This is one of the most common questions we get at StageMilk. At least once a day someone will email or comment and ask us how they can combat a bad reader in a self-tape or audition situation. Folks, I’ve gotta be honest with you, this is a really tricky one, the pitfalls are deep and the minefield is wide. But over the course of this article, I am going to give you some guidance which will hopefully help you diagnose if you have a bad reader very quickly, give you some tactics about how to deal with them in an audition situation and some common mistakes that trip up a lot of actors.
What signifies a bad reader?
When we are talking about a bad reader, what does that mean? The first thing that really jumps to mind for me is about energy. A bad reader will approach a breakup scene with the same level of energy as they will a hostage situation, as they will a check out operator in a grocery store getting an order incorrect. A bad reader does nothing with the stakes of these scenes, they don’t interpret the given circumstances implicit in the text and bring them to life. They can often seem bored by the words on the page and just read them out without feeling, or engagement or life behind the words.
During the lockdowns of 2020 we saw a lot of tapes from actors who were doing scene practice work with family, friends or partners who were not interested in being a part of it. These readers were very monotone, seemed disinterested in the words on the page and the life of the scene. They are not interested in telling the story of the scene or at least don’t know how to tell the story of the scene in an engaging way with the person in front of the camera.
Another signifier of a bad reader is how they respond to punctuation. If you know there is an ellipsis in the text and they don’t take the time for it, the treat commas like they’re full stops and exclamation marks like they’re commas you are in for a tough time. Punctuation is so important, particularly in theatre. If you are doing a scene across from someone without a knowledge of how to use it it’s going to be tough work.
I will extrapolate on that further by saying if your reader hasn’t learnt the 10 Lessons that made me a better actor, they’re going to be tough to work within this environment.
Tips and Tactics
So now we have a common vernacular fo what we’re looking for (or at) when we’re talking about a bad reader lets talk about how to deal with it.
Regardless of the performance of the reader, you can still make the given circumstances of the scene real and palpable for yourself. In spite of their energy or approach, you can still have the scene really alive for yourself. You don’t want to sink to their level, you want to bring them up to yours. It is possible to go too far with this and I will go into that in more detail below.
At its core, this is still your audition or self-tape! You are the one on-screen and it is your time in the room to get the best performance possible. So go for that, invest into those given circumstances, personalise them, bring them to life and use as much as you can of the readers offers to drive the scene.
Your endowment skills get a real work out when dealing with a bad reader! Uta Hagen defines it as: ‘Endowment is the art of “endowing” an object with properties that it may not possess in real life (i.e., the smell of a rose), or that may cause danger to the performer onstage (a sharp knife)’ Now you must endow the reader with the attributes of being ‘Meryl Streep’ – no not really BUT endowing them with the attributes of the character you are speaking to IS really useful.
You see, so much of acting is about relationship and point of view. What is your relationship to the other character you are speaking to, and how do you feel about them? If you genuinely endow them with those attributes you have a much better chance of mitigating the reader. Also, their lack of energy or indifference can be interpreted in a multitude of ways if you allow it. For example, if you’re playing a low-level employee and they’re your boss, could you endow them with being a threat, and that their indifference shows how cold and vicious they really are? For sure. A love interest could just be playing hard to get and so on.
Even if they are not giving you much, you can still use it to your advantage!
Pace is so important, and there is a common misconception about it too. When I talk to actors about pace, more often than not they are thinking that they are saying the lines too slowly. Occasionally, this is true, but more often than not pace refers to the gaps between lines. The space between the reader finishing and you starting. Unless otherwise directed by the script or the director, I would go for lots of pace. Be right on those cues, go for making it snappy and conversational when in doubt!
The biggest and most common mistake is going for any of the above recommendations too hard. This is why this is so difficult, you really have to tread a fine line between having a nice pacey scene, and you and the reader being in completely different scenes with no synergy between you. Every situation here is going to be a little different, but as an overarching guideline make sure you are still really listening to them, really taking in what they have to say and allowing yourself to be affected by the content of it, even if the delivery didn’t give you much to go off.
The other thing to watch out for is frustration. A poor reader can just make you mad. At least, bad readers have made me mad! And that frustration has coloured my performance of the scene. This may help in some situations, if the given circumstances of the scene require you to be frustrated then you are in the game! If not, than this can be really problematic. Again, it’s a spot to flex that endowment muscle and really commit to seeing who the character sees, not what you the actor sees.
A bad reader is one of the most tricky situations in acting and can be really difficult to navigate. Hopefully, this article has given you a few ideas on how to approach this situation next time you find yourself in it! If you want to be part of the solution to bad readers, you should work on your acting every month by joining our Online Scene Club! It’s a great program with a fantastic community of actors from all over the world! Click the link below to find out more.