I remember when I first got into casting in the mid 80’s in Los Angeles and one of our clients requested that the actors auditioning for their project, be required to memorize the script for the audition. My two mentors, Nancy McCook and Catherine White both informed the client that they’d have to budget a talent payment in as Screen Actors Guild rules require that an actor be paid to memorize a script for an audition. (THEY STILL DO!) The client was somewhat surprised to hear that just as we had been to actually hear them request it! But as the years have progressed and more and more people enter the business without the mentorship/apprentice model, we’re seeing more and more casting people (mostly those non-professionally trained) asking for this. Now rather than approach this from a cost perspective (especially in the light of the large amount of non-union work out there) lets look at it from a logistical/efficiency standpoint to see if this is a help or a hindrance to the casting/artistic process to all parties concerned.
Having now presided over close to a third of a million auditions in the past 31 years, I’ve seen a lot of people who were “off book” or memorized on their lines. I’ve also seen a LOT of people who THOUGHT they were off book! The truth about memorization is that most people do it to the point where they can summon up the lines verbatim and not too much more. They practice while doing something else like brushing their teeth, driving to the audition, putting on makeup etc. But when they get into the audition room and it comes time for them to say those memorized lines AND act? That’s a different thing altogether! It’s kind of like juggling with two balls and thinking you’ve got it wired until someone suddenly throws you another one to handle! But there’s another far more damaging truth about memorization that is a situation unto itself and is much different than having to do it AFTER you already have the job. And I seen it plague far too many auditions. When you memorize for an audition, you place your priority on which words come next and what you want to DO with those words, usually comes in second. But since I’ve NEVER had anyone booked for a role because they memorized better than anyone else, you can see what a misplaced priority this is. I’ve also never been concerned about an actor’s ability to memorize lines AFTER they’re booked and the pressure of the audition is removed from the equation. And it’s never come up as concern with my clients unless there’s A LOT of dialogue in one stretch which is usually the case on spokesperson copy where teleprompters on-set (and occasionally in the casting session!) are the norm for wise producers. But here are the dynamics for memorization and how it can misplace an actor’s priorities.
Remember when we were kids and we memorized the pledge of allegiance? I have yet to meet anyone who was in a class where some kid raised their hand and asked, “What does the word, “indivisible” mean?” Most of us kids had no idea what the words meant that we were reciting. All we cared about was getting them in the right place and that’s predominantly the case when an actor auditions off-book. When you’ve got the job, you do have to memorize but it’s usually in smaller chunks. And you already have the job so there’s far less pressure on you to juggle the otherwise present balls of nervousness, being flexible with the direction that’s going to be given and basically, just doing it for the first time with a casting director who’s primary job is to scrutinize you even while (hopefully) helping you be the best you can under the circumstances.
So here’s how I recommend handling the situation. Be as off-book as you can. But keep your sides or script handy (in your hand!) so that IF you need to look for a line, you know you can easily find it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an actor who THOUGHT they were off book say after blowing their lines, “Shoot!! I thought I had this memorized!” As soon as I ask them to just “hold” their sides and they don’t even have to look at it, in the vast majority of situations, their read improves vastly even if they don’t even look at it!! I even end up predicting/promising them as much after talking them into holding it and re-taking the scene! In almost every case, they’re able to focus on what they want to do with the lines as an artist because they’re no longer focused on what words are coming next. And that’s what they’re really there to do anyway! And if you HAVE to look at the script, actually pause as if it’s a stream of consciousness pause and in the process of glancing around the room as if you’re “looking” for the idea or thought like humans all seem to do, include the lines in your gaze SECOND TO LAST before you come back to the camera or reader. If will look seamless as if you meant to do it!
I want to say that if you’re dyslexic or have difficulty reading, by all means do whatever you need to do to accommodate your particular situation. But for most people, their read improves drastically when holding the script and I believe your’s will too!
HOWEVER, and having stated all that, I’m aware that actors are finding themselves increasingly being asked to memorize for auditions. And as more and more inexperienced or untrained casting people enter the business, they’re going to be asking for it more and more. (Some are even asking for THEATER Monologues as audition pieces but that’s another blog posting!) A lot of casting is about training but some of it is just common sense like in any profession. So if my job is to find appropriate actors to populate the cast of the productions on which I work, doesn’t it make greater sense to be more concerned with the unique characterization I can only get from that one actor and NOT make the first bar of entry, the memorization I can get from ANY of them once hired?? I can only tell you what I routinely tell actors in my workshop groups as a mantra “ALWAYS ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT! YOU MAY GET IT!” See if your agent can get them to allow you to use a script under the notion that they’ll get a better performance out of you paradoxically because you’ll be thinking about the character rather than the words. If they’re not budging? Then I’m afraid your at the mercy of their “wisdom” of how good an idea this was in figuring out how best to cast the part! Or you can send them this blog and hope the merits of what I’ve written influence them but I don’t guarantee anything as it took me at least a couple of years of seeing the lessons my old bosses taught me about memorization, to convince me they were right all along!! Good Luck!