Importance of Sight Reading in Acting

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HOW SIGHT READING WORKS:

Alicia arrives at her audition without being “prepared.” Her normal habit on the night before an audition is to memorize the scene and analyze her character in sufficient depth for her to make the creative “choices” that enable her to plan exactly how she will perform the role the next day. But this time she was not able to prepare as usual because her dog had suffered an injury and she had taken him to the veterinarian—the shock and stress of which left her exhausted
and upset. In the excitement, she had misplaced her sides. (Sides are pages from the script. The character you are auditioning for appears on these pages.)

The next morning, Alicia set off for her audition. “I’ll get there early,” she said to herself, “and memorize and study the script.” At the casting director’s waiting room, she picks up a fresh copy of the sides and has just finished reading the scene through once when she hears the casting assistant’s voice: “Come on in, Alicia, the casting director wants to see you now.”
Alicia goes into the casting director’s office with few expectations. From reading the scene once, she knows what it is generally about, but that is all. She reads the role with the assistant casting director without ideas or planning. She glances at the script when she needs lines and watches the assistant for cues. First she laughs. The casting director looks stern, and tears come to Alicia’s eyes. She feels fear, which translates into an unplanned experience. She is in
jeopardy without any of her usual carefully planned defenses. The experience becomes real, and, consequently, she gives a truthful performance that is refreshing and creative.

The casting director sees that Alicia is having an experience and immediately takes her in to the producers. This has never happened to her before, and she is both surprised and delighted. She has stumbled on to a creative approach to auditioning. But the question is, will she recognize what she has done? Or will she go back to her old method of rehearsing and planning how she is going to deliver every line, saying to herself, “I’m really going to knock ’em dead on this one!”

SIGHT READING AND COLD READING:

Sight reading is often mistakenly called “cold reading.” They appear to be similar, but there is a significant distinction between them. A cold reading is an audition for a scene in which the actor has not studied the script or done any preparation. Sight reading is a way of doing a cold reading and making it appear as if you had actually studied and prepared the scene beforehand.

Sight reading is the process of glancing for less than a second at the script page, picking up a line, or even a whole paragraph of lines, then delivering them honestly and spontaneously while you look directly at the other actor. Learning to sight read skillfully frees you, gives you confidence, and allows you to trust your intuition. In this chapter, I am going to tell you how to become a skilled sight reader. It is the fastest way for you to have an emotional breakthrough and to showcase your personality. Developing this skill makes you emotionally available and capable of making any adjustments the director or casting director suggests. It makes the audition process not only exciting but enjoyable.

WHAT SIGHT READING DOES:

Becoming an effective sight reader allows you to concentrate on the other actor. When you look directly at her as you deliver your lines, your subconscious instantly captures any expression or physical change in her, letting you respond at will to anything and everything. It sharpens your awareness for nuances in the other actor’s performance, and gives you freedom from dependence on the page. Mastering this ability will make you look professional in the audition. Many times in my acting class, two actors will perform a scene so brilliantly that it looks planned and rehearsed. A visitor will ask, “How long did they work on that scene?” When I answer, “They read it just once, and we don’t rehearse,” the visitor looks at me in disbelief. When you realize that you are capable of doing the exact same thing through sight reading, you will have a whole new perspective on acting. But like any art it takes practice.

HOW TO SIGHT READ:

To sight read, glance at the dialogue for a second or less and immediately return to your point of focus on the other actor. In my class exercise, I ask you to glance at the line. No matter how little you grasp in that fraction of a second, immediately focus your eyes back on the other actor. Then say the words. It is unimportant whether you remember one word or a complete sentence. At this stage of the learning process, glance at the page, grasp as many words as you can, then quickly focus on your partner and say what you remember. When you have said all that you remember, take another glance and continue. Do not start saying a line until you have focused your attention fully on the other actor. To practice sight reading, open a book to any page and hold it in front of you. Do not lay it in your lap. Pick a spot on the wall or some object as a point of focus at eye level. The preferred way to practice is to stand in front of a mirror, glance at the line in the book for a millisecond, then bring your eyes back to your point of focus, which is you. This forces you to make eye contact. Only when you are focused on that point, your eyes, say exactly what you have picked up from the page. Do not ad lib. Be exact. Do not try to comprehend the meaning, or grab more than you are capable of reading in a glance. Practice extends the number of words you can absorb each time. Remember, you cannot speak a single word of the line until your eyes are focused back on the reference point.
To be a good sight reader, practice ten minutes every morning and ten minutes every night. Sight reading is comparable to exercising any muscle in your body. If you want to stay in shape as an athlete, you work out three times a week. If you want to improve, you work out four times a week. If you want to be world class, you practice seven days a week, probably twice a day.

ACTORS, ARTISTS, ATHELETES, MUSICIANS, WRITERS:

Disciplined practice makes you proficient. The late Walter Payton, a running back for the Chicago Bears, held the record for most yards gained in a season. He would run up a hill every day while dragging a log behind him to increase the strength of his leg muscles. Opposing players paid a price to tackle Walter Payton. Great musicians became what they are by practicing daily for hours. Writers do nothing but write. Artists are famous for living at the edge of starvation just so they can paint without interruption. All creative artists study and practice constantly. But, curiously, most aspiring actors do not seem to think they need the same kind of dedication and disciplined practice. But you do. There are many skills you need to practice every day to become a professional actor. Sight reading is just one of them.

A WORD OF CAUTION:

When you practice your sight reading, your concentration tends to wane. You may find yourself engrossed in the book, rather than practicing the sight reading. Don’t get discouraged or angry with yourself. Just bring your focus back to your point of concentration, and keep going.

MATERIAL FOR PRACTICE:

Read books when you practice sight reading. Do not practice with scripts, newspapers, or magazines. Novels are best because the sentences are longer than the lines of dialogue in a script, which forces your eyes and mind to work harder because you are picking up more information.

IMPORTANCE OF SIGHT READING:

If you have mastered sight reading, the casting agent or director quickly can determine that your film personality is right for the role, that you can take direction and relate. They want to know that are you a professional who can handle the job. Remember this: developing your talent depends on sight reading more than anything else I teach. Sight reading can tap into your creativity. Reading the material only once coerces your logical brain to practice the Art of Not Knowing. This sharpens your intuition, which is the impetus that releases your creativity. Not Knowing puts you emotionally on the edge and gives you insight into the character that neither you nor the director knew existed. Only after the experience will you logically recognize the brilliance that occurred on an intuitive and spontaneous level. Many actors think they can give a better audition performance by memorizing the sides. False. If you memorize the script, you often set or limit your intuitive performance. What happens when a director asks you to read for another role, right now? Can you work off the page? He may need the part cast in the next half-hour. That’s not much time to prepare, but your job is to give the director a performance that will impress him. If you are fearful of sight reading and become anxious, your mind loses focus and you appear unprofessional. Mastering sight reading makes you self confident and gives you the edge in auditions.

In a high-pressure sight-reading situation, a director can quickly learn a great deal about you as an actor and as a person. Are you spontaneous? If you are a skilled technical actor, you might look spontaneous the first time. But repeating the performance in the same way is a sign to the director that you are not relating. You are just a pretty good technician.

SECOND-GUESSING THE DIRECTOR:

You cannot second-guess the director. You may have had the script for a day or two, but the director on a feature film has probably worked on it for over a year. Any ideas you have about what the director wants can only be guesses. The best thing you can do in an audition is to relate spontaneously to the person you are reading with by concentrating on nuances and emotional changes. Trusting your sight reading allows you to relate and to respond to a director’s adjustments.

MULTIPLE AUDITIONS:

If you are scheduled for several commercial auditions a day, it’s impossible to memorize, or even prepare, for that many parts. Sight reading is crucial. What do you do if the sides are available only at the casting session? If you arrive and are immediately escorted in with no time to prepare? If you have worked hard at your sight reading, you have nothing to worry about.
Let’s return to Alicia and her experience at the beginning of the chapter. She discovered dramatically how effective sight reading is in a cold reading. But in all probability, she will go back to her old way of working, not understanding what happened in that audition. She may think it was luck, not talent, that brought her to the producers. But the casting director saw that she had an experience—a real experience—and that’s what movies are all about.


HELPFUL HINTS:

  1. To keep you from becoming engrossed in the book you have selected for
    sight-reading practice, set a kitchen timer at three-minute intervals to
    remind you to bring your focus back to sight reading. As your concentration
    improves, extend the time by thirty-second intervals.
  2. Sight read books, not magazines or scripts.
  3. Sight read material that interests you.
  4. Discipline yourself to practice sight reading every day. Remember, this
    is your career.

About the Author

Jeremiah Comey
Jeremiah Comey is a Hollywood-based acting teacher and a trainer of acting teachers. He has conducted classes and workshops all over the world and in such universities as UCLA. He has acted for both stage and television.

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