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Careers Clinic: How do I improve my cold reading skills?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher
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I just had the worst audition of my career. Sadly it was an important one – a potential regular in a prime-time series. I worked on the script – I was sent it in advance – until I was word-perfect. The audition started well but halfway through I was stopped and asked if I would read for another part instead. I was given a script of about 10 pages and about 15 minutes to prepare. Although they said I wasn’t expected to learn the lines by heart, I was completely thrown. I am good at improv so making something up from scratch wouldn’t have been a problem – but with a pre-written script, I was so busy gripping the pages and trying to read ahead that my performance just wasn’t there.

Unsurprisingly, my agent received a polite “thanks, but no thanks” shortly after. Any thoughts on what I can do better next time I’m on the spot?

John Byrne’s advice

It might be too late to salvage this opportunity, but one valuable lesson you can take away is that no matter how well you prepare for a casting, something unexpected can always happen. Short of developing the power of clairvoyance, you can’t predict what those unexpected incidents are going to be, but they are most likely to fall into two broad categories.

The first, and the one that seems to have worked well for you up until now, is to be as flexible and comfortable with improvisation as you can. Just because that didn’t work so well on this occasion doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep it in your toolbox.

Cold reading is a skill that fits into the other category: skills that can look easy when you know how, but are much harder to ‘blag’ if you haven’t mastered them. As well as being useful in the audition room – where last-minute script switches are no means unusual – being able to cold read well is also a skill that can land you work if somebody drops out of a production at a late stage in rehearsals.

I have seen some stage performances by actors with script in hand, which were so fluid that, just a few minutes in, the audience had forgotten the pages were even there. The main problem for actors new to cold reading is laid out in the title. Your performance shouldn’t be ‘cold’, nor should the emphasis be on ‘reading’. Understandable pressure to do well can increase the chances of making those mistakes. Actors can be so focused on looking at their script and getting their lines right, that they only connect with the page, rather than the audience or the person doing the scene with them.

If it is unlikely you will be able to memorise all of the pages precisely in the time given, focus on the first and last lines, so that you can come into the scene strong and end memorably. Note the key emotions and any journey your character makes through the scene so you can stay on track even if you need to invent occasionally. Work out how you will find your place as you read, whether by marking your lines with pencil or just by moving your thumb down the page line by line. As with any audition, the key is to leave the audience wanting more.

Give yourself cold-reading challenges in your downtime, so that next time you approach one in the casting room, it won’t feel like such an unknown territory. The more you practise, the more chance of achieving the kind of ease that will encourage your casting-room audience to envisage what you can do with scripts you have time to learn in detail.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk or @dearjohnbyrne

John Byrne is also a writer, cartoonist, performer and broadcaster. Read his advice columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/john-byrne

The Green Room: Is the preparation expected for auditions too much?

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