A Comprehensive Guide to the Irene Ryan Audition at KCACTF

The Irene Ryan audition is a part of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. More info at kcactf.org

I competed as both a nominee and scene partner multiple times. This guide was published in 2009 and has not been updated. I’m not sure how much is still relevant, but I hope you find it valuable.

Congratulations! You’ve been nominated to participate in the Irene Ryans… now what? Well there are lots of things to know, and many more things to do. It’s not too early to start preparing, so get ready to get lots of work done!

We’ll start with:

The Rules

  • Each nominee and partner must introduce their names  and material selection only (name of play and playwright). No school should be identified.
  • Preliminary Round requires one scene or song not to exceed 3 minutes. A 15 second grace period is provided.
  • Semi-Finals require two scenes (or one scene and song) not to exceed 5 minutes. A 15 second grace period is provided.
  • Finals requires the previous two pieces plus a monologue or solo song, total time must not exceed 6 minutes. A 15 second grace period is provided.
  • Participants exceeding the time limit (plus a 15-second grace period) will be disqualified at all levels.
  • You must provide your own accompanist for songs.
  • Rights to perform pieces must be secured by nominee.
  • Two armless chairs and one table will be provided. No other furniture is allowed.
  • Any hand props must be provided by nominee.

Selecting Material

The first thing you need to do is start looking for three pieces to perform for your audition. You’re required to have two scenes and a monologue, and any one piece can be a song.

What to Look for in a Scene

  • You must have only one other character onstage with you. You get one person for your partner and only one.
  • Pick a scene with a strong and apparent objective. No scenes with two minutes of just talking about something — no matter how funny it is. You should be playing action.
  • Your scenes should contain material that showcase YOU. Your talents, your strengths, your capabilities, your voice, your age range, etc. Don’t pick material that is too difficult, too vocally demanding, with characters too old or young. Set yourself up for success. It might be a good scene, but is it a good scene for you?
  • Find something that requires you to connect with your partner in some way. It can’t be you giving a lecture to your partner. The judges are looking for interaction. Make sure your objective involves your partner’s character.
  • Avoid dialect/accent pieces. You can if you really want to, but you are strongly recommended not to. Especially if you haven’t previously mastered the accent. Don’t let anything be a distraction from your acting abilities. If you use dialect it must be perfect, with enough enunciation for the scene to be comprehendible by the audience and judges.
  • Look for a clear beginning and moves toward a conclusion with some sort of change.
  • Avoid pieces you’ve recently performed in a full production. You need to have the ability to think about the scene in new and different ways.
  • Choose a scene you like!
  • You must be able to get permission to perform the scene. See “Securing the Rights” below

Where and How to Find Scenes

It’s a daunting task to try to find good scenes, especially when you feel like you don’t know any and you don’t know where to look. The answer is simple, but it isn’t easy: READ LOTS OF PLAYS. You might not want to, but you’ve got to work hard to be successful. What’s so bad about reading anyway? It takes an hour or two to read a play, same time as running 5 miles or so. Which would you rather do?

Bookmark or write down page numbers of scenes or monologues you’d like to look at again later. Right now you’re just looking for possibilities. Find anything and everything that you like that fits the above criteria, you can narrow it down later. You’re looking for short pieces here so keep your eyes open for anything.

Time’s running out, you can’t read 100 plays, what to do? Well, read as much as you have time for. If you don’t find a scene in the play, at least you can say you’ve read that play. Go to peers and teachers. Ask for scenes recently performed or seen that might work. Also ask your teachers for names of plays that have a character in them that you could easily be cast as. Then go read the play and see if there is a usable scene in there that you like.

Now that you have a list of possibilities, it’s time to narrow it down. Re-read each scene out loud, then run it past this checklist:

Does the scene…

  1. have only two characters?
  2. have strong objectives?
  3. have a character that you can play?
  4. showcase your strengths?
  5. have a clear beginning/ending point?
  6. run 3 minutes or less?
  7. appeal to you?

If you answered YES to all these questions, put it in a yes pile. Set aside the others. For monologues, just take out #1 and change #6 to a one minute limit.

Choose pieces that contrast each other. The simplest contrast is dramatic/comedic, but don’t limit yourself to those vague outlines. If one is more physical comedy and the other is witty, that’s okay. Just make sure you’re playing a different type of character. Perhaps choose a fast-paced and slower-paced scene. It’s up to you. Keep your teachers informed throughout the material selection process and always get feedback from them. They may know some of these pieces well and they might be able to select a better combination of scenes from the short list that you’ve made.

Keep in mind your time limit. You have a MAXIMUM of 3 minute for your first scene and 5 minutes for semi finals. So you can’t have 2 three-minute scenes. Aim for your total time (all three pieces) to be 5:45 or less. You’ll have to trim the scene to make it fit in most cases. Find a later starting point or earlier ending point. Don’t cut internally – you run the risk of changing the scene… and most licensing companies won’t allow it anyway.

Securing the Rights

There’s not as much legalese mumbo jumbo as you think. Information for various companies can be located on the KC/ACTF website: http://www.kcactf.org/NEWDESIGN/Students/Ryans/RyansMain.htm

For most of them, it says that any play licensed by that company is available for FREE to be used for audition purposes, and NO WRITTEN PERMISSION IS REQUIRED. Those rules change if you make it to Nationals. So you only pay if you win.

Those rules are different for anything from Samuel French. Certain authors are not allowed, check the Samuel French section in the previous link for those authors. Anything on their “Green Light” list (http://www.kcactf.org/NEWDESIGN/Students/Ryans/CompleteGreenLightList.html) can be used free of charge with no written permission required. Anything on the “Red Light” list (http://www.kcactf.org/NEWDESIGN/Students/Ryans/CompleteRedLightList.html) CANNOT be used for your audition. Period. For anything licensed by Samuel French that doesn’t fall into either category, you should email [email protected] to get approval.

If the publisher isn’t on the KC/ACTF website, do your best to find their contact info and get approval. If for any reason you can’t secure the rights for a piece you’ll have to find a new one. That’s why it’s good to find your pieces early.

Selecting Your Partner

The partner you choose might be one of the most important decisions you make as a nominee. Your partner is there to support you, collaborate with you, and have fun with you. Your partner is not necessarily your buddy and they’re definitely not your slave. You have come together to work. Choose a great partner and the whole experience is less stressful, more fun, and much easier.

Your partner should be someone you know, trust, respect, and admire their acting capabilities. You’re not competing against them, so find the best actor you can. Find the best actor that you can work with. If you know an amazing actor, but s/he happens to be all about showing off, that’s not going to help your audition. Set yourself up for success.

You can select a partner either before or after you choose material, it doesn’t hinder you to do it either way. If you look for material first, you can find a person to fit the scene. If you select a partner first, keep them in mind while finding material.

A more advantageous position to put yourself in is to ask a few people of various types to be your potential partner. Then when you have your list of possible scenes, you can pick and choose your material and partner and put together the strongest set for your audition.


Now that you have your pieces, it’s time to rehearse them! Give yourself plenty of time to rehearse these scenes, the more prepared you are the better you’ll be. You should have your pieces selected and be ready to begin rehearsing about a month before your audition. Any less than two weeks and you’re preparing for failure. Set yourself up for success.

Practice Makes Perfect

Make sure you’ve both read the play and understand it thoroughly. Spend plenty of time discussing the scene with each other and your coaches. Identify objectives, tactics, beats, changes, any necessary movement, props, etc. Get solidly off book during this time.

Now it’s time to get on your feet and act. Spend several hours a week rehearsing each piece. Run it continuously with your partner. Try new things every time! Discover new movement choices, vocal choices, change your tactics, change the staging. The more time you spend discovering better choices, the greater your chances for success. Meet with a teacher a couple weeks before the audition date and run the scene for them after you’re off book and have spent plenty of time discovering and rehearsing the scene. Bug them continuously until they meet with you. Don’t expect them to set up an appointment. Take control of your own success.

Get all the feedback you can from your teacher after you’ve met with them. Spend the next few days back in rehearsal with your partner applying the notes you got. Next show the piece to some peers and get feedback from them. Don’t settle for “it was good,” “I liked it,” “it was funny.” Make sure you get  the feedback you need: “Did I have a strong objective?” “did the staging work?” “did you feel a connection between my partner and I?”

Meet with peers and teachers as much as possible before your audition. DO NOT let the audition be the first time that anyone sees your piece. Set yourself up for success.

It’s All In The Timing

As a reminder: Preliminary round — 1 scene — 3 minutes maximum
Semi-Finals — 2 scenes — 5 minutes maximum
Finals — 2 scenes & a monologue  — 6 minutes maximum

The time limit is a big deal in this audition. You have a grace period of 15 seconds during each round but DO NOT rely on this. If you go over the time limit and the grace period you are automatically disqualified no matter how good your piece might be. Shoot for 15 seconds under the time limit. This gives you a 30 second buffer zone for any mishaps or audience reactions that can occur. Factor in transition time between scenes as well. Remember that your time limits are MAXIMUMS. It’s more than okay to be under: it’s encouraged.

Make sure you time every run of the scene. If you’re cutting it close to the time limit, try picking up your cues, speeding up the scene, taking out extraneous movement, limit pauses. If none of that works you’ll have to chop a few lines off the beginning or end. Don’t cut internally unless the piece is public domain and you have a teacher to help.

Hello, My Name Is…

You’re required to introduce yourself and your partner before you begin. As simplistic as it sounds, you MUST rehearse this too. Remember, an audition begins as soon as you walk in. Begin by setting up your space quickly, quietly, and efficiently. Don’t let your partner do all the work, you should both look like you’re helping.

Then come center, both facing front. Take a breath. In a warm, friendly, and enunciated manner, say something to the effect of “Hello/Good Morning/etc. My name is ___ _____ and my partner is ____ ____ (or turn your head toward them and let them say their own name). I’ll be performing a piece from _________ by __________ .” If you advance to semi-finals or finals you’ll have to introduce all your pieces in the order you will be performing them. Practice that too!

Don’t try to make your intro cutesy or silly. Don’t rush either. This is your only chance to be a cool, calm, professional you. Take advantage of it. Then make eye contact with your partner, go to your places and begin the scene. The timer doesn’t start until the first word or action in character so give yourself a moment to breath before you start. You deserve it.


The big day has finally arrived. Make sure you have rehearsed as much as you could have. You should know your pieces backwards and forwards and you can do them in your sleep. It’s a different ballgame when you’re in front of a few judges, your peers, your teachers and a huge crowd of other people you don’t know (and if you make it to finals, you’ll be in front of the entire festival: several hundred! No pressure).

What to Wear, What to Wear

Remember that this is an audition, not a night of scenes. You should be dressed in appropriate audition attire. Semi-formal is probably the way to go, but wear something you’re comfortable in. Try to rehearse in similar clothes so that you get the feel for it. Especially footwear. Don’t wear heels for the audition if you haven’t rehearsed in them. Don’t try to show off your fashion sense, keep it simple. You’re the one auditioning – not your clothes. Don’t wear any jewelry if you can avoid it. Shiny objects are very distractions, and you want the audience looking at you. Don’t wear a costume for the role, though you can hint at it with your audition attire. If your character would wear a dress, wear a dress. If they would wear a coat or jacket, bring it and put it on before you begin.

On the Day

Warm up! Make sure your voice, body, and mind are all ready to go. There’s no room for extra tensions anywhere, you’re already nervous enough! Get a good breakfast, all that stuff. It’ll help out. Do as much rehearsing as you think you need, but don’t over do it. The rehearsal you’ve done over the past few weeks should have gotten into your head by now so that the right things happen when you’re in the moment.

If you can, get into the audition space sometime the day before. Walk onto the stage, test the acoustics. If you can’t do that then at least see the space. Go in and see some auditions before yours. You might be able to get a feel for how much vocal energy is needed to fill the space, what the crowd might be like, where you have to stand to be in the light. Do anything you can do so that you’re more prepared than the next guy.

It’s Show Time!

It’s your turn. Relax, play your objective, connect with your partner, and have fun! It can be an amazing experience to be up there in front of peers, teachers, and strangers doing your best work. So make sure you’ve done all the rehearsing you need so it is your best.

Give ’em What They Want

Judging acting, like any art, is very subjective. So there area few things that the judges are looking for: you’re ability to play a strong objective, make creative choices, and ability to connect with your partner.

With every action you do, every word you say you should be trying to get something from the other character onstage with you. It’s not about me, me, me. The more you make you focus on acting with your partner, the better you’ll be.

In Response

Immediately after your round of auditions you will go into a room with a respondent and a few other nominees. The respondent will give you his or her thoughts on your scene, strengths and weaknesses. The idea is to give you things to work on if you advance to semi-finals. Write down everything they say to you. Some of it might be off-putting or just sound wrong but it is just one person’s opinions. Discuss these notes with your teachers later on.

In Conclusion

There’s a lot of work to be done, but the fun that you have is worth the work and stress. Just stay organized so that you don’t add the stress of last minute preparation. If you move on, hurray for you! If not, it doesn’t necessarily mean you weren’t good. Maybe the piece didn’t show you off well enough, maybe it was a close call, or maybe you did need work, whatever the case enjoy the experience. Watch as many audition rounds as you can after you’re all done. You can learn a lot for next time.

Most importantly, set yourself up for success and thank your partner!