There are cold reads as they exist in acting class and there are cold reads as they exist in first-project productions (student films and novice production companies). Then there are cold reads as they exist in the professional arena of the industry.
The first two are rushed with often unrealistic expectations marked by a shoddy understanding of the business. The latter refers to a legitimate/professional cold read: When a casting director, producer, director, or writer hands you a piece of text (audition sides or on-set revisions) and says, “We would love to see what you can do with this material. Please take 10–20 minutes—in your own space—to prepare the piece. It’s a given that you won’t be memorized. The only difference between a fully prepared audition and a winning cold read is that your lines are not memorized.
Somehow, certain acting teachers and low-budget productions have gotten the idea that they can hand actors some sides, say “take five minutes” (which can end up to be more like two) and expect to see a decent performance. This is akin to an emergency room doctor walking up to an unconscious patient and the nurse turning to him/her, and saying, “Go on, save his life.” Obviously, any doctor, no matter how brilliant, would have to take the time to first determine what was wrong with the patient before taking steps to prevent a fatality.
More importantly, no doctor worth a damn would allow himself or his talent and experience to be put in a situation so unprofessional that it bordered on absurdity. Actors need to have the same zero-tolerance policy for these unprofessional cold read situations.
There is no professional situation in which an actor would have a script dropped on them and be asked to “act” without being given a minimal allotment of prep time. Dropping a script on a performer and giving them the command “go” takes away their power. It is the responsibility and the duty of the actor to stand up for him or herself and say, “I’m going to need 15 minutes of prep time” with a firm voice and a smile.
Last week, a client described a horrible cold read experience she recently had. She said she felt extremely rushed and overwhelmed. When I asked how long did you take to prepare she said, “They only gave me one minute.” I instantly knew this must have been a first-project production team. No major/reputable casting office or production company would ever tell an actor she only had one minute to prepare previously unseen material.
Thus, if people are going to treat you, the actor, in an unprofessional manner, you need to be the one who puts them in check. This doesn’t have to be done in an annoyed or irritated fashion, as such emotions really just stem from fear, after all, and you’d just be reflecting the emotions projected at you in this instance. By asking this production team or acting teacher for the necessary amount of time, you’re like a kind guidance counselor who essentially reminds them how to treat people. By sticking up for yourself, you’re essentially doing them a favor.
Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!