As an acting coach who specializes in teaching the audition process for film and television, I understand the challenges actors face when handed pages of dialogue for an audition. When casting directors, agents, and managers ask actors to be “off-book,” it’s understandable, but it also creates an added layer of pressure. Sure, for callbacks, chemistry reads, and producer sessions, being memorized is essential. But is it realistic to ask actors to memorize pages of dialogue for an initial read?
When actors are forced to be off-book in a very short span of time, they spend all their prep time memorizing. There’s no time left to create life in the audition, a crucial element. In order to not be controlled by the words, memorization should be the last thing you do, not the first.
If you have limited time, it’s all too easy to panic about being off-book and give up the best part of acting: creating. There’s no fun in the pressure of making sure you have 10 pages memorized by 2 p.m. when you’ve only received the sides that morning. Your audition will never be as good as it could have been if you force yourself to memorize just for the sake of memorizing.
Casting directors and directors may want you off-book because they feel that some actors are generally terrible at using the paper. They either use it as a crutch or only look down for the line when they’re in trouble, or they believe they have to stare at the CD so they come up on every line, destroying the natural rhythm of communication.
But if an actor learns to use the paper as part of their behavior, no one notices the page in their hand.
As a trained speech therapist, I used to teach non-English speakers to talk in groups of words called “phrases” rather than attempting one word at a time and in the process, I realized that we read in phrases as well. So when an actor goes down to the script to read, they must stay down in rhythm for a while and then grab a phrase—rather than just a word—to share with the listener. This “phrasing” allows the actor to read more fluidly, thereby supporting the relationship and the character’s need.
Let’s say there are no specific instructions regarding memorization or you have one hour with a script or you panic in the middle of your audition and realize you’re not totally off-book...holding and incorporating the script is a useful tool. Stay down on the page and grab a couple of phrases before you return to share with the listener. This creates a rhythm, one that looks and feels entirely natural. (Of course, you should be in character the whole time, but the script in your hand shouldn’t impact that.)
Of course, different people will have different views on this but I don’t think it’s so black-and-white. Rather, it’s a grey area, one that allows us to be creative. You don’t have to memorize every line if you allow the script to be a part of your behavior.
In life, we don’t plan out and memorize conversations before we have them—we have no idea what we’re going to say until the words come out of our mouths! By not memorizing, you get to live in the unknown and be more present, and the same goes for auditions.
If you’re given enough time, by all means, memorize. But don’t be afraid to use the script in the audition if you haven’t been. As long as you fully live in the character’s shoes, a piece of paper in your hand shouldn’t matter.
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