Sunday, May 1, 2011


The other day in a film casting session, an actor walked in and one of the writer/directors explained to him that although this actor would be auditioning in front of the writers of the material, the actor should feel free to  “go off the page” and improvise. I could see the look of skepticism on the actor’s face. Was this a joke? A test?  Go “off the page” in front of the writers who had personally and carefully, with great skill and talent, crafted each page?? Crazy talk.

From the look on this actors face in that moment, I was sure he’d been told in many audition classes to NEVER vary from the written dialogue, because that would be a sign of disrespect to the sacred text, especially if the writers are in the room.  As rumor has it, you mess with the dialogue or change even a comma or stage direction or phrase one iota, and you’re screwed. Kiss your callback or your contract or your potential Oscar acceptance speech good-bye. This time the writers were also the directors and they were saying the exact opposite.

On this particular day, this writer/director assured the actor that he and his co-writer had heard their own dialogue so many times, they were truly open to embellishments, improvs, dialogue changes. They wanted the actors to “make the character their own.” And then my director said a phrase I loved hearing. He said; “Even stumbling is good.”

I loved hearing that, for many reasons, and these are why.

Actors are often uptight during auditions. Can’t imagine why. You’re whole career might depend on it. But anyway, that tension can create a stiffness, awkward stuckness, and the fear of “screwing up” the text can add more tension. Freedom from the text loosens actors from those shackles. Relieves them of the pressure to follow the script word for word, comma for comma… there is so much more creative freedom in knowing the dialogue and then allowing for the possibility of unique and personal discovery a bit “off the page.”

Also, the expectation of perfection on any level is a trap. You are most likely portraying a human character.  I realize you may occasionally be portraying an alien from another galaxy, but let’s forget those exceptions for now. You are portraying a human character, and humans are flawed in many ways. One way is the way they speak. I don’t know about you, but I spend very little time in my day practicing for the King’s Speech. I just stumble my way through my day verbally and rather un-self-consciously.  Words just tumble out. I sometimes switch ideas mid-sentence. I mumble, unrehearsed. I sometimes ramble or repeat myself.  And yet I function quite well and people seem to understand my meaning but the phrasing, the elocution, the presentation is rarely “perfect.”

So during auditions I have seen actors “stumble” over a word or sentence, and I can see in that moment they view that incident as “screwing up.” But from the other side, to those watching, that stumble might be a very human moment that brings a wonderful vulnerability or real quality to the character. It is not rehearsed, but neither is life. That character, if they are in the moment, might stumble, stutter, forget their train of thought and find it again – those are real, natural, human moments that I wish all actors would allow themselves without judgment. Those moments actors judge as a “screw up” can either be at the least, irrelevant in a great audition, or at best, magical.

Now at times, sticking to the written dialogue is important. Comedy is an area where the timing of written jokes and the set up lines are very specifically crafted, and messing with them can ruin the comedic effect of the joke. Be aware when to take liberties and when to stick to the words as written. I’ve seen actors blow an audition because they somehow have decided they are much better writers than the actual writers of the material and they basically re-write every single line during the audition – and that is not what I am suggesting. I am suggesting letting yourself stumble at times without self-condemnation. i'm suggesting you remember that In fact, as my director said the other day, “Even stumbling is good.”