Backstage Experts Answer: 8 Tips for Actors Struggling With Dyslexia

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Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

Hello! And welcome to our first installment of Backstage Experts Answer. If you’re reading this column, you’re probably an actor who wants take control of his or her own career. You’re smart, determined, and you want to be well-informed. Well, we want to help.

We called in the big guns for this: our team of Backstage Experts—industry professionals whose professions range from acting teachers to vocal coaches, casting directors, private coaches, and far beyond.

You read their articles constantly (hopefully!), but here’s advice tailored specifically to you. This column will address questions our readers pose on our Facebook or Twitter pages.

Our first question comes from Lukas D. who asks: “I am a dyslexic and terrible at cold-reading. I hate this part of auditions. Do you have any advice for dyslexic actors who can’t read a word? Even if I memorize it 10 minutes before, it’s all blown away by nerves.”

Rob Adler, founder of AdlerImprov Studio
Lukas has two problems that are connected. The nerves are because of his bad past experiences. The dyslexia can be circumnavigated. There’s memory, and then there’s muscle memory: Improvisation training will help develop the muscle memory necessary to stay relaxed and present if things go haywire. Find a coach to teach you a way to play with scripted scenes using improv without changing the text.

There are many good techniques for reading with dyslexia (including closing one eye), but it is almost unheard of to be asked to cold-read on set. For the audition, ask for more time. Tell your agent “I’d never show up to set unprepared. I’d love to take a day and bring them my best work. Can I come in tomorrow?”

Carolyne Barry, on-camera and commercial teacher
When you are nervous and concerned that you will do a terrible cold-read because you are dyslexic, you will not do a good audition. I believe the best advice I have to offer is to build your confidence so that if you make a mistake, you know you can handle it and easily stay in your read. Understand everyone usually makes some mistake in their audition, but it is how he/she handles it that determines how he/she is perceived. I believe and have seen it evidence in my classes that when actors with dyslexia train with a good improv teacher for at least six months, they do better cold-reads.

Tracy Byrd, L.A.-based casting director
Firstly, words like “terrible” and “hate” have power. You are psyching yourself out with you words and feelings from the beginning. You need to get rid of the negativity towards cold-reading. Secondly, there is a reader app that will read the copy out loud to you to help you memorize. What do you think about getting that app for your phone? Lastly, relax and breathe, it’s an audition, not a life or death situation.

Stephanie Ciccarelli, co-founder of
Knowing that a cold-read is required, do all that you can to prepare before the audition. Whether it’s a matter of days or several hours in advance, learning a number of details about the role you’re auditioning for will help showcase how well you can act, taking some of the focus off of the cold-read itself. In this way, you’ll be somewhat warmed up for the audition before you even see the script.

Creating a backstory for the character, infusing yourself into their manner of speaking, and adopting their physicality will bring you closer to the core of the character and set you apart.

Armed with this knowledge (and greater confidence), bring a buddy along so you have someone to go over the script with you in the minutes leading up to your audition. Have him or her read a line or two from the script for you and then read it back in character. Because you know the character better than most people auditioning, you will be able to present the lines you managed to learn well, and even improvise in character if need be.

Many successful actors find cold-reads difficult for a number of reasons. Orlando Bloom and Henry Winkler, among others, struggle with dyslexia. Dame Judi Dench, who has macular degeneration, learns her lines by having someone read them to her. Whatever your particular challenge, know that you can rise above it with some planning and a little help from your friends.

Brette Goldstein, NYC-based casting director
Hi Lukas! This isn’t easy, and you can’t necessarily fix the dyslexia, but you can work to manage the nerves a little bit and work on memorization skills. I don’t have dyslexia, but I can confess that I used to stammer every year at Passover seders when reading aloud. It was like I was suddenly reduced to a first grade reading level. By breathing, slowing down a bit, and simply reading out loud more in life (generally with actors in auditions), I am much more comfortable when it comes reading those ridiculous paragraphs I always get stuck with in the Passover Hagaddah. I would begin by trying to read out loud for five minutes a day. Then, once a week, read for 10 minutes to a roommate, partner, etc., so the stakes will be higher as there is someone listening and “judging.” I believe the memorization will get easier when the nerves dissipate. Also, if you only have a few minutes to look at a cold scene, I’d rather you have a clear sense of objective, actions, relationship, and an overall understanding of the scene rather than spending your time memorizing. Hope this helps!

Amy Lyndon, acting teacher and creator of the Lyndon Technique
The best thing to do, Lukas, is to stop memorizing. Break down your script one line at a time. Look at every line as a separate thought and understand exactly why you’re saying what you’re saying. Then, look at the next line and see how it connects with the previous line. You’re nervous because you’re picking up the energy in the room because you have holes in your homework and it’s full of disconnects. Get clear on what you’re saying, doing, and feeling. Get busy understanding the story and who it is you’re responding to and why. Then you’ll be invested in the doing, not the result. If you run lines, then they will sound like lines run and not have any connection to anything. Take time to understand what the other person is saying to you from your character’s point of view and your response is sure to make sense according to your character's point of view.

Anthony Meindl, L.A.-based acting coach
It’s OK to say to the CD that you are dyslexic and that though you might stumble upon some words you are going to power through the material and not let that affect the essence of your work. Having a personal challenge, handicap, or obstacle doesn’t need to hold you back as a creator, or define you as someone unable to act because of your needs. They’re what make you you! So don’t try to hide them. Share them and be released from them imprisoning you in your mind.

Denise Simon, NYC-based acting coach
I have had many dyslexic students. The best remedy I have found is to read out loud every day. The more practice reading aloud the more confident and skilled you will become. Another technique is to break the words down phonetically. Keep us posted on your progress and success.

Ilene Starger, NYC-based casting director
As challenging as it is, try to breathe in order to remain calm. So many talented actors struggle with dyslexia; you are not alone! If possible, before pressuring yourself to memorize something, read it through several times, either aloud, or to yourself. Don’t worry about “acting” right away, as that will create further stress. Try to break everything down to “I'm just having a conversation” in order to demystify the process. Know that every actor fumbles words and is rarely word-perfect due to nerves. Do whatever works for you to build your retention skills. Perhaps when preparing material, you can enlist the help of a trusted actor friend to run lines with you, if that is possible. All the best to you!

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