We caught up with 2017 ALRA South alumnus Benjamin McMahon about auditions and rehearsals for West End show ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’, and the importance of drama school training.
Can you tell us about your auditions for the show and what you prepared in advance?
There were three rounds of auditions. The first round was a pretty standard; go in and read a scene. I was auditioned by Sean Turner (who was Associate Director when I first auditioned), Sooki McShane (one of the Casting Directors), and Charlie Russell (one of the original Mischief Theatre members). It could have been quite an intimidating audition, but the three of them put me at ease, and it helped that I’d worked with Sean before at ALRA.
The next rounds were group auditions, where we played some games and did some scenes again. The room was a mix of people going for different roles in the play, but also the role I was going for too (Dennis). That round was with Sean Turner and Mark Bell, the Director at the time. The final round was a group audition similar to the second, but the three writers were also there (Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields and Henry Lewis).
The whole way through the process, everyone on the panel did everything they could to make the audition environment feel safe and fun. It was refreshing to be part of such a diverse audition room – the other two guys who were auditioning for Dennis were completely different to me in looks and in how they interpreted the character. The same goes for all the other actors/characters too.
To prepare for the audition, I went to watch the show before my audition. I wanted to get a feel of the type of comedy performance they were looking for and what they wanted in a Dennis. Watching it beforehand really helped me, and it’s something that wouldn’t always be possible when auditioning for a part.
What was the rehearsal process like and how long was it?
We had four weeks to rehearse for the tour. From day two we were rehearsing on the set, as it’s so integral to the show. We did a lot of work on our ‘Cornley Polytechnic’ characters in the beginning via improvisation and Clowning exercises before starting work on the show. We actually started at the end of the play, as it’s probably the most technical part. We then made our way through the show from the beginning.
We’ve just finished rehearsals for the West End version now. Sean Turner and Hannah Sharkey (our Resident Director) have been putting a lot of focus on us telling the story of ‘The Murder at Haversham Manor’; the fictional play that our characters are trying to put on. It sounds hypocritical but the show is always funnier when we don’t play up the comedy too much. Sean has often said that for our characters it’s a tragedy, not a comedy. This rehearsal process has been three weeks long.
What are you learning from this experience and from the other members of the company and the director, Sean Turner?
For me it’s been an insightful experience to get to work with a mix of actors of different ages, backgrounds and experiences. As this was essentially my first job coming out of ALRA, I’d spent the last three years with people similar ages to me and of a similar experience level. I’ve learned a lot over the last year from both my cast-mates and crew.
I was lucky enough to have worked with Sean in my third year at ALRA. He directed The Crucible where I played Judge Hathorne. The Crucible has a few less gags than The Play That Goes Wrong, but it’s still a beautifully written play, and I enjoyed working on that show very much. I was glad to get the opportunity to work with Sean again outside of drama school. Personally, working with Sean on both shows has taught me a lot about how putting on a ‘serious’ play or ‘comedy’ can often be surprisingly similar in their approach.
What specific aspects of your ALRA training are you using on stage?
The vocal training I received at ALRA has been invaluable to me during my time with The Play That Goes Wrong. I genuinely think it would be impossible to do this show without some knowledge of vocal techniques for the stage, for instance how to warm up, how to project your voice without damaging it, articulation, and even warming down after a show. It’s something that can only truly be taught in a drama school setting. Vocal training is one of those weird things where you spend three years rolling around on the floor and making odd sounds from your diaphragm, not really knowing why, then suddenly one day it clicks and you understand what it was all for. Obviously with TV and film that stuff matters less, but you do get a lot of theatre shows that won’t take on untrained actors because they know they won’t be able to maintain their voices.
Since you graduated from ALRA, what else have you worked on?
I’ve been quite fortunate job-wise. I graduated in 2017 and had my audition for the tour of The Play That Goes Wrong in the October of that year. Beforehand, I had a few little jobs here and there, often helping friends with projects. I did a number of workshops called GoWrite with a theatre company called PapaTango, one of the founders being fellow ALRA graduate George Turvey. We’d go into schools and act out some very short plays the students had written. These workshops were always good fun because you could never predict what situation the students would put you in next. The scripts could range from a fairly normal kitchen sink drama, to being in a haunted house, to being on top of the London Eye shortly before it explodes (all real examples!).
My first ‘acting’ job out of drama school was an online Snickers advert. After we filmed it I spent the next few weeks looking on YouTube waiting for the advert to come on, then one day, whilst waiting for a train, I saw the advert! Turns out I’d been cut from it. It was quite a sombre train journey home.
What are your fondest memories of your training at ALRA?
Most of my fondest memories are moments that made me laugh. It’s hard to choose just one, as I had a great three years at ALRA. My year group was very close and supportive of one another and still is now. One fond memory I have is in first year when me and a bunch of the guys from my year did a rendition of ‘Be a Man’ from Mulan for the Christmas concert. We choreographed a whole ‘dance’ routine and everything. The video of it has sadly been lost. What it had to do with Christmas I’m still not sure, but it was fun nevertheless. I also dressed up as Spiderman once for an exam, but that’s a different story…
What advice would you give to prospective students who are auditioning for drama school?
To be honest I’m still not 100% sure how I got in. I guess my advice would be don’t worry about getting in on your first try. I got into ALRA on my second year of auditioning. Sometime between leaving school and starting drama school can be a good thing for some people. Your monologue doesn’t have to be perfect either – try and pick something that fits your casting or means something to you. For god sake read the play that the monologue is from! It’s always good if you have some stuff to talk to the panel about; plays you’ve seen for instance or have been involved in.The audition process is just as much about getting a sense of who you are as a person as well as an actor, so while it’s very cliché to say (and a lot easier said than done, I know), try and be yourself as much as you can. Also, don’t be afraid to do a comedy or something lighter in tone – everyone wants to do Othello or some gritty modern piece, but that’s boring and sometimes a bit much in an audition. There will be time for the doom and gloom later. Make people laugh instead.