming smile, dripping with confidence, but thanks to the tension in my lower cheeks and jaw, I probably produced more of a threatening grimace.
The realization that I could hardly sustain a real life conversation, let alone a convincing Shakespearean monologue, completely threw me, and my audition pretty much unraveled from there.
Contrary to my plans, I fumbled with my playbook and stammered frequently through a speech often recognized for its daring analysis of gender norms. About halfway through, I added a stiff flap of my wrists, hoping to incorporate some dynamism. After croaking, “It is too hard a knot for me t’untie,” I reluctantly looked up from the stained spot of wood on the floor, to which my eyes had been glued. To my shock I was met with easy smiles on all three judges’ faces.
“I’m a writer for The Varsity!” I confessed, hoping to justify the monstrosity that had just occurred.
“I knew that” said Jeremy kindly.
Taking the opportunity to pick their brains, I asked what sort of audition was most likely to earn hopefuls a lead role.
“Something different and refreshing,” explained Lucy, the publicity coordinator.
“We are sitting here for hours, so anything that stands out is a good thing,” Carter added.
The judges went on to assure me that it is not necessary to have acting experience in order to secure a role in Hart House’s productions, and that their choice depends almost entirely on audition performance. And, while they may have been sitting in the audition room for quite some time, the judges were in good humour, happily answering my questions and never betraying a hint of any of the harsh criticism that I had come to expect from my theatrically-inclined friends’ audition horror-stories.
Chatting with the judges helped ease my embarrassment. I am still more than happy to revel in Shakespeare’s noble craft, but I’m evidently best suited to be a humble spectator. Or perhaps my moment of dramatic glory will come behind the scenes of the production. I think I’d make a pretty good stagehand.