How to Find Mental Focus in the Audition Room

Originally published by Backstage October 6, 2011

Photo of Holly Powell with a student.

You can do anything for three minutes. That’s what I tell the actors in my audition workshops. Just like the focused athlete walking onto the field, diving into the pool, or stepping onto the mound, the actor must achieve a certain mental mindset. Athletes do not hear the screams of the crowd around them. If they allowed themselves to hear the noise of the fans, their mental focus would be lost and the task at hand would be disrupted. If the pitcher found himself thinking about the wife who just divorced him or his dog that just died, he would need to step off the mound, push aside those thoughts, and refocus on his task.

To achieve mental focus, the pitcher thinks of three simple tasks: the pitch selection, the bat, and the catcher’s glove. The mind’s job is to think. You can’t eliminate the thoughts in your head, but you can focus your thoughts on simple tasks. The “voices in your head” will sabotage your audition every time if you don’t have simple tasks to focus on.

I’m sure you all have been in the lobby outside an audition room, looked around, and decided that the actor across the way looks perfect for the part. Or you’ve noticed an actor who has a lot more experience than you. The voices start telling you that you are wrong for the part and won’t get it, so why bother? And then your name is called, and you enter the audition room with these sabotaging thoughts.

As an actor approaching an audition, you should begin your mental focus as soon as you walk into the lobby. Put a “bubble of focus” around yourself, and don’t hear or see the other people in the lobby.

I’m sure many of you reading this article have done theater. Think of when you are in the wings before you make your entrance. You get into your zone, your mental focus, your bubble—whatever you call it—before you take that first step onto the stage. That’s what the audition lobby should be like for you from now on: your offstage mental focus area.

Four Simple Tasks The voices in your head will be trying to work overtime while you are in the lobby, so turn your focus to the following four simple tasks. The information needed to accomplish them is contained in your sides.

1) Sense of place: Where are you in the scene?

2) Relationship: Whom are you talking to in the scene? How do you feel about that person? Whom do you talk about in the scene, and how do you feel about that person?

3) Intention: What do you want at the top of the scene? (Remember, intention changes as the scene goes along.)

4) Pre-beat: What happens or is said the moment before the scene starts? (A scene always starts in the middle of something.)

You need to be specific with visualizations as to place and relationship. If the scene takes place in a restaurant, get specifics in your head as to what the restaurant looks like. If the scene involves a girlfriend and boyfriend, decide how your character feels about him or her, and get a specific visualization of someone in your own life who brings up the correct emotional response. It may not be your real-life love interest at all.

While waiting in the lobby, if other actors try to chat with you or are talking loudly, just remove yourself to a corner, remind yourself that you need the mental focus of an athlete, and concentrate on your four simple tasks.

When they call your name and you walk into the audition room, remember that this is the first moment the auditors are seeing you. First impressions are everything. If you enter the room looking down, looking unfocused, unprepared, and nervous, they may not want to bother taking the three minutes to read you. Walk in with confidence. Look them in the eye and say, “Hello.” If you don’t feel confident, remember that this is part of the audition and fake it.

Once you are in the room, make it your room, not theirs. Part of the problem with walking into an unfamiliar space is the fear of the unknown. You’ve rehearsed the scene in your living room, and this room looks nothing like your living room. The casting director usually provides you with a chair if you like. Spy the chair. Make it the one familiar object from your living room. You get to decide whether you want to use the chair, whether you want to sit or stand, and where you want the chair to be. By controlling the chair, you take control of the room.

Whether chitchat happens or not, get back into your bubble of focus, take five seconds before you begin the scene, and remind yourself of your four simple tasks: sense of place, relationship, intention, and pre-beat.

Look at the reader when you are ready to begin. This helps signal to the reader that you are ready, especially if the reader has the first line. What the auditors want to see is an actor who takes control of the room and is mentally focused, prepared, and ready to go.

Once you start the scene, your mental focus should be only on listening. That is your simple task at hand. It’s entirely possible that the reader will be a bad reader, not looking at you—or worse, trying to act. If you allow yourself to fall into judging the reader’s performance or wondering why he or she isn’t looking at you, you will destroy your mental focus. How many times over the years have I heard actors say, “That casting director reading with me completely threw my audition!”? You will never get back from a reader what you will when working with another actor. So don’t expect to.

This is where your specific visualizations come into play. You must put the face of the person you came up with as your “relationship” onto the face of the reader and hear the sound of the reader’s voice “as if” it were that person’s voice. When you aren’t getting back what you need from another actor, you have to, as Sanford Meisner said, “let the words be enough.” So, since you will never get back from a reader what you need, you have to just listen to the words. This mental focus on listening grounds you in the present. And the biggest compliment a casting director can give an actor is to say, “That actor was so present in their audition.” It’s because the actor was mentally focused on the simple task at hand—listening.

After your reading is over, you need to leave with as much confidence as you came into the room with. If you dash out looking down, they will suspect that you thought you didn’t do a good job and may dismiss you.

So, for only three minutes—from walking into the audition room until walking out of it—the actor should maintain the mental mindset of an athlete. And remember: You can do anything for three minutes.

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