The Sins of Sor Juana

What Are Drama Schools Looking For? An interview with acting coach and director Lise Olson

There’s no denying that getting into drama school can be an arduous affair. I often tell my students that there are a myriad of reasons why a school could ultimately decide not to offer them a place and many of those reasons may have absolutely nothing to do with ability. As true as this is, it still doesn’t quite numb the sting of getting rejected from somewhere you had your heart set on.

So what is it that a drama school is really looking for?

You don’t have to look very far to become overwhelmed by the plethora of contradictory information in circulation, which makes it very difficult to know who and what to listen to. I come across simple misconceptions and bad advice all the time and it never fails to surprise me. In an attempt to try and find some clarity, I reached out to acting coach and director Lise Olson.

Lise has been auditioning people internationally for UK drama schools for 17 years and currently leads the MA in Acting at the Birmingham School of Acting. She is the recipient of directing awards in both the US and UK, and her West End credits include The Witches of Eastwick, Coyote on a Fence and A View From The Bridge. Last year she directed the European Premiere of The Sins of Sor Juana for BSA.

I was very eager to get her opinion on some of the most common questions I receive.

Lise Olson

Lise Olson

What are you looking for in someone auditioning for drama school?

I would say that we are looking for someone with potential for training. This includes being available to new ideas and generosity to others (if there is any group work). Someone with an understanding of what they are saying in their speeches, not just reciting lines.

What are some common mistakes you see people make in auditions?

Trying too hard to ‘stand out’, making the audition about themselves rather than about the work they are doing, not trying hard enough to push themselves in something that they find difficult. Women not tying hair back for movement work or candidates not wearing appropriate clothing (if you have been told not to wear jeans, don’t wear jeans!). Choosing inappropriate audition material – if you are 18, don’t do King Lear. Don’t act to the side wall. Don’t hide – put your imaginary scene partner downstage. I personally don’t like people staring into my eyes when they are doing auditions. I need to be able to break away and take notes. I am not your scene partner! People on the panel have a job to do and you will be seen and assessed more clearly if you don’t ‘use’ us. Of course, this is a personal quibble. Some people don’t mind it.

What are you looking for in my monologue choices?

In the classical piece I am looking for understanding and making sense of the verse. Many classical monologues are written about the big moments and decisions in that character’s life. Let us know what the stakes are. Don’t just recite lines. Discover what that person wants and needs and use the monologue to share that with us. Figure out the problem. Contemporary monologues these days tend to be very televisual. That’s not a problem, as long as it’s not just showing us behaviour. I also (again, this is personal) don’t like speeches that use excessive bad language (learn the difference between some and excessive) or are about child abuse/rape victim trauma (male or female). You can show the same range with a piece about a close personal friend or family.

How important is being able to take direction?

Important. If you don’t open yourself up to new ideas, we will think that you’re inflexible and can only do one thing. I look for actors who are curious about exploration.

The Sins of Sor Juana

The Sins of Sor Juana – Directed by Lise Olson


What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to someone hoping to get in to drama school?

BE YOURSELF!!! We need to see who you are as a person. Are you going to fit in with others? Remember, you’re auditioning the school as much as you’re auditioning for a place. If you don’t like a vibe, it’s probably not the place for you. Don’t be seduced by shiny studios; you can train in lousy facilities and get great training. Talk to current students, they will be the best people to tell you about the school. You are giving up three years (or one in the case of a postgrad) to work on yourself. It’s a luxury few people get. Embrace it. Make the choice that is right for you. If you are all about me, me, me you won’t be happy in a place that fosters ensemble. Every school is different. Do your research, don’t just stress about ‘getting into drama school’.

What should I do if I don’t get in?

If you don’t get in, use your year well. Audition for anything and everything to get more experience, take a foundation course, take part-time classes to up your skills. Sign up for an extras agency and work as an extra on films to see how the industry works. See as much theatre as possible. If this is what you were meant to do, a rejection from drama school won’t stop you. There are many ways into the industry but those who have trained have a solid foundation to begin their work. Try again (choose different pieces!), and then again. If you haven’t got a place after three years of attempts, the universe is perhaps telling you that drama school may not be for you. BUT that doesn’t mean you need to stop acting. Find a home and a place where you can perform if that is your goal. Perfect your craft. Keep the joy!

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