An actor recently asked me about the timing of using a coach. She’s applying to grad schools and wants to work with me on her audition.
“I’m still finding my pieces, but how much should I work on them by myself before I work with you? I want to know I’ve got good pieces, and I kind of need to work with them to know that, but I don’t want to get into any bad habits with them.”
A Great Question
It’s a great question. And I think she’s wise to know she needs to actually wrestle with the monologues in order to know if they’re right for her. To know if there’s a “there there” to use a snippet of Gertrude Stein.
Of course, I work with actors all the time on pieces they’ve had for some time. Sometimes that's the reason they want the coaching, to bring a fresh pair of eyes to a piece they’ve lived in for a while. Most often I work with actors on sides for specific auditions, so—usually—they’ve only had the material for a very short period of time. That has its own advantages and disadvantages. Finding and working up your own monologues, whether they be for EPAs, agent auditions, or schools, is a different animal.
My answer to this actor?
“Don’t memorize, sure. That gets you into habits before you know it. But do work on them. To a point. That point is the binary Yes or No moment. Think of it as a traffic light with only two colors: green and red. As you’re reading the pieces over and over (including the whole script—of course), asking questions about the character, the situation, the language, just keep your mind open to that moment when you’ve enough information to light up the traffic light. It will be either green or red. You’ll know the moment. That moment would be the best time for you to book your first session.”
I’m looking forward to working with her on whatever she finds.
 I had a wonderful acting teacher in school (who’s still a good friend and colleague) who recommended the follow way to read a script for the first time:
Set aside two to three quiet hours, depending on the length of the play. Pour yourself a drink—tea, scotch, water, whatever—sit in a comfortable chair in a well-lit place and read the play straight through. Maybe get up to pee where the intermission break would be, but that's it. Don’t take notes, don’t worry about your part, just read to enjoy the story.
This is excellent advice. I follow it to this day. With bourbon.