Cold readings

Continuing the series on theatre education for high school students…

I never liked auditioning as an actor, but the process is much more fun when you’re on the other side of the table.

Still, as the director, you need to have a plan going in.

Part of your job is to pick out excerpts from your script for cold readings. For those unfamiliar with the term, a cold reading is basically the opposite of a prepared monologue. A cold reading is an excerpt from the script handed to actors at an audition, and they have maybe a few minutes to prepare before they’re called to perform it in front of the director.

The cold reading will help you determine which actors can think on their feet and demonstrate creativity.

After they perform their initial reading, you can give them some direction. This is the most fun part.

The goal here is to see if the actors can take direction. The ideal actor can both develop his/her own ideas for the role and also incorporate your ideas. It’s the old saying: Two heads are better than one. Theatre is a collaborative art. A wild card actor or a tyrannical director might reduce the quality of the overall production.

So, in the initial cold reading, you see what the actors can do on their own. Then you throw some direction at them to see how they respond to you. Maybe they’ll nail the reading exactly as you wanted them to, or perhaps they’ll develop something that will exceed your expectations. But if they go down some other path that’s not what you’re looking for…well, better to discover that before you cast those particular folks.

The direction you give during an audition doesn’t have to be the exact same direction you’d give during a rehearsal. It can. There’s nothing wrong with that. But here, in the audition, you have a bit more flexibility.

You’re on a hunt to discover which actors have the specific skills your show needs. If your play is a comedy, you can give some ridiculous direction like “Now read that part as a mad scientist” or “Please read it as a gorilla with head lice,” and enjoy watching what the actors come up with.

When you throw these ridiculous directions at them, you start to get a feel for each actor’s range. If the mad scientist, lice-infested gorilla, and original character all bear a striking resemblance to each other, then you might have a one-note actor. It might still be the one note that you need, but if you later decide you want to do something different with the character, you’re going to have to work extra-hard with that actor to pull him/her out of that narrow range.

But how do you select the cold reading samples in the first place?

Generally, the length should be about a page or two–or a minute or two when read aloud. (And you can always stop actors in mid-audition whenever you’ve seen what you needed, for good or bad.)

A scene between two people usually works well. You want to see how each actor works with other people. If you need to edit the script a bit–maybe rearrange or reassign some lines to make it work–you can do so. Auditions are not public performances, so don’t worry about copyright here. Use whatever will help you find the right actors.

Don’t stop with just one cold reading scene. Try to have three ready. Maybe one can be a two-actor scene, another a monologue, and the final one more than two characters. Give yourself some options to work with. You might not know exactly who’s going to show up until the auditions start.

Also keep in mind gender combinations. Do you need to see a guy/girl combo, or something else? Here, too, it’s a good idea to give yourself some options. Be prepared.

The key is: Know what you’re looking for, and tailor your cold readings to seek out those qualities in the auditioning actors. Then have a strategy for what you’re going to do with the actors when they’re auditioning in front of you.