The majority of actors auditioning for commercials believe they must memorize the copy in order to give their best audition. I believe the opposite is often the case. When actors have more than two lines of dialogue, I have seen their determination to memorize the material—allowing them to not look at the cue card—hurt their auditions. How many times have you been sure you had the material memorized only to discover you didn't? In addition, when actors focus on memorizing, they usually lock in a line reading, which hurts their instinctual interpretation. Cue cards were added to commercial auditions to assist the actor and take the pressure off. When you're adept at using them, they're a big help.
Memorize the first and last line of the copy, and then only as much as you can organically memorize while prepping the material. It is important to make eye contact at the start and finish of your audition. In between, feel free to look at the lines whenever you need to. Most actors agree this is a good idea, but they have difficulty trusting themselves and the process.
The four main reasons that actors believe they should memorize the script are:
1) They'll give a better audition when off book.
2) If they have to look at the cue card, it will break the flow and put them in their head.
3) Those watching the audition will think less of them.
4) With long copy or scenes, they will lose their place on the cue card.
All four of these reasons are either fallacies or excuses unfit for professionals. It may seem easy to memorize commercial copy when preparing at home or in the waiting room, yet when inside the casting room in front of the camera, most actors will forget some lines. When that happens, many are so sure they know the script that they'll take a few seconds to try to remember the line instead of just checking the card. Unfortunately, it is this very thing—struggling to recall dialogue—that puts actors in their heads and spoils the flow of the audition. Taking a moment to glance at the cue card helps the flow.
When the powers that be watch a videotape or DVD of auditions, they make no judgment when actors look at the cue card. They expect it and accept it as part of the audition. They focus mainly on performance, type, believability, and looks.
An audition cue card consists of a single sheet of paper or cardboard, usually about 2 feet by 3 feet. Because the words on the card are rarely written the same way they appear on the printed page given to the actor when he or she arrives, it can be difficult for many actors to quickly make the visual adjustment. Here's a tip that should help:
When you get a piece of copy at an audition, turn the paper over and write the words out three or four times on the back, but lay out each version differently. Then, each time you rehearse, look at a different version. This way you won't get locked into seeing the dialogue in only one layout, which should help you adjust to the copy on the cue card in the audition room.
The more you use cue cards, the better you will become at using them effectively. If you're hesitant, practice. You can find copy to practice with in magazine ads. Write it out several ways on a piece of paper, and prepare your audition working from that page.
When you're ready to videotape your practice audition, use a cue card as you would in an actual audition. Buy a very large pad of paper—the kind found in art supply stores—and write out the copy on one page in large print. If you have a video camera, work with it. If not, draw a big black dot on a piece of paper, hang it up, and treat it like a camera lens. Then hang your cue card to the side of your camera or black dot.
Instead of using your prep time to memorize, do your acting work. Focus on the acting investigation: the "who," "what," "where," and "why." This will enhance the quality of your audition while you read the words.
Since 1982, veteran casting director and actor Carolyne Barry (www. carolynebarry.com) has taught commercial audition technique classes as well as administrated the improv and acting workshops at her Los Angeles studio.