Stricken with those awful nerves that overcome your system while you try to remember those lines you were up past midnight cramming into your head, you cling to your crumpled, dingy papers for dear life – the papers that contain the information you were trying so hard to memorize, the statements you need to naturally and conversationally say. You know you know it, but every time you try to say something without glancing at your papers that are quickly becoming damp from your sweaty palms, your brain freezes. Your name is about to be called as you sit in the uncomfortable chair, fidgeting with the sticker that betrays your best outfit. Doors swing open, and a smiling voice says, “We are ready for you.”
This scenario easily depicts almost every audition I’ve ever had. It also depicts the ‘teaching interviews’ or ‘sample tours’ or even ‘classroom simulation’ I and many other museum educators have had to do as part of interview processes. As a still-sometimes actress, if it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, call it a duck – museum educators audition for their jobs. A lot. Good monologues do not get actors cast – and good information doesn’t always get museum educators hired. Technique plays a large part in both careers, posing the question: Isn’t it about time we start paying more attention to how we are saying things, and not just what we are saying?
In an audition, the actor is usually provided with an opportunity to bring in a prepared monologue. The actor will perform said monologue and the director makes a decision if the actor is getting called back or sent on their way. Generally speaking, the actor will spend hours, days, even weeks finding that perfect monologue that not only showcases their skill set as a performer, but also connects with the particular role they are auditioning for. If an actor is auditioning for Cosette in Les Mis, their first choice wouldn’t be a piece that brings people to gut-busting laughter. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?
For the teaching interviews I’ve had the pleasure and anxiety of experiencing, it all starts with successfully completing the in-person/phone interview. Then there is the nerve-racking moment of reading the invitation to do a teaching interview. While each institution is different, usually the main idea is to assemble a sample tour (or tour stop) and, with a nod to multimodal learning, an activity for that stop. Usually the prospective educator has about a week to put together this stop and spends countless hours researching the collection, choosing objects, picking that ONE object that will showcase knowledge, teaching skill and personality. Just like an actor auditioning for a role.
But actors will warm up before auditions – take 10 minutes and walk into Ripley-Grier and see dozens of actors at all times doing tongue twisters, stretching, working on breath support and even adjusting their posture. They’ve realized that it’s not just about what you are saying – while the selection is important, it’s equally about how they are saying those words. There is the old adage that you can make people interested in a banana bread recipe if you are interesting enough. In museum education, you might know every fact about Rembrandt and his Self Portrait that hangs exquisitely in the West Gallery at The Frick Collection – but, if you can’t capture your audience and if you can’t be heard, then what?
Some museums are picking up on this idea and calling it what it is. I had the pleasure of being at the Denver Nature and Science Museum at the end of January to lead professional development workshops and found they audition their education staff. There is an educator position entitled “Performer – Facilitator” and part of the interview is a legitimate audition. According to David Allison, Visitor Programs Manager, and Samantha Richards, Educator/Coordinator for Earth Gallery Programs, after the telephone interview, “they [the candidates] are asked to prepare a monologue and a science facilitation…we also have them do a ‘cold read’ of a script.” When asked why, David replied, “The cold reads show us the comfort level they have with improvisation and the ability to ‘ramp up’ their performance on the spot…the prepared pieces both shows us how well they prepare and also what their instincts are around performing and presenting dynamic shows to our guests.” Samantha added, “The cold read also shows us their performance skills…it is as much about how they wear the cape and how engaging they are as how comfortable they feel.”
For the educators who are uncomfortable with the performance aspect, DMNS has an alternative. According to Samantha, “We do also offer the option of reading two contrasting stories instead of monologues.” The audition section of the job description itself is very clear:
Two contrasting monologues (e.g. comedic and dramatic, 3-5 min each) with some movement;
Choose two children’s stories to read. For one, pick 2-4 pages to read as if you were reading one on one with a child. For the other pick 2-4 pages to read as if you were reading to a large group, where you would need to use dramatic voices and movement to tell the story.
David added, “Some educators take to it quickly and can easily adapt. Others struggle. We can generally tell very quickly if someone is a good fit or not for our team.”
The audition aside, DMNS also does ask for a science facilitation – the information and research is still there. They are also focusing just as much on the presentational aspect of the positions. Samantha added to this idea: “It is very important that our staff is comfortable doing everything from talking to one child about a rock to wearing an astronaut suit and ‘being’ an astronaut in front of a hundred visitors.”
Teaching interviews are not much different than auditions. As educators, it’s time to start focusing on how we are saying the things we are saying. Take an improv class. Do deep breathing before a tour. Pull out some tongue-twisters to get the muscles in your mouth ready to say those artist names and movements without tripping over syllables. We are not actors – but – we have an audience. And taking advantage of every trick of the trade will only make us more engaging and our passions more interesting. In the words of Kid President during his pep talk, “Boring is easy, everybody can be boring. But you are gooder than that.”
Have you had a teaching interview/audition? Does your institution conduct them? How did/do you prepare? Should more museums have auditions and practice-based interviews for education positions?