Why Cold Readings Are Almost Always Useless

My Troilus and Cressida auditions

My Troilus and Cressida auditions

I’ve been steadily working on a post about auditions for directors and producers (what drives actors crazy, what they love, what works, what doesn’t) and I keep getting hung up on specific issues that end up taking on lives of their own. The homogeneity of the women on our stages was the first one, and now this. Eventually I’ll have a post for you (PINKY SWEAR) but I think we all need for it to be less than 38,000 words long, so I’m breaking these larger issues out into posts of their own.

So, cold reads, amirite? They’re almost always completely useless. Let me count the ways.

1. The information a cold read gives you is beside the point. When you hold an audition, especially a callback, you’re attempting to obtain a specific set of answers to a specific set of questions about an actor. Chiefest among them are how the actor makes choices, shapes narrative, engages with scene partners, handles the language, physicalizes choices, and takes direction. You need to know how the actor inhabits the character for which she’s auditioning. You need to see her make emotional and physical choices within that, and make thoughtful adjustments to those choices. You need to see what her style is– does her approach to the material fit with your own well enough to ensure a productive rehearsal process? An actor who has not had adequate time to prepare will be able to show you almost none of that, because that work is complex and takes time– which is why we have a rehearsal process instead of just having actors memorize the script on their own and show up to tech to get their blocking. We expect actors to come into rehearsal prepped, and it’s without a doubt that auditions, as artificial as they are, will provide you with the most accurate information about how your actor will rehearse (and, therefore, perform) if they can replicate as closely as possible the conditions of rehearsal.

A cold read is a completely different experience than either rehearsal or performance in almost all cases. What a cold read shows you is whether an actor can make choices QUICKLY and how adept the actor is at reading aloud. While either of those skills can be useful in some very limited situations (soap opera acting and voice over work spring to mind), they are of limited use in casting your production of, say, Hamlet or Eurydice, where creating a space for the actor to show you her talent, skill, and craft will be of much better use than seeing how good she is at pulling something out of her ass on the spot that will be, of necessity, superficial.

In case you needed any more evidence that cold reading skills are only loosely related (at BEST) to acting skills, I am an EXCELLENT cold reader and LOVE to cold read. Ahem. ‘Nuff said.

OK, I'm not THAT bad.

OK, I’m not THAT bad.

2. An actor who lacks the time to prepare is an actor glued to the script. Of course no one expects an actor to come into callbacks with the sides memorized, but a prepared actor is an actor whose head isn’t constantly buried in his script. If he’s unfamiliar with the lines, the basic narrative of the scene, or the emotional narrative of the character for which he’s auditioning, he’ll be unable to connect with his scene partners as his head will be glued to his script trying to piece together what comes next and what he’s going to do about it. If being able to engage scene partners is an important skill to you (SPOILER ALERT: it is), then you want that kid’s head out of his script as much as possible. Giving him the opportunity to look it over in advance is the way to do that.

3. Dyslexic actors are more common than you think. While many mildly dyslexic actors have found ways to work around a cold read situation, you’d be surprised at how often incredibly talented actors are so severely dyslexic they have to turn down your callback because you can’t be arsed to send sides in advance. When I posted about this on facebook, I was deluged with grateful responses.

“I’m literally crying as I type this. You have no idea how many auditions I have had to turn down because I didn’t want to look like an idiot, stumbling over words, and sounding them out in front of the auditors.”

“Many dyslexics are incredibly expressive and artistic people, which is what makes them such brilliant performers. I am one of these people. Thank you so much for seeing us in a world that often doesn’t.”

“Yes! Thank you. I have this issue so frequently.”

Personally, I learned firsthand how useless cold read auditions were years ago when I worked with an incredibly talented actor who was so severely dyslexic he could not read aloud at all. However, he was almost always the most talented actor in the room. People can succeed if you give them the tools they need to succeed, and all a severely dyslexic person needs is a little time.

If I could just have a few more minutes with the script . . . No?

If I could just have a few more minutes with the script . . . No?

4. When is a cold read audition appropriate? If you’re directing a film or TV show wherein you know the actors will be receiving new pages regularly and will need to be able to prep and perform those pages almost immediately, a cold read audition is a useful tool in addition to an audition that allows for more in-depth work. Similarly, many commercials and music videos require on-the-spot preparation. (Not that you need six hours of rehearsal to prep a 30 second Valtrex ad or the character “Hot Girl Dancing near Lamborghini.”) If you’re directing a play and cold read skills are required as part of the performance, such as an audience engagement piece where the actors perform material the audience has written on the spot, you’ll want information about an actor’s cold reading skills.

"Thank GOD for my RADA training or I'd never be able to get through this"

“Thank GOD for my RADA training or I’d never be able to get through this”

You might be able to get the information you need from a cold reading if you’re not the kind of director who is focused on in-depth work with actors. There are some directors who are more visually-focused, storytelling through visual imagery rather than focused on storytelling through acting and the actors’ emotional narratives, and for those directors, simply seeing an actor talk and move through space may be enough. If you’re not going to do in-depth acting work, there’s no need to see how the actor approaches in-depth acting work, right? So a cold read, which by necessity cannot ever be in-depth, could give you the information you require.



But for the rest of us, the information we get from a cold reading is just beside the point of the information we need to make informed casting choices, and marginalizes severely dyslexic actors (whose numbers are much greater than you think) to boot. So eliminate cold reading auditions unless you really need to test the actor’s cold reading skills specifically. You’ll get better information AND be more inclusive.

Tagged , , , ,

17 thoughts on “Why Cold Readings Are Almost Always Useless

  1. Ray Renati says:

    ….and if you send sides in advance to an actor so they can prepare, please, PLEASE, allow them to audition with the sides they were sent. Don’t change your mind at the last minute and have read something else. They may have spent hours on what you told them to prepare.

  2. macmorrighan says:

    Well, I just got chewed out for daring to question the Cold Reading process, one of which insisted that all they needed to know could be observed with an on-the-spot cold reading audition, such as dealing with stressful situations, which seemed to be paramount. And, I was looked down upon because I have never been good at any sort of Cold Reading, otherwise I might have a job at Qwest where their interview consisted of a randomized simulation experience that I failed at multiple times. I was dismissed as being “lazy”, and for attempting to excuse laziness, as a consequence. I was also surprised that a prepared monologue, according to them, would tell them nothing of any worth! However, if I were casting a production, I would rather see how one could lose themselves in a role or a character. There are a great many actors that do not like improv, and they are not good at it, and according to these men who have cast productions who have known such actors, they never get cast! 😦

  3. Mordecai says:

    But prepared monologues have their own pitfalls, and equally serious ones at that. Then the actor is trying to play psychologist and guess what 2-minute blurb from some other play is going to make the director, whom he/she doesn’t know, want to cast them. They aren’t performing them in a space that might be totally unsuited to the delivery they practiced in their room/previous production they’re drawing from. I mean, it can work if you’re gunning for a specific part, because then you have an idea of your take on the character and what other parts have similar characteristics. But what if another part doesn’t read similarly? What if all parts are open, and the actor isn’t picky? What if you give a really strong performance that locks you in the director’s mind for one type, when you would have also been great for 2 or 3 other parts in the play that aren’t that type?

    • It’s not a competition between prepped monologues and cold readings. Most auditions actually use both prepped monologues and sides– first round would be prepped monologues, and the second round would be sides. When directors want someone to read scenes from the play, they send out those sides in advance. However, a few (and honestly, I see this much more with inexperienced directors than pros) use cold readings, which is just handing the sides to the actor the second they walk in the door and expecting them to be able to perform that material within minutes, which is not a skill deeply related to the skills we use in the rehearsal and performance process in professional theatre. Prepared material– whether that’s a prepped monologue or a prepped side– shows skills much closer to those we need to evaluate when casting. As far as the drawbacks of prepped monologues, theatre directors are quite used to seeing more than just the “type” of the monologue. Each actor has a specific type range that isn’t invisible when a monologue speaks to one or another type within that range specifically unless the director is very inexperienced indeed. Professional actors are also quite used to adjusting for size of room and other technicalities. But for those who don’t want to use prepped monologues, sending sides out in advance is more than enough to avoid the uselessness of cold readings. Even a day or two will make that audition much more successful.

      • Melissa, I have yet to locate a single acting opportunity where I am even allowed to employ a prepared monologue even at professional playhouses with open casting here in Iowa. Believe me, I have looked! Rather, unprepared cold readings seem to be enforced, for whatever reason. And, from Mordecai’s response, it seems as if they think that only one audition must be used. However, as I have suggested, a multi-tiered approach would be best: 1.) a prepared monolog to see if someone can even act; 2.) then a second and prepared reading from a portion of the script; 3.) perhaps a second call back in necessary. Still, I have yet to encounter this multi-tiered approach.

      • That multi-tiered approach is the norm around here. Tell Iowa I said to get it together! 😉

      • Thanks, Melissa! Where is “here”, precisely? I have been chewed out by a lot of people for so much as wanting to ASK to deliver a prepared monologue for an audition of any kind! According to those that raked me over the coals, it was MORE important to see how one handles stress than if they could rehearse a piece and actually act! The folks that chewed me out wouldn’t even accept a multi-tiered system…it was either ONLY a Cold Reading, or the actor shouldn’t even bother coming in. Why, then, are there so many monologue books for auditions if no one will accept one at an audition? Heck, those holding open auditions won’t even let us know what section we will be reading from…making it utterly blind cold reading! Unless someone wants to see me stammering and stuttering for several minutes then that’s what they’ll get with a CR because my mouth has to play catch up with my brain. That, and stress like that seems to trigger stammering fits. I think there may be a genetic component to that because my Dad is the same way when he gets overly stressed.

      • Mordecai says:

        *shrug* Can’t speak for everyone, of course, but I can’t recall the last time I met someone here in Boston that liked using a prepped monologue. And when I direct shows, I’ve generally found I get much better results and clearer ideas of how actors attack the process and characters from cold reads than from prepped monologues, and how well they can think on their feet. With prepped monologues a lot of gifted but less experienced actors will make a hash of any suggested re-reads to see how they take direction, because they so feverishly rehearsed and “locked in” one particular reading. So I end up calling back far more than I’d like because I still have no idea whether they can really act. I eventually just stopped asking for a prepped monologue. I send monologue sides out for the first audition, hear them, give a direction, hear them again. At the callback, depending on the show, I send out multi-character sides, then mix and match. This has consistently worked out better for me than prepped monologues. Maybe there’s some trick to hearing them that I don’t get, but that’s my process, and it’s worked.

      • OK, so that’s not a cold read if you’re sending sides out in advance. That’s a prepped side. A cold read would be if you handed them the side when they walked in the door and expected them to perform it 5 minutes later.

      • Again, I would have LOVED even to have received a side in advance to prepare, but no…. And, I just don’t understand that. Instead, I get raked over the coals for questioning the enforced CR process. These people was chatting with quipped about how I wasn’t a “real actor” because they had no problem CRing, but I do!

      • Mordecai says:

        Hunh. Can’t reply to your reply to my reply…Anyways, I guess I don’t really think of that as a prepared monologue. Nobody memorizes the sides I send out, they keep them in hand. When I think of prepared monologues, I think of someone coming in and reciting something of their choosing, which, as I’ve said, I don’t find terribly helpful for casting.

      • You’re confusing a prepared monologue with a prepared side. Let me break down the industry terminology for you.

        Prepared monologue: Something the actors choose and rehearse on their own and use for many different auditions. These are always memorized and are designed to approximate what an actor can do in a performance setting. Usually not from the show for which the actor is auditioning. Very common for general auditions.

        Side: A section of the script that’s being cast

        Prepared side: A side that is sent to the actors to prep in advance. These are almost never memorized, but have been worked on and prepped in advance of the audition. Generally these are used to see how an actor inhabits a particular role and what kinds of choices an actor makes within the world of that particular play. Very common for callbacks.

        Cold reading: When actors are given a side when they arrive at the audition, having never seen the side before, and are expected to perform the material on the spot.

        Hope that helps!

      • Mordecai says:

        No, I was confusing a prepared side with a cold read. 🙂

        And I still prefer both to hearing prepared monologues, or preparing a monologue myself.

  4. macmorrighan says:

    Heck, something else occurs t me: If CRs are so common, than why are there so few that actually broach the subject? I have gone through dozens of books on acting and (especially) auditioning, and I rarely saw the subject given more than a token nod. If CRs are so important to the audition process–for which I was raked over the coals for questioning–than shouldn’t these books spend a good amount of time developing CR skills in their readers?

    • I stand by my assessment that cold reading evaluates skills that are entirely different than the ones we need in a rehearsal and performance process. People cling to ineffective processes for lots of reasons– inexperience, comfort level with the familiar, fear, power trip, the mistaken belief that it’s effective, stubbornness. I would avoid directors who refuse to send out their sides in advance (after being asked politely) unless cold reading is itself part of the performance. Otherwise, I would think refusing such a request is a big red flag because you’ll likely be tangling with one of the above throughout the whole process.


  6. Francisco says:

    Sorry to necro this post but, as a director and writer, I wanted to chime in. I find myself bored at table readings and if I’m bored I can not be engaged in the casting process. I want my actors to be as prepared and rehearsed as possible before an audition or pre-audition. I want to see how my actors develop their characters on their own, without my direction. I can’t evaluate actors chemistry with each other in a cold read.

    What you achieve with a cold reading (identify problems with the script or chemistry with actors) can be achieved (and more successfully) with actors playing those scenes and you can’t do that if the actors do not know their lines or have enough time to process the characters psyche and translate it in their own terms. Just because there’s an “Industry Standard” in how to do things it doesn’t mean that is a law that we must obey if we can achieve the same or better results by implementing new procedures.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: