Barring the unforeseen, my first theatrical audition of 2019 will occur this Wednesday. The Public Theatre’s Mobile Shakespeare Tour of The Tempest is holding its EPA call. (Yes, I know. More Shakespeare.) As always, there’s little guarantee of anything ever coming from a required EPA call, but it’s Shakespeare and it’s the Public, so it’s still worth it. And I’ve come to love Tempest, having played Prospero in an outdoor production some years back. There’s no chance of my reprising that role in this new production – even if I give the greatest audition in human history, and even if this city’s theatrical agents somehow all forget to lobby for their clients to get that role, Prospero is being gender-swapped as Prospera this time around. But other roles are available, and for my age and ‘type,’ the role that stands out is Gonzalo, the kindhearted old counselor to the former duke.
On the one hand, auditioning for a Shakespeare production is usually a pretty simple affair – you perform a Shakespeare monologue. We’re all supposed to know a few. Two minutes of verse, tops – more than enough time to demonstrate you know what the heck you’re saying. But remember, if all you’re doing is demonstrating that you know what the heck you’re saying, nobody will care – you’re auditioning for a character, after all. You need to not only show you can reveal character through iambic pentameter, and that you’re right for that specific character.
So, while I do have a selection of go-to Shakespearean monologues, I need a monologue for Gonzalo.
Contemporary monologues? There’s thousands of ‘em. Conservative estimate. Untold numbers of plays from which you can select a two-minute excerpt tailored to any character, any performer, the whims and tastes of any producer or casting director. But for all their glories, there’s only thirty eight Shakespeare plays. (True, there’s also plenty of plays by his contemporaries, like Christopher Marlowe and John Webster, and I dearly love them, but as much fun as they are you usually just get funny looks if you break out a monologue from one of them in an audition room.) Your options for audition material are limited even from the specific play you might be auditioning for – Shakespeare wrote to tell stories, not to provide actors in subsequent centuries with convenient monologues. The dirty little secret about Shakespeare is that most of his famous speeches, while they may form the cornerstone of Western literature, don’t really work as audition pieces.
To demonstrate what I mean, let’s go back to the character of Gonzalo. He spends much of his time as the foil to other characters, speaking in brief exchanges and interjections that are too short for an auditioning actor’s needs. The one big speech that he does have, in which he describes the beauty of Prospero’s island, depends on the other characters mocking Gonzalo as he speaks. It’s elaborate verbal counterpoint on Shakespeare’s part – Gonzalo’s faith and optimism versus the cynicism and cruelty of his companions. Edit that speech so it’s just Gonzalo speaking, taking away the other voices, to do that as an audition monologue, and you lose the whole point.
Now, I do have Shakespearean monologues which do work as stand-alone pieces, which have dramatic arcs and emotional stakes. (It takes time to find them, but I’ve been doing this for a while.) But the trade-off there is that if you perform a monologue like that well, you’re performing as that character, and not the one you’re auditioning for. Do you go in for Gonzalo as the tragic, misguided Richard II, and hope for the best? Do you adjust your interpretation of Richard II in a way that wouldn’t make sense in an actual performance of that play, but is better suited to Gonzalo?
And of course, the million-dollar question at the end – does anybody notice? Or care?
If this seems like a ridiculous amount of over-thinking for two minutes of audition time, that’s because it is. But actors have an awful lot of time to fill in the hours and days before an audition – if you have to fill it with something, it might as well be Shakespeare.