THEATRE / Acting: Two-minute warnings - Final-year drama students get one last chance to impress the professionals. Sabine Durrant reports on the showcase

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It's the moment you've been waiting for. The day you stand in front of a full house, open your arms wide and shout 'Here I am. Take me.'

It's the drama school showcase: when third-year drama students storm a West End theatre to present a programme of short audition pieces before an invited crew of agents, producers and casting directors. A trial by fire, then, but what's it really like? 'A yawning bore'. 'The embarrassment of it all . . .' 'I hate them'. The drama school showcase inspires some damning reactions. And that's just from the audience.

The anonymous sources of these complaints would probably admit, though, that the showcase is a vital part of the theatrical calendar, the formal entry into the profession of another year of actors and actresses; and certainly the auditorium is rarely empty. At Central School of Speech and Drama's Audition Show last week in the Embassy Theatre, Swiss Cottage, there may have been a lot of muttering as the agents clocked the length of the programme and then fought for aisle seats, but they had turned up. And once they're in, as Cecilia Hocking, Principal at the London Academy of Performing Arts, says grimly, 'the doors are closed'.

Some of these agents may well have had their eye on a particular student for a while (most drama schools present full-length plays throughout the final year); but others who have just turned up on the off-chance may be grabbed by a gesture or a look or the way a student carries a line. They are probably the worst audience the actors will ever encounter - 'We're all so horribly cynical,' says the agent Jane Lehrer. But dispiriting as their presence may be, they should never be disregarded: even those adamantly not in search of new recruits are making judgements and memorising faces and about 50 per cent of the students are 'approached' after the show.

It's an evening or afternoon, then, that should not be sniffed at. Below, agents, directors and students offer some advice and issue warnings.

AVOID PINTER

Each student has only between two and five minutes in which to impress, so their choice of material is vital. Repetitions seem unavoidable. 'It goes in circles: this year it's all Jim Cartwright and Sarah Daniels,' says one casting director. 'I wish we could ban Howard Barker and Berkoff,' says another. Guildford School of Acting's showcase earlier this month, aptly titled Listen to Me, ranged from a grim extract from Death and the Maiden to a chirpy rendition of 'Just One Person' from Snoopy] It was lighter than Central's show, where the cabal seated near the exit were moaning 'Hmp, not many laughs in this . . .' Agents long to be entertained. 'We don't want heavy-duty stuff thrown at us,' says Annette Stone. 'High tragedy is a bad idea,' agrees the actor, director and sometime showcase coach Peter Wickham. 'The occasion just isn't right. You don't have the time to build it.'

Other don'ts include swearing, adopted accents unless superbly executed and, according to one young actress, 'very modern things about single mothers, pregnancy, abortions, that sort of thing - agents don't like it'. Big dos, according to Anthony Hozier, the showcase director at Rose Bruford, are 'pieces with a strong character, a simple shape, a twist, maybe even a double twist'. If you want to show off your voice, make sure you choose a number that can be carried by a piano and doesn't cry out for orchestration.

Above all, students should choose speeches that draw on their strengths - 'It's surprising how often they don't,' says Jane Lehrer. 'There's nothing worse than an immature 21-year-old Richard III, or Hamlet, even more awful'. Matthew Lloyd-Lewis, a recent graduate from RADA, strongly regrets his choice - a piece by Pinter: 'I just didn't enjoy it. It was too naturalistic; it's much better to do something dazzling, heightened and energetic. As it was I sat down, quietly, and looked out at all these agents, and I was too self-conscious.'

There are other dangers with Pinter, too. A few years ago GSA were fully rehearsed and ready for kick off, when Pinter (along with Tom Stoppard - 'it was a heart-stopper') refused the performing rights.

DON'T WEAR BLACK

Some would argue that a showcase audition speech is less about acting skills than about style and presentation. Peter Wickham, commenting on East 15's 1992 showcase, noticed how 'fundamental bits of advice didn't seem to have been given, like making sure you find a light and staying in it. And it's not very clever to wear all black'. This last is particularly true when there is a dark back- cloth, as at Central's Embassy Theatre but perhaps not so disastrous if, as at the Whitehall Theatre (GSA's venue), you're performing on the half-struck set of the recently closed Blues Brothers.

Wickham was also distracted by misguided stage directions. 'There was one stunning girl, who I know has a very pleasant speaking voice, but she hid it in a heavy accent, and in her scene she was placed downstage, looking diagonally upstage at the actor who was not important in the scene. You couldn't see her and you couldn't hear her. She would have made more impression if she'd stood centre-stage, said hello and walked off again.'

BUT KEEP YOUR CLOTHES ON

One particularly coy agent recalls the time a couple of years ago, when a student, reciting a speech from King Lear, moved to stage-right and proceeded to strip stark naked. 'A casting director I know was sitting in the front row and she says she could never, ever audition him after that.' The consensus is that vulgar attention-grabbing gimmicks are neither clever nor funny.

WATCH OUT FOR THAT FAN

Props can prove a bit of a stumbling block, and should perhaps be avoided. 'There always seems to be a vital reference to a fan,' says one agent, 'so they come on clutching it and then spend the whole speech flicking it from one hand to another. A big mistake.' Another agent is equally irritated by the 'funny little walk drama students always tack on when acting anyone old or strange'. This was particularly virulent at Bristol this year, where she says the shows are usually excellent - 'But in their production of Bartholomew Fair they all played imbeciles with this ridiculous little walk. It made the whole trip down useless'.

KEEP TO YOUR BRIEF

The most common complaint among the invitees is always, it seems, the length of the show. Outside the Embassy last week, a cluster was comparing notes: 'Oh gawd, RADA went on forever. It started at half-seven and went on till a quarter to eleven. I thought I was going to die]' Even when the turns are only two minutes long, the hours can add up: 'Five minutes of an inexperienced guy reciting on a bare stage can seem like 20,' sighs a seasoned spectator. Peter Wickham thinks the students who are on and off quickly leave the strongest impression - 'They make their point and they get off, same rule of thumb as people speaking in the House of Commons.'

GRIN AND BEAR IT

The grimmest part of the proceedings is undeniably the finger buffet afterwards. The venue is usually the stall bar, although at RADA it takes place in the 'notorious Room 10'. You could argue that only interested agents hang around, but Matthew Lloyd-Lewis thinks it's only 'the showy-off ones, those that enjoy waltzing around with cards in their top pocket'. He found his experience particularly humiliating: 'Four or five agents all interested in the same clump of people - needless to say, I wasn't one of them. And you're standing there, longing to be approached, and you see this old guy coming up to you out of the corner of your eye and you think 'Yes, yes, this is it' and it turns out to be one of the old students, and you stand there being polite, thinking 'This is unbearable'.'

The most important advice of all is: never despair. Many agents take several weeks, even months, to make their decisions and approaches. And if, at the end of the show, you go home undiscovered, unvaunted, take heart in the fact that the triumph you receive at a drama school showcase does not take the form of a bouquet of flowers, of a standing ovation, or even of a flood of job offers. The greatest accolade is the note jotted in the programme of a busy, world-weary agent, the quick self-reminder before he or she rushes off to another appointment: 'Now, he's really got something.'

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