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Backstage Experts

1 Tip for Auditioning With a ‘Bad’ Reader

1 Tip for Auditioning With a ‘Bad’ Reader

We’ve all had a reader in an audition mumble and stumble monotone over the sides, whilst we attempt to remain in the scene, develop some kind of relationship with them, and somehow maintain the emotional journey. As much as you might love to have Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender read opposite you, it’s rarely going to be the case that you have incredible support in auditions, so it’s high time you give up relying on it for your success.

Having been hired as a professional reader for film, television, TVCs, musical theater, and large stage productions for well over a decade, I know a thing or two about this topic. I have read for American, UK, Australian, New Zealand, South African, and Asian producers, directors, and casting directors. Thousands of auditions later, I can tell you that there are many reasons you may complain about a “bad” reader, but here are five tips to keep in mind if you do:

1.Readers are sometimes told to “keep it neutral,” so as not to get in the way of the actor auditioning. Alternatively, they may be sometimes given the direction to be “unpredictable”—even changing lines mid-run. This is not to trap you, but to see if you survive hitting speed bumps in the road.

2.Readers can be called in and handed multiple scenes over several projects at the last minute, whereas you’ve been preparing only yours for some time.

3. Some readers are trying hard to give you everything you need, but what they offer is simply not what you had in mind. 

4. Many actors complain about a “bad reader,” and yet are woefully underprepared themselves. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone…

5. The definition of bad is entirely subjective. The person who ultimately books the gig may attribute their success to the work of the same reader who allegedly “ruined your audition.”  

You will probably never know why your scene partner in a casting stared blankly at you and whispered a line that was in capital letters on the page leading to what you had hoped would be your emotional crescendo. The fact is though, it really doesn’t matter. One might just as well move to a small village in Japan and complain that the locals don’t speak perfect English. They’re just not going to, so give it up. Like all acting technique, you need to learn to be self-sufficient in the audition, and overcoming issues with a reader is one of the most useful skills you can attain.

Imagine never again being thrown by a reader behaving contrary to your expectations or skipping your favorite line. Imagine a situation where even sides delivered in random order could not throw your performance. Imagine someone tossing flaming banana peels at you in the middle of a scene, and knowing you just had the best audition of your life.

I have been asked variously over the years by established international directors and casting directors to skip the occasional line of my dialogue, dramatically change my pace on the other actor, and even remain silent unless I felt absolutely compelled to speak. Almost every actor fell apart in these extreme cases, but only those who held it together went into the running to land the job.

Uncommon? Sure. Unorthodox? Certainly. Unfair? Not to the ones who got the gig.

Michael Caine, in his 1990 book and video series “Acting In Film,” recommends that, “if the other actor isn’t giving you the reaction you want, imagine they are.” With a vast body of work behind him (even back then), his suggestion warrants exploration. Think about it. If it were in fact possible for actors to follow his advice, then never again would a “bad reader” be a valid excuse for failing to book a job.

When I read his book years ago, I immediately wondered if Caine meant that I could smile in a scene with him, and he would imagine that I frowned, in which case I needn’t be there in the scene at all. The boom swinger could read my lines to Caine as he delivers his performance to a cantaloupe gaffer taped to a C-stand with a pair of eyes drawn on it. I’ll stay in my cozy trailer, awaiting my close up, I thought.  

Over time I came to the realization that there was an entirely different way of taking Caine’s suggestion.

Have you ever seen a child having a temper tantrum about nothing, and found yourself smiling at his or her theatrics? Has anyone ever told you how great their life is, but you’ve grown immediately suspicious that they’re compensating for a deep sadness? Have you ever had your partner stumble and stammer over their feelings, and felt so incredibly touched at their botched attempt to express their love to you?

The fact is, our reactions are based only partly on what the people around us actually say. The rest of it is made up of what our opinion is of what we see and hear, and what we think of the person saying it in that moment. If your opinion of your reader is that they are “bad” or “ruining your audition,” then don’t be surprised if your reactions echo this, and you have a terrible time in the room.

Imagine instead treating your reader in a casting as the actual character opposite you, regardless of how they perform as an actor. Let’s say you’re auditioning for the role of their lover in a film. The reader is mumbling? Imagine your lover, for whom you hold great affection, is mumbling. The reader stammers and accidentally skips a line, which throws the scene into confusion. Imagine your lover can’t express himself or herself as eloquently as you’d hoped, but you are flattered that they’re trying. The reader either blurts out lines at rapid-fire pace, or else drawls through them like they’re ready for bed. Imagine that your lover is doing exactly the same, and that you feel genuine concern for their wellbeing. Even if they seem angry with you, imagine your lover is angry because they can’t convey how they truly feel, which might be taken by you as endearing.

You can turn anything you receive into anything you want. So do it.

A tennis player needn’t smash the ball back just because that’s how it was served. It’s the first law of Thermodynamics: Energy can’t be created or destroyed, but it can be transformed. 

Note: You are not ignoring the reader, and you are not manufacturing your response. You are taking what the reader is serving you, but just returning it in a different way. It is still real. It is still natural. It is still connected. It is still organic. Probably even more so than being irritated by everything your reader says and does.

You really only have two choices with someone you consider “bad reader” in auditions: adapt or crumble. Which would you prefer?  

Like this advice? Read more from our Backstage Experts!

Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Barry’s full bio!


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