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.
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.
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.
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.