Four Essential Acting Questions Answered

by Ruth Kulerman

Reminder note cards on corkboard

The most important and most often asked acting questions answered.

Numerous questions have been sent in during the past several months which, although answered privately, certainly affect many of us. However, those answers did not warrant a full article each, so here they are now.

1. What are Sides?
"Sides" are segments taken from a script. A few lines, one page, or a whole scene, in lieu of a monologue when you audition. This is what casting people mean when they say "There are sides." Sometimes you do not see the sides until you go to the audition. In this case then, you will be doing a "cold reading." ("Cold reading" is auditioning with material that you have not seen in advance.)

However, in the case of TV, feature films, or many regional theaters, the sides are given to you in advance. Sides can be obtained by your agent or manager, sometimes one day in advance, sometimes a week in advance. Your agent/manager downloads the sides and you pick them up or they can be faxed to you.

Unless you have several days and the sides are relatively short (one or two short speeches) do NOT spend time memorizing them. Instead, spend the time working on the sides themselves. Your aim first is to try and make sense of the story. That is, try to discover by inference what is going on in the plot and what your particular character is doing in the plot. If it is a play, Goggle the play itself to read reviews. If it is a new play, Google the playwright. If there is no information, you are on your own--you and the text (page) in hand.

2. How can I connect with the reader at an audition?
I shudder internally when someone says after an audition "I had a really good connection with the reader." Please do not scream heresy, but "connection" is highly overrated. Remember, you will have a reader only if you are doing "sides," a passage from the script. You probably will have had the sides in advance and have decided on your delivery.

Your line delivery at an audition is in your control. Do what you have prepared. If your reader does not feed you what you need or expect, go ahead with your prepared interpretation anyway--unless the reader's delivery elicits a bolder, more interesting response than the one you had prepared (a most unlikely scenario!). The audition committee is much more interested in you and your acting than in your connection with their reader. Connection does not determine the degree of talent. Remember that whatever connection is necessary is determined by the listener. Hopefully in a audition with sides you will be speaking more than you are listening!

As in actual performance, at an audition you should be a sponge to what the reader (or the other actor) is saying. This "sponge" idea will make you a better listener. However, someone very savvy (whose name I probably never knew) said: "Actors are the only people on earth who stare into each other's eyes when they are talking to each other." So making eye connection--or even making a "great connection" with a reader probably does not even carry a vote when it comes to electing whom to cast. Remember: The listener looks. The speaker thinks.

3. What is the best preparation for an acting career?
Instant spontaneous response? See a shrink. Next response: Go to Tibet and then see a shrink. Last response: A daily dose of arsenic after seeing a shrink daily. The truth about preparing for a career in acting isn't exotic or mysterious--two three-word sentences.
  1. Learn to read.
  2. Learn to hear.
("Hear," not "listen." Hear is what you do to learn how to act realistically. Listen is what you do in a scene.)

The Most Important Preparation for an Actor: Learn to Read.
Chances are the text has all the information you need to do a role. I believe an undergrad major heavy in English Lit is the best way to learn how to act. Acting depends on what you do with the words. Vast and varied reading--that is, learning how to read is the way to learn what words are doing. Embrace courses in poetry, even if they are merely survey courses in, for instance, 19th Century British poets or 20th Century American poets. Read 19th Century British and 20th Century American novels. And read and study carefully an essay (now on the Internet) called "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell. That essay will open a door to language. Its thrust is not so much politics as it is the use of language. In my philosophy, Horatio, the invention of language far outstrips the wheel.

Language, words, are the tools of an actor. Learn how to read them for meaning, both obvious and subtle.

The Next Most Important Preparation for an Actor: Learn to Hear.
Train your ears. If you are going to learn how to hear, you might as well hear the best. To learn how to listen, so that you will know how to deliver a line, study British acting, even if your only source of British acting is a video of the great British TV comic series (Fawlty Towers, Yes, Prime Minister, As Time Goes By, Are You Being Served?). Study them carefully. Listen to the vocal nuances--even in the broadest comedy.

I recommend three or four films to watch over and over and over. Listen carefully to the delivery. Watch their faces, eyes, stillness. Start with anything with Margaret Rutherford in it. The best may be "The Best Days of Your Life." Also study "Careful, He Might Hear You." There are a few French films that can teach you almost everything you want to know about acting. However, a British film, "A Year in Provence," combines the best English and French acting. The French actors in that film are so good you are positive they are not actors. Listen and learn. Your ears will teach you the difference between monotone and variety, between fake and real.

4. What is the most difficult thing about acting?
No, the most difficult part is not getting a role. The most difficult part is not having to audition. The most difficult part is not trying to get auditions. The most difficult part is not the rejection. The most difficult part is not getting an agent or finding a great teacher. These are what so many actors find difficult. I do not agree. Of course they are all difficult. But not nigh on to impossible. Everything listed so far can be overcome, survived, solved. I am not sure the most difficult thing about acting can always be overcome.

To me, having listened both as an actor on stage and in film and as an audience member who has studied hundreds and hundreds of actors over the years, the most difficult thing an actor has to do is to SOUND REAL WITH VARIETY IN THE VOICE. I weep when someone with a great look starts to act and instantly becomes laid back, monotonous, pulled in, fake, boring, actory, every sentence ending with a parachute drop fall. Actors spend thousands of dollars delving into the self, soul-searching, analyzing motivation and feelings, etc., etc., etc. when all that is needed is for someone to say to them, "Get real, and have variety in the voice." The rest will come. But first sound "real" and "real" does not mean boring.

Learning how to sound real with variety cannot be taught by reading a book. It is almost impossible to write about sounding real with variety. It is something that must be heard and listened to. But I promise, absolutely promise, that if you will learn to sound real and at the same time have variety in your pitch, your rhythm and your volume, I absolutely guarantee you will start to book.

So that's it--several questions asked over the past several months which were answered privately and briefly, but which really affect us all.
Ruth Kulerman is an actress and coach, known for "The Off Season," "A Walk in the Dark," and "Satan Hates You." Her series of articles is copyright by Chad Gracia and ActorTips. All rights reserved.
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Reader Comments

i would like to know that how long one should wait for the call after the audition for a soap?
Also should one write back to the casting director after the final audition just to say thanks may be or to look forward/hear from...?

Posted by sweety (2009-12-15) 2241

You are most welcome. I just reread the article and believe it even more now than when I wrote it. I have spent the past four years coaching and hundreds of hours later still insist that sounding real with variety is the most difficult of all tasks in acting. If you would like to read a bit more, google my name and click on the acting coach reference. Once on the site, scroll down to the info re British Technique. It may help a bit more.

Posted by Ruth Kulerman (2009-07-21) 1812

Thank you so much for this article. There's a lot of things listed here I had never considered, and the "learning to sound real with variety" part really put a name to the feeling I get when I see/do a fresh portrayal.

Posted by zonline (2009-07-15) 1772

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