1. Start with the facts you’re given:
It’s time to be a text detective. Find the irrefutable facts in your script (aka given circumstances). Make no assumptions yet. Only the things you know for sure. These are the foundation upon which you build your reading.
2. Who are you?
What can you learn from the words your character chooses? Is there a word or phrase they repeat? Do they use an interesting expression or word choice or in an unusual way? What do the other characters say about you? What can you learn about your education, temperament, sense of humor, moral compass, etc.
3. What do you want?
What is your character’s great dream? What do they want more than anything else, the thing that drives them to do everything they do?
4. What is the obstacle?
What or who is the source of the conflict in the scene? In other words, what or who is keeping you from getting what you desperately need? That’s who you need to get past to reach your goal.
5. What’s at stake?
What will happen if you don’t get what you want? Life and death, literally or figuratively, works well. “If I don’t get what I want I’ll die,” “If I don’t steal this loaf of bread my sister’s child will starve,” etc. The stakes must be very high in order to drive you to action.
6. What are the relationships?
Use your own.
Unless it runs blatantly against the facts you gleaned at the start, decide that the people, events and objects you talk about are from your own experience. Attempting to develop a character in 15 minutes isn’t advisable.
Using what you already know allows you to have a specific, personal point of view about everything you encounter in the world of the play. If your character loves someone deeply choose someone you love deeply. If your character talks about a beautiful place or memory from their childhood, substitute a childhood memory of your own. If they mention spinach use how you feel about spinach. There’s no wrong choice in this situation but you must have a point of view. This shorthand will bring life to your reading because you’ll just tell the truth about everything you say.
If your personal experience runs against the facts of the scene then, using the power of your imagination, change the details of your experience to make them a good fit for the circumstances. Let’s say your character is a criminal but you have no personal point of reference for that. But you might have a delicious sin you committed that you completely got away with that you’re secretly proud of having pulled off. Technically not breaking the law but it might work for the scene. No sins that work for you? Perhaps there was a moment in your life when you had a chance to commit a “crime” but you chose not to. Imagine what might have happened if you had actually done it? Create the feelings you might have had, the thrill of saying yes to the possibility, your nervousness on the day, the last minute second thoughts, the nausea, self-doubt, fear and self-loathing at your cowardice as you were about to do it and the exhilaration and rush of adrenaline as you pushed past it and did it anyway! You were hooked! You got away with it and never looked back. Whether it’s your own experience or experience with a touch of imagination it will be faster and fuller than starting from something you know nothing about.
7. Place and time
Identify the era and location where the scene takes place. If it’s a time other than our own, what societal factors might affect your behavior? For example, a woman in an earlier time period may have to be less direct in pursuing what she wants than a contemporary woman might. Are you indoors or outdoors? Is it public or private? Is it hot, cold or somewhere in between? How do these things affect you behavior in the scene? How do you feel about the place? Where have you just come from? Where are you going?
At a cold read no one expects you to be familiar with the script. The fact you will have a real, personal point of view about the material will put you ahead of 80% of those auditioning. Relax, be yourself and simply telling them truthfully how you feel in these imaginary circumstances.
9. Listen closely to direction and make adjustments
If they ask you to make another choice choose different people to talk to, change the way you go about getting what you want, make your obstacle larger so you have to fight harder to get what you want, etc. Don’t throw out the truth of what you’re doing to please them. Just incorporate what they suggest into what you’re already doing. If they weren’t interested in you they wouldn’t have asked you to make an adjustment.
10. Have fun
Yes, have fun! This is the time for you to commit to what you’ve discovered in the script, to give it your all and have a blast. You’re doing what you love to do and this is your opportunity to do your best and possibly move your career another step forward. Stay positive and let them see you at your best.
These simple steps will help you improve your next cold reading enormously. Let me know if you try them and how it goes for you in the comments below!
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All my best,
Philip Hernandez is a respected acting teacher and singing coach in NYC. He is also the only actor in Broadway history to play both Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. He created principal roles in Broadway’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Paul Simon’s The Capeman. You may also know him from his many television appearances: Gotham, Blue Bloods, Nurse Jackie, Elementary, Person of Interest, Hostages and Damages to name a few. For information about acting lessons CLICK HERE or singing lessons CLICK HERE.