The cold read is basically dead. If an actor has sides for even a few hours, it's no longer a cold read. And with actors now typically having more time to research and prepare for auditions, the overall bar has been raised. Some actors realize this, enlisting private coaches to help with their preparation. Others, however, aren't matching their competition's efforts or paying enough attention to detail to give a dynamic read. Every actor needs to grasp that auditions must be brought in at performance level; they must be as dynamic as possible. And the only way to do this consistently is to bring a higher level of consciousness to the auditioning process.
Actors can do many things to make their reads more dynamic. Let's consider five of them: gaining clarity about the scene and its purpose; giving the material a personal interpretation; making character quality consistent; creating specific, consistent realities; and eliciting emotion from or stimulating feelings in the people viewing the audition.
To be clear about a scene, read it a few times, then answer three questions: What are the facts of the scene? Why can't this scene be deleted from the script? How does the scene end?
Answering the first question ensures you'll gather only facts, not interpretations—the who, what, when, and where of the scene. You should also collect facts about your character and your character's relationships. In answering the second question, you'll reveal the scene's purpose, which will tell you what moments to isolate and hold up. For instance, if you know the scene is there to set your character into action, you'll need to bring focus to that moment of decision or discovery. By answering the third question, you'll know the outcome of the scene: Does your character win, lose, or become stalled? And what happens next? Determining the scene's outcome will give you the clarity you need to create a dynamic ending moment for your audition.
Together your answers yield a scene blueprint—parameters in which to create personal choices and interpretations for your audition.
Your audition is the only time you get to bring your own interpretation to what's on the page. You have two choices: Execute exactly what is written, down to every period and comma, or summon the courage to reflect the scene as you see it. Acting courageously will help make your read dynamic and express your personal artistry.
To develop your interpretation, you'll want to determine your character's purpose in the scene. Some characters carry the story, some are there for support or to create conflict, and some are there solely to add color or aid exposition. Keep your character's purpose in mind when making personal choices. To add another dimension to your interpretation, you can also look at how you personally feel about what's occurring in the scene. Is anything happening that you feel so strongly about, you want to hold it up for others to see?
The most dynamic choices are the ones that produce the most interesting and appropriate actions or reactions. Play scenarios out in your head. Trust your instincts about what choices will make your performance most dynamic.
When creating a character, two elements should be considered: what the person does and how he or she does it. Someone may be loyal—for example, standing by friends, defending certain beliefs—but how that loyalty is demonstrated reveals the character's quality. A loyal person may be intensely arrogant or sincerely supportive—two different behaviors, each of which could be true of someone who is loyal.
Choose one or two adjectives to define your character's quality. These adjectives should stimulate clear behavior you can visualize. Next, decide where in the script it's best for you to reveal this behavior. Check to see that all actions are in alignment with your character's quality. Most important, keep that quality consistent from the beginning of the scene to the end.
One challenge in maintaining consistent character quality occurs when your own quality differs from that of your character. We create a character's quality outside of ourselves and aspire to it, but it often fails to stay consistent because our own quality colors or overtakes it. Examine the differences between you and your character. Within those differences, you'll find the nuances that need your attention.
Your job as an actor is to draw viewers into realities you create. To do this successfully, you need internal connections to these realities and external actions that reveal them. Drawing in and holding viewers to the realities you create requires attention to consistently executed details.
What does this mean? Think of it this way: There must be a reality to the place your character is in (environment), the people in that place (relationships), and the events taking place there (what is happening in the scene). For each reality you create, go back to your blueprint. Make sure your choices are in alignment.
With respect to environment and relationships, choose actions and activities that will reveal the realities you're creating. How do you behave differently in that place under those conditions? How do you treat that person differently than you treat others? If the environment doesn't have an impact on the scene, use it to ground yourself by creating a personal reality. The environment can also springboard you into the scene, rather than you having to wait for your cue.
When defining relationships, don't spend a lot of time creating historical details. Choose a simple phrase ("sexy boyfriend I adore," "simpleton clerk who irritates me") that defines how you see and feel about the other character. Then you can plot out behavior to reveal that reality.
With respect to events, you must make an emotional connection to what is happening in the scene and turn this into your all-consuming reality. Use imagery, personalization, and your imagination to arrive at an emotional place that compels you to take action.
Good playwriting or screenwriting elicits emotion from the viewer. The same holds true for good acting. To influence the reader (who may or may not be the casting director) at an audition and excite those watching, decide how you want to affect them. Look at the realities you've created and decide which one you can use to elicit an emotion or stimulate a feeling. For example, the environment is a cemetery late at night and you want to make the viewer nervous, or your daughter just gave birth and the emotion you want to elicit is joy. Find the behavior that will have the desired effect on the viewer.
Another way to make auditions more dynamic is to take risks. They can be character risks, personal risks, or mistakes. Let's say your scene concerns an insecure, nervous lounge singer about to propose to his girlfriend. A character risk (planned or spontaneous behavior that intensifies or shades the character's quality) would be to sing the proposal. It's quirky, off-the-wall, sentimental, unexpected. A personal risk (a behavior or emotion that the actor wouldn't normally do or feel but that aligns with the quality and intention of the character) might be singing if doing so takes the actor out of his or her comfort zone. A mistake (unintentional behavior that goes against the character's intention) would be for the singer to get angry at his girlfriend for making him nervous, jeopardizing her acceptance of the proposal.
Bookmarking is a tool I've developed for pinpointing where in the script you plan on employing the choices you've made. Each choice should be bookmarked by writing it in at the appropriate point in the script. As you rehearse, make sure you hit each of your bookmarks.
Once you've created a blueprint for your scene and done your bookmarking, now your job is to make it organic, as if it's happening to your character on the spot. This will take you from the discovery process to a performance mindset. Walk into your audition as the character, prepared physically and emotionally, as if you're walking onto the set ready to shoot or into the wings to make your entrance. Ground yourself in the realities and connect with your reader. Connect to the thoughts that will lead to your opening moment, and go for it.
The important thing is to trust the process you establish and make a commitment to do the work—for each and every audition.
John Sudol has been teaching and coaching actors for more than 25 years and has more than three and a half decades of experience in the business—from actor and writer to award-winning artistic director and independent casting director. Sudol teaches theatrical and commercial classes from his studio in Studio City, Calif.; his practice also includes career counseling and acting/life coaching for individuals across the country. He also writes and lectures on the craft of commercials and being in alignment to book. His website is www.johnsudolstudio.com.