Lights, cameras, action: Theater audition course adjusts to new demands

By Senta Scarborough | Emory Report | Sept. 23, 2020

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Led by assistant theater professor January LaVoy (top row, second from left), students in Theater 289 are learning how to prepare for online auditions.

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When stage lights dimmed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an Emory professor transformed a narrowly focused course preparing students for a theater conference into a master class in auditioning.

January LaVoy, an assistant theater professor and veteran actor, acting coach and voice artist, originally taught auditioning her first semester at Emory last fall.

The class prepped students for theater auditions at the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC), where they performed monologues in hopes of landing summer jobs.

“I had feedback saying they wished it was more than just for SETCs. I started to reconceive the class,” LaVoy says.

Carolyn Oursler, a junior theater major, has taken LaVoy’s class both times.

“Last year it was more like coaching and crafting one strong piece. This year, it’s more of an overview into auditions, techniques and preparation. It is a more well-rounded approach,” Oursler says.

Auditions typically are held in person with casting agents but, when the pandemic hit, taped auditions quickly became the norm.

This fall, nine students sign onto Zoom for the six-week, intermediate theater class, THEA 289 Audition Preparation Online. LaVoy uses breaks and mini sessions to reduce student frustration during the three-hour, Friday afternoon class.

“It doesn’t feel long. The class is fast paced. The information is so interesting …  I think there are aspects that are applicable to other things,” says sophomore Amna Sadig.

A safe place to take risks

Lavoy creates an open, "no stupid questions” safe space for students to experiment. Instead of perfecting one monologue, it’s a deep dive into making a “Do It Yourself” audition tape — learning all steps along the way.

“It’s a pragmatic way of looking at auditions,” LaVoy says. “Two things about auditions: they are job interviews and they offer problems that need solving.”

Early in the pandemic, LaVoy faced her own problem. Her agents got her a pilot audition for the Oprah Winfrey Network, OWN. She taped her audition and then shared the entire process in class — rehearsing, filming, editing and creating a title card for the final product she emailed.

“The idea is that it’s okay to mess up. Pick what works best for you and try something else if it isn’t working,” Sadig says. “I knew the professor was an actress but it was interesting to see her in that environment. It is such a different energy than in class. It inspired me that I could be doing that one day.”

Because of online constraints, the body and breath work included in acting mostly disappear. LaVoy focuses more on the emotional journey. Students pair up to rehearse, then self-tape a monologue to share. The fear of public humiliation is still a challenge, just different.

“On Zoom, you can see their faces watching your audition tape so you get over stage fright and bond over it. In a normal audition, you never see them again, but if it went poorly I have to see them in class next week. It creates a safe place for making mistakes and taking risks,” Oursler says.

Students read a wide range of audition best practices. LaVoy teaches that there’s no one correct method. “It makes the journey much more alive and fun. They are on this quest for their own best practice and that requires them to gauge it at every step. That has been exciting,” LaVoy says.

“It’s a great combo of discussion, technical practice and acting despite our remote learning,” Oursler says, “Taking it twice is definitely a reminder I have a lot more to work on, but seeing my progress is a great feeling.”