To be, or not to be off book: that is the question. An anguished mental wrestle often asked, and debated heatedly among actors. What’s the true answer? There are two types of auditioning actor: the off book actor; and the reading off the page actor. One of the two actor scenarios moves forward further in a casting process.
When involved with the casting of COSBY (the second incarnation; not the funny one) the writers often toiled late into the purple hours of the early morning reworking an episode soon to tape. Once, upon my 6 AM arrival to the studios in Long Island City on a taping day, a voicemail greeted me: “We need a doctor. 11 AM auditions.” No gender specified. No age range provided. Actors needed to be round up quickly. Agents contacted immediately in the stone age of faxes and landlines. Email and cell phones was a relatively foreign form of communication in the mid-‘90s. When the dozen or so actors available on short-notice trained to Queens each actor was off-book for their “move it” audition.
Unless a cold read audition: casting expects an actor to be off book. Why? Directors, writers, and producers look forward to witness an actor’s fully invested dive into story and character. Casting personnel watching an actor continually reading from the side often only see the top of the actor’s head. Casting isn’t auditioning the work of the actor’s hair stylist.
Actors off book for an audition are actors who:
– Appear confident
– Control the audition
– Demonstrate to the director a strong work ethic (i.e. the actor will always be ready come rehearsals)
– Permit themselves to know the words not the audition (i.e. the actor is free to explore possibilities and risks)
– Can often move ahead towards call-backs and/or being hired over on-book colleagues
Being off book doesn’t mean an actor is to audition without the audition side in hand. With nerves and anxiety at full throttle mischief may play. Nerve gremlins cause the actor to forget words or stumble on a phrase. The potential for nerve gremlins is expected and normal in an audition. But what if there’s no side in the actor’s hand? The actor is doomed.
Tips for actors being off book:
– Have the side in hand
– When the reader flips the page of their copy of the side the actor flips their own page copy. If the reader has a tablet and is swiping and the actor has paper; for each reader swipe the actor flips a page. Same with tablet to tablet reader to actor scenarios. This trick will keep the actor and reader on the same page should the nasty nerve gremlin have the gall to play havoc with the actor’s memory
– If the dialogue (or screen / stage directions) indicate the character reads from a paper or presents a document such as a contract: Extend the side briefly to the left or right, and then extend to the reader the character’s document. For a reading character place the paper before you at chest level to indicate your character is reading a document
Memorizing lines is not to memorize a “performance.” Memorizing lines for an audition presents the actor with independence to have an organic interpretation for their character. Know the lines. Explore the story. Offer to casting the discovery of the character in your voice.
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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Elon and Wright State University. He is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.
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