Why Actors Hate Cold Readings and What to Do About It

Hi, this is going to be a long post inquiring in some detail into the almost universal hatred of cold readings by actors.  Most actors I’ve encountered over the years, whether in theatre or film, simply hate cold readings.  In response to this universal dislike of cold readings I will discuss my approach to cold reading technique and add a word about my upcoming – forthcoming – in the works…training video for cold readings at the end.  For anyone genuinely interested in successful auditioning, this will be a valuable discussion and it will be worthwhile to take the time to work your way through this whole long article.  I’m going to take my time discussing it, so grab a cup of tea and join me for a while…

So what’s the deal with cold readings?  Why are they hated, and what to do about it?  It’s kind of a strange and almost funny – if it weren’t so painful – situation in which the vehicle for most actors to get work is the exact venue that is most disliked.  That does not seem to discourage Casting Directors from utilizing the Cold Reading as their major tool for casting actors, and in fact it is the most convenient and most relevant way to assess an actor’s work for a role.  Sure, you can have them come in with a prepared monologue and hope that they are able to show you acting skills that are relevant to the role, but why not see:  a/ how they do an actual scene from the piece to be produced, and b/ see what they can do ‘on their feet’ without a lot of preparation, which does give some clue as to how they will be able to function in a stage rehearsal or under the pressure of working on a film set.  Yes, that makes sense.  The problem is that many very good actors confess that they do fine once they’re on the job, but are terrible at cold readings.  And why should that be?

To some extent it makes sense that cold readings are difficult.  Auditioning is difficult, just as going out for any job is difficult, nerve-wracking and uncertain.  You are “selling yourself” to a prospective employer and that can be inherently uncomfortable.  In addition, you are often not given adequate information to give a decent performance.  If someone hands you “sides” from a scene a few minutes before you have to do that scene, how can you tell what the scene is about and how to approach it?  In addition, how do you know what the auditors are looking for?  Well, you don’t.  In some cases you will have a chance to look at the script while you are waiting your turn, or in some cases may even be given an advance copy of the whole play or script or at least a detailed breakdown and description, but in many cases you will have no advance information and very little at the time of the audition.  So an actor has to be prepared to deduce the correct approach to the scene from the scene itself, a very zen exercise:  “Here is the material you will be playing, and it is all that you have.”

Most actors when faced with the above prospect – going into an uncertain and tense situation with little information, in which one is seeking employment – will hate the experience.  Sometimes it goes well and sometimes it seems not to go so well, but either way the actor does not look forward to going out for the job in this way.  It is very uncertain and uncomfortable.  And when you contemplate the fact that this is the way that most professional actors will be spending most of their time, that is pretty depressing.  Actors do not work all the time – that’s just the way it is.  And rather than finding one job and keeping it for a year or perhaps many years, the actor has to look for work over and over again, usually one project at a time.  And so he or she is faced with this unpleasant prospect of over and over again encountering an unpleasant situation in order to get the very means of doing their craft.  So what to do?

There are two aspects of how to solve this problem to my mind, and both of them are both accessible and important.  The first is to change the framework within which most actors hold cold readings.  In other words, change your point of view about cold readings.  Is that possible?  Yes it is.  We look at cold readings as the actor showing how well they can act in an attempt to get work, and of course this is the actual situation.  However, it is not the whole situation. There is another aspect of this situation which actors forget to take into account, and it is potentially transformative:  While the actor must perform in order to get work, the auditors have to watch.  You must perform, but the auditors are a captive audience.  They have to pay attention.  As I said, most actors will not work much of the time.  Inbetween performance opportunities is not the happiest place to be.  One of the few places where you can guarantee a chance to perform is at an audition.  The more auditions you do, the more performance opportunities you have.  And your audience is a well-educated person who cares about what you are doing.  So why not take the opportunity to act your butt off and give a great performance to an interested audience?  You may have experienced auditors at auditions who are tired, bored, inattentive and unappreciative, and this can happen after they have seen 20 or 50 or 100 actors for a role, all going through the same routine of slightly rote, slightly frightened, aiming-to-please actors who don’t take too many chances in how they do the material.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  Trust me, if you step out into your audition to perform – not just to get the job, but to do the material with all of your acting skill and interest – the auditors will wake up and watch.  And you, going into your cold reading for the pleasure of acting – which is what got you into this mess in the first place – will do a much better job and have much much more fun.  So that is the first thing you can do to transform your cold reading experience:  do it to perform, not to beg.  And that will lead to you following your creative impulses and doing a much more interesting job at the cold reading, with a much better chance of being cast.

The second thing you can do is to have a cold reading technique that actually prepares you to give a good cold reading.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  But it’s amazing how many actors just do not have a plan for how to approach a particular cold reading, or for cold readings in general.  It is an acting venue with its own rules and requirements and it can be approached with skill and practiced with understanding.  You don’t have to throw yourself into the cold reading situation and “sink or swim.”  You can learn how to swim.

Cold Reading technique has some unique elements, but if you are a trained actor you should be able to use your training, in a modified form, to give a good cold reading.  Right?  You’ve gone to all the trouble of studying acting, perhaps for years, and you should be able to apply your skills to this most important area.  In looking at the main ingredients of cold reading technique, let’s consider three elements of cold readings that are different from rehearsal and performance in general, and which do need to be taken into account when contemplating your cold reading technique.  Let’s discuss them at length.  There are several points I’d like to highlight that you will encounter in the discussion below:

– What Does This Role Require?

– Listen To The Director.

– Follow the Audition Rules.

– Adapt Your Training Technique.

1.  YES, IT’S A JOB.   You are in fact doing the audition to get work, to win a job, and that involves doing a good job, competing and proving your job qualifications.  So you do have to use the cold reading to show that you are capable of doing this role.  Therefore, you should ask yourself:  “What does this role seem to require?” and make sure you show those capabilities in the cold reading.  Sounds like a simple idea, but it is left out of many cold readings. I have done casting myself several times, and I have indeed seen good, serious actors come in for a role who leave me thinking:  “This is a good actor, I’d love to cast her, but I can’t tell from that reading whether she can really do this part or not.”  In such a case, I will go with an actor who gives me more certainty about their capability to do the actual role I am casting them for.  In some cases I’ve told the actor what I wanted to see and given them a second chance to do the reading and they still didn’t include that element in their audition.  In that case, I have to seriously suspect that perhaps they really can’t do that particular role, even though I still think they are a good actor.  If that is the impression you give an auditor, you’re going to greatly decrease your chances of being cast, not just in a particular audition, but in every audition.  You have to think objectively about what this role requires and show that you can do it.

Along these same lines, you have to be willing and able to take direction during an audition. This can surprise some actors and throw them off, but in quite a few cases the director or CD will do what I did in the above example and ask the actor to do it again to see if they can give them the elements of the role they want to see.  I went out for an audition myself about a year ago in which this came up.  I was taken back to the room where they were doing the audition along with a female partner, as they were seeing us in pairs.  We each had to play a particular character who was drunk, and the Director was running the audition himself, with no one else in the room but the three of us.  This was for an upcoming industrial.  After seeing my reading he said “That’s good, but I’d like to see you much more drunk, so drunk that you can hardly speak clearly.  Don’t worry about the script, just slur your words completely.” Now this is very specific direction, very clear, so you as the actor should just do it.  You don’t have to think to yourself “Does he really want it that intense, should I really do it that big?”  The answer is just “yes.”  The Director said to do it that way.  Just do it.  I did the second time much more fully and in fact had some trouble lifting my head off the table part of the time – too drunk!  The Director liked my second reading enough to ask me some questions about my glasses and what I had in my wardrobe – a clear sign that he was at least considering me, picturing how it would work if I got the job.  When he asked my counterpart to do the same – do the drunkenness much more fully and intensely, she couldn’t do it.  She did it a little bit fuller, but still tentative and holding it back – which appeared to be what she thought was reasonable, instead of taking the direction.  Big mistake!  Take the direction!  Nobody wants to work with an actor who has to be coaxed to take direction.  It is time and energy wasting.  Was she incapable of doing a much fuller version of drunkenness?  I doubt it.  She did fine on the first reading and obviously had some acting skills and experience.  What she was missing was the openness and flexibility to risk embarrassment in order to satisfy the director’s requirements and really “go for it.”  And that indeed is a red flag that the actor may not be ready and willing to do the role.  I’ve also been in the situation as a director where the actor was either hesitant to follow a particular direction, or had their own way of approaching the part and wasn’t open to a lot of direction.  As a director, you do not want to work with that person.  It is a pain and can even make it impossible to create a successful performance.  I am sure that most directors have had similar experiences and so are on the lookout for someone who maybe can act, but possibly won’t.  Don’t do that!  Take the opportunity when given direction to go beyond your boundaries as an actor and stretch to what the director is asking you to do.  It’s good for your range and your flexibility.

2. NO TIME TO PREPARE.   Since there may be little or no time to prepare for the audition, you need to adapt your technique to that which can be used immediately.  This takes some thought and practice.  Whatever your technique training is, you have to go through your approach to material and ask:  Is this a necessary part of my preparation?  And if it is, then ask:  How can I do it in a few minutes instead of X hours?  By doing this, you should be able to put together a little technical “packet” that will have your best techniques in their logical order for cold reading preparation, and in a form that won’t take very long.  Once you know that you’ve included the important elements, put them in the right order and cut down the time it takes to do them, you should have a pretty damned good preparation technique for cold readings.

In addition, you should consider two other elements:  what are the mechanics of actually doing the cold reading once I am there?  You’re not expected to memorize the text on a cold reading, so it is okay to make some notes on the sides.  If you have made some choices about what to do it’s okay to write them down and you will see them as you come to that part of the segment on your sides.

And in terms of doing the reading itself, you should practice some combination of reading without burying your head in the script, and acting fully and convincingly even though you’re standing there with the pages in your hand.  And don’t forget to act.  What I mean by that is that you can’t stand around reading from the script.  You’ve got to do or imply the action that is correct for that scene; eg, if you are having a conversation in a cafe´, you should be sitting accordingly in a chair for the reading and “chatting.”  If you are being confronted by a gunman who’s threatening to kill you, your physical behavior and speech should reflect that reality, ie, you’d better be tense and frightened [unless the role is for some super-cool super-spy who doesn’t care that he or she may be shot.]

I had one actor that I already knew audition for a role that I knew he could do.  I knew he was a good actor and I knew he was right for the role, but no matter how many times I asked him, he wouldn’t do the cold reading more fully and as “over the top” as I asked.  So I couldn’t cast him.  I couldn’t take the chance that the same thing would happen in rehearsal.  How’s that for a problem – an actor that won’t over-act.  Listen to the director.

To put it another way, this is a performance, not a rehearsal.  You’re not being asked to explore or try the material on for size; you’re being asked to do your best finished version of the scene.  That means making a commitment to the material and ‘going for it.’

3.  AN AWKWARD SETTING.  Auditions are awkward.  The auditors don’t want to get too involved in how badly you want the job, you don’t want to make a bad impression but you’re understandably anxious, and the rules for auditions are thus weird:

a/  You have to make contact and be personable while meeting and greeting the auditors for about two seconds.  Sometimes they’ll nod and say ‘let’s go,’ sometimes they’ll meet you for a moment and shake your hand.  You have to take your cue from the auditors.

b/  Once you’ve introduced yourself, however instantaneously, you have to make no contact while doing the actual reading.  Don’t ever look the auditors in the eye while reading.  It makes them uncomfortable and is bad form.

c/ After reading you have to be personable again, but brief, unless they indicate they want to talk to you.  Once they’ve said “thanks, we’ll be calling people on Monday” you nod, say thanks briefly, break contact and then quickly and gracefully exit.

If you handle the contact/no contact/brief contact/exit sequence gracefully, you won’t feel as awkward and things will go pretty smoothly.  Also be aware of those occasions when the Director or other auditor does want to talk to you, have you read again, or give you some more information.  If they are looking at you about to open their mouth, that is the wrong time to leave.  You will leave them thinking:  “Gee, that actor was pretty good, but I guess he didn’t want a callback.”  So be flexible and pay attention to what is actually happening.  A good rule of thumb is:  The director can break the rules, and may.  They are “the boss.” You can’t break the rules, but you can and should go with it if the Director or CD initiates it.

So remember these points:

– What Does This Role Require?

– Listen To The Director.

– Follow the Audition Rules.

– Adapt Your Training Technique.

Now a final word regarding my upcoming “in the works” training video on cold readings, and my approach to cold reading technique.   The video will be in process for a few months, and will deliver an accessible, clear hands-on technique for preparing and doing a professional cold reading, so that you can enjoy them and be successful rather than dread them.  I’ll keep readers of this blog updated as the video develops.  Meisner Technique, on which my approach is based, is an excellent resource for Cold Readings, combining truthful behavior with a clear way of understanding and recreating the imaginary situation of a scene.  So stay tuned!

And thanks for taking this trip with me inquiring into the cold reading situation.  More later!

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