Good news for all you cold-reading-a-phobics out there: The script is once again your friend. Los Angeles audition techniques guru Margie Haber invented a way to do cold readings without pre-memorizing. The system is intuitive and, with practice, becomes second nature. It's all about working off the page. You go back and forth from eye contact with your partner, during which you utter a few quick-memorized phrases, to returning to the page and actually reading a few phrases without worrying about eye contact, and then back to your partner again for a few more quick-memorized phrases, and so on. You establish a natural rhythm—eyes up, eyes down, eyes up, eyes down—as you go. It works whether you're reading a monologue or a scene.
Only one catch: "If you don't have a relationship and a need, then it doesn't work," Haber told me. At the very least—depending upon whether you have two days or two minutes to look over the sides—you must know what your objective is, and what your relationship is with the other character. If you have more time, you can consider given circumstances and other elements of character- and scene-building.
Once you get comfortable with this system, says Haber, you will be totally in the moment, really listening and responding. And you don't have to—in fact, you mustn't—plan in advance exactly how you're going to read. That is, don't mark up your script with notes about when and when not to look at the page; that way lies an inert, mechanical reading. Just come in armed with your character's givens—as much as you can pull together in however long you have to prepare.
Here's how the Haber Phrase Technique works:
Hold the paper in front of you with one hand, arm bent, elbow tucked in, the paper on the same plane as your body. Place the thumb of your other hand on the outer margin so that it travels down the page with your eyes, marking your spot. Make the paper part of whatever you're doing, emotionally. "If you're angry, hold the paper with anger," writes Haber in How to Get the Part… Without Falling Apart (Lone Eagle Publishing Company, 1999).
Look down at the paper. Quickly memorize the first phrase or two.
Look up. Briefly ground yourself: Where did your character just come from? What thought is in your character's head right now?
Connect with your partner (or an imaginary partner, or audience, if you're reading alone). Now speak your first phrases.
Look down and read the next few phrases off the page. Then come back up to connect with your partner to speak a few more quick-memorized phrases, then back down for to read a few more, and so on. Depending upon how good you are at remembering lines, you may be able to surface for as long as six or seven phrases, writes Haber. Just make sure it's at least one phrase. Establish a fluid, not herky-jerky rhythm. This comes with practice.
As you're finishing a beat, or "unit," make sure to bring your eyes up and connect with your partner. Did you succeed or fail at your communication? (If you are acting alone, you'll need to imagine responses.) Using that information, proceed to the next beat.
A phrase, by the way, is a clump of words that hang together syntactically. Don't read the punctuation; allow sentences and clauses to group themselves together in a natural way.
Don't think about when to come off the page and look at your partner. Let it happen naturally, out of the emotions that are occurring between you and your partner. And every time you do look at your partner, allow those moments to solidify and enrich the relationship between you. Remember, whatever is happening between you and your partner must affect the up-and-down rhythm and your reactions. Even if it's the casting director and she's reading like an automaton, you must react to that in a real way.
If your partner has a long speech, you'll need to look down at the page when she's in the middle of talking, so as to check when your next cue is and memorize your first couple of phrases. Be sure and come up before she finishes. If she has a short line, maintain eye contact until she finishes, then look down.
Why will you not lose your focus as you're looking down at the page? Mechanically you won't because your thumb is marking your spot. Artistically you won't because your objective remains strong. Just make sure that if there's a brief silence when you look down at the page, it's filled with subtext. This is your opportunity to make a believable transition.
Why will you not disconnect from your partner when your eyes go to the paper, especially when he's talking? Because it's totally natural for two people to look away from one another when talking and still maintain the connection—once again, if you have a strong objective and strong sense of how you feel about that person. After all, you talk on the phone all the time without looking at the other guy, right? And we often avoid eye contact during tense or painful interchanges. Dennis Franz, on NYPD Blue, is a master at that.
More Than Technique
"This approach may sound technical, but it's not," Haber assured me. "You must work on it emotionally, not intellectually." She admitted that some students have trouble initially. "When actors are control freaks, or are result oriented, they want to get the technique down as quickly as possible. That gets in their way. Until you really own it, you're going to use it incorrectly. You'll be doing it technically." She recommended learning the method in class, on your feet, rather than intellectually, from her book. "When you're willing to let go of the control aspect of it, you get it," she said.
Different students absorb the system in different amounts of time. Delaina Mitchell (who has appeared on NYPD Blue, ER, etc., and was Tom Cruise's secretary in Vanilla Sky) used the technique for an audition for Sabrina the day after she finished reading Haber's book, and got the job. But it wasn't until she started classes that it became a part of her instrument—in only a few sessions. "In the beginning, it felt a little mechanical," she admitted. Still, "It gives you tremendous freedom to listen."
It took Timothy Di Pri longer than that—in fact a year. Di Pri (who has co-starred in a number of movies for TV and TV series) is dyslexic and always had trouble with auditions. Recently he had a day to prepare two full-page monologues for an Equity audition for Southern Baptist Sissies at the Zephyr Theatre. "A year and a half ago I would have been freaking out," he said. This time, he used the Phrase Technique. "Line by line, I created images," he said. He was able to spend the time doing that because he wasn't trying to memorize. "I had the freedom to go down to the paper and read, and all the organic moments grew out of my reading." He booked the job.
"With memorization, you get locked into a choice," he explained. "You're 'acting.' The freedom to go down and read allows you to listen better, respond to stimulus better." Practicing in class, he was even able to stay connected when Haber's dog wandered into the scene. "I never got scared or broke my [concentration]," he said. "It was a real lesson. Now, if the casting director is eating lunch, or the phone rings, I'd be OK. You've got to be able to make different choices on the spot; that's what keeps you real."
"Be patient," advised Mitchell. "Think of it as a way to take the pressure off yourself." Warned Di Pri, "You're going to overthink it for a while."
Other tips from Haber's book: If your partner has the last line on the page, turn the page before he's finished. If you have the last line, "make sure to keep your intention strong as you turn the page"—don't drop out, don't allow the technical details to distract you from your inner life. If you have the first line on the next page, write it on the bottom of the previous page, so you have it while you're turning the page.
"The lines are the last thing you should be worrying about," Haber emphasizes in her book. "The most important thing is to continue with the life of your character." When auditioning, you can do that most easily if you give yourself permission to use the script. BSW
Margie Haber teaches audition techniques in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco. Call (310) 854-0870.
This is the first of a four-part series on various aspects of auditioning. If you have any true horror stories about an audition experience, please send them to me at email@example.com.