Standing before a room of hundreds of anxious tweens and their parents, Lois Hunter, chair of the theater department at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, pulled back the veil on what it takes to get one of 30 coveted spots in her program.
"Read the play!" she exclaimed, as chuckles spread through the audience. When auditioning, students must perform two contrasting monologues – either comedic or dramatic – for a panel of judges.
"You didn’t just memorize this out of a monologue book, I hope," she added. "You memorized it in context of the entire play."
Hunter is addressing the group at one of the school's "How to Audition" workshops. In addition to posting audition requirements online, each department chair leads a session offering insight on how students can maximize their chances of wowing the panel and getting into L.A.'s most prestigious and competitive arts school.
"We have really tried, not only to make LACHSA accessible for everyone, but to be as transparent and as guiding as we can," said Suzanna Guzmán, who recently stepped down as head of LACHSA's office of community engagement after eight years.
Guzmán developed these training sessions a few years back when she saw talented kids showing up completely unprepared.
"When a student is 13 years old, they’ve never done a job interview," she said. "They don’t know really what it means to audition or interview."
At the workshops, the chair of the music department advised instrumentalists and vocalists to listen to a variety of interpretations of the songs they’ll audition with and warned them to avoid bragging about their accomplishments (and don’t let your mother do it either).
The dance chair told students to really let loose during the improvisation portion of the audition, wear convertible tights that allow for open and covered toes and told the audience that the school is open to accepting students who may not have had ballet training.
The school's acceptance rate is around 10 percent, with around 1,200 students applying for 130 slots in the school's visual arts, theater, cinematic arts, dance and music programs. To be eligible to audition for the 2017-2018 school year, students must complete the application by Friday, Feb. 13 at 5 p.m.
Imani Preyor, an eighth grader at Thomas Starr King Middle School, was full of jitters ahead of the theater workshop.
"I’ve auditioned for roles in my school play and my small theater group but nothing as big as this," she said, "So I’m really nervous."
She dreams of being a performer and is itching to join the ranks of notable alumni like actor Anthony Anderson, of "Black-ish," Taran Killam, a "Saturday Night Live" alum who just joined the cast of the musical "Hamilton," and Grammy-nominated singer Josh Groban.
But her mom, Allison Caesar, has some reservations.
"This is all sort of an unknown for me as a parent," said Caesar. She went to art school herself, but had a hard time getting work as a painter before she became a teacher.
"Quite honestly, I have conflicted feelings about my daughter pursuing theater," she added.
She wants to support her daughter’s dreams but doesn’t want to see her face rejection. These workshops aim to calm these type of worries from parents and students. Department heads from each program make hour-long presentations – going over curriculum and class schedules – peppered with performances from current students, who shared stories about their own experiences auditioning.
Hunter advised the budding actors on how to enter the room at auditions, what to wear, how to rehearse and she provided a number of tips catered to the tween audience.
"I know a lot of you have braces," Hunter told the room. "You don’t have to tell the adjudicator, 'I can’t talk because I have my braces on.' They’ll see it. So you just kind of fight through that."
Hunter believes that breaking down the expectations for prospective students helps to level the playing field.
The free, public school operated by the L.A. County Office of Education serves 600 students from more than 80 districts. The school on the campus of California State University, Los Angeles has a 32-year legacy of producing great talent. School leaders want the young artists – no matter what middle school they go to or private training they’ve had – to have a chance.
"I know that there’s serious talent out there," Hunter said. "And just to mine that talent, it should be our job. We’re a public school, so we should be mining those little nuggets of talent that are out there."
Students filed out of the session – some with more nerves, some with less. Imani and her mom have each come full circle.
"I’m going to get a little emotional," said Caesar, her eyes welling with tears, "because I know that you really want this. I support Imani 100 percent. Whatever happens is gonna happen and I believe that you’ll make the most of it."
"Wow!" Imani said, taken aback by her mother's words.
Coming out the session, Imani has a new confidence.
"I feel ready," she said. "I’m just imagining the day where I walk in. I don’t think I’m gonna be that nervous anymore."
Guzmán says that shift is the precise goal of the audition workshops.
"When they come into the audition," said Guzmán, "It’s old hat to them – 'I’ve been in this room before!' But also when they go to another audition, at another arts school and someone asks them, why do you want art? They’ll say, 'Oh I know know the answer to this.' "
The vast majority of students who apply will end up at a different high school. School leaders realize this and also use the workshops as a way to provide direction on alternatives. Each department chair warns students to be prepared for this questions from adjudicators: What will you do if you don’t get into LACHSA?
At the end of each session, Guzmán offered a pep talk encouraging students – whether their accepted or not – to follow the LACHSA motto: "Live your dream."
"Just by being here today you have taken the first step to acknowledging that you have a dream and you want to follow a path," Guzmán told the room. "There are many paths to that end."
Each student went home with a letter about other area arts schools, after-school and summer programs and scholarships.
"Creativity in our lives is really important," she said. "So we want to see our young people skilled no matter where they go."