Know When to Break the Rules—Part I

The wonderful and awful thing about acting is its subjectivity. In a business where so much is dependent on the opinions of others—be they auditor, director or audience—it can be hard to know where to begin. This is why there are rules.

Every acting book we read, every class, program and internship we’ve completed, are all aimed at honing our technique as actors. Think about all the master classes that tell you exactly what to wear and what not to wear to an audition. Or the guest speakers that break down how to choose and cut the perfect monologue. Any form of acting education is designed to deconstruct acting as a business and give you specific tools you need to help you succeed.

Being well-versed in the “rules” of acting is, in my opinion, a hugely important foundation for a career in theatre and film. Obviously in any theory of acting, there are going to be elements that you find helpful and elements you don’t. But no matter how much raw talent you have, technique shows. It’s what makes the difference between a polished audition and a sloppy one. It tightens comedy, finesses tragedy and, from what I have observed of the seasoned actors I most respect, ultimately is a big part of what makes a career sustainable. I am enormously grateful for the education I have received, and believe that my instructors’ focus on acting as a business continues to give me a leg up on auditioning and navigating the tricky waters of an early career. It pays to know the rules.

It is only through my own experience that I am starting to learn the equally important caveat: know when to break them.

It’s a tough line to walk, and there’s a lot of ground to cover, so this week we’ll focus on the visuals:

What Thou Shalt Not Wear (Except When You Do)

What to wear to an audition used to give me some truly unnecessary anxiety. I took detailed notes in auditioning classes, read lists of fashion faux pas made by “rookie” actors, and believed with impunity every authority who ever proclaimed that the right outfit could make or break an audition. I spent an embarrassing portion of my time trying to dress the part but not too much, trying to wear the right colors, cuts and materials, and just generally trying not to offend. So I ended up looking inoffensive and not much else.

In general, it is important to dress appropriately. You don’t want to distract from your performance, or look unprofessional. But once you know the basics of theatre versus film, and what flatters your body type, and what level of formality suits the occasion, you have to layer in your own personal style. After all, you are the product, and they need to know what they’re getting. Also, wearing what intuitively feels right to you will help you feel comfortable and confident. Sometimes adding in these final layers can mean sacrificing a rule or two. But when you show up at the open call and you stand out just enough from the thirty other twenty-somethings who look interchangeable, knowing which rules to break will pay off. Find what works for you, but here is when I break the rules of what not to wear:

1) When overanalyzing the rules is giving me too much anxiety and getting me in my head.

2) When I feel an intuitive character connection to an outfit I would not otherwise have selected. The audition is the most important thing, and if a slightly less “perfect” outfit feels right, sometimes it’ll put you in a good headspace.

3) When clothing affects the way I move in an audition. Shoes are a big thing to watch. For women, heels are pretty standard audition wear, but if I’m auditioning for a Shakespeare play and I need to be physically grounded to carry some weighty text, I go with flats.

4) When I know a director’s specific tastes. For example, I recently auditioned for a director I know to be especially visually-oriented. Since the role in question was a historical figure, I broke a number of rules to fit the part. I wore clothing that, while not my usual audition choice, subtly suggested the silhouette of the period; I wore more dramatic makeup and more jewelry than I ever do for auditions. I didn’t “dress the part” as I might have for certain film auditions, but I broke some rules to make visual suggestions.

5) When I just need to. Sometimes I just need to shake it up. And sometimes that gives me an edge.

Unfortunately, knowing when to break the rules is a difficult concept to teach, because it’s easy to overdo, and it’s different for everyone. But I think it’s an important concept for young actors to learn. You should know the rules. You should make use of the tools and technique you have been taught. But when you’re out there on your own you should also start to customize yourself. Take some risks, and learn to listen to your gut. The more you audition and perform professionally, the more you’ll know what that means to you.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com

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