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  • Writer's pictureGlenn English

"Actors and Reading Groups"

Lately, I’ve heard some young actors asking about the value of being in a play reading group, so I think it’s worth talking about for a few minutes. Over the years I’ve been affiliated with a half dozen or so theater companies and all of them had reading groups as well as writing workshops. I consider the many hours spent working with them invaluable, both for what I learned and the friendships those groups fostered. Of course, there are pros and cons to everything, so let’s take a look at all to be fair.

First off, being a member of a reading group pretty much guarantees that your acting chops will never get rusty, as you’ll always be putting yourself out and trying new things. Experienced actors with a lot of credits are usually on the move from one office to another and even one job to another, but they sometimes fall into the trap of playing similar characters. That might be good for the bank account but it’s not necessarily great for the creative juices, so being part of a regular reading group is key for keeping those veteran actors on their toes and out of their comfort zones. It’s even more important for the newbies who are looking for all the experience they can get, whether that’s in their casting zone or out of it.

Being a newbie actor is a little like being a kid at the Y with a Flying Fish card. Sure, you’ve been in the pool, at least on the kiddie side of it, ’cause your membership card says so but no one really knows if you can swim until you dive into the deep end.

Or get pushed. The wonderful actor Spalding Grey used to talk about his fear of drowning and how it was very similar to his fear of acting, though the point for me is that newbie actors never know what they’re capable of until they get into the deep water. In front of a live audience or a movie set, those kinds of stakes can be really intimidating, even a trifle dangerous, but in a reading group, there’s always a life preserver around somewhere.

It’s also good to be reminded that play scripts are not finished products, they are merely poetic blueprints for something larger that breathes, hums, walks, talks, skips, runs and occasionally sings.

Plays are like treasure maps, they’re full of clues and sometimes they can be a little misleading, so you really need to take the time to figure them out and discover what the writer hopefully intended. This happens in a real production, of course, but the main problem with being in production are production problems and they have a nasty habit of getting in the way of the creative process. When you’re working on a script in a reading group, you don’t have those kinds of obligations or constraints, there are just the actors and the script. You don’t have to worry about the demands of the director, the anxiety of the producer, there are no agents out there watching and certainly no critics. All you have to do is try things out and see what happens.

One of the other great things about being in a reading group is it really grows your command of dramatic material. I talk about this in acting class all the time, the need for young actors to read and I mean really read. Of course, everybody nods their head or some such indication of agreement but I can always tell the actors who take this to heart from the ones who don’t. For the fact of the matter is that actors approach reading differently from everyone else in the world.

How is that? Well, for the simple reason that most people read passively, for entertainment or information but once they’ve gotten through whatever they’re reading, they’re on to something else. This is not the case for actors because we are constantly working with the language, picking things apart, reassembling and even questioning the information in our work. The actors in my class that really read, they all develop a lust for language that the lazy ones never do. When actors expand their minds with language, it does something to their mouths, they end up with a greater facility with dialogue.

In addition to that, being in a reading group means you get to spend time in the company of actors, without the competitive element of casting. Now I’m not in the habit of saying this to my non-actor friends but the truth is that we are the “Salt of the Earth” and no social group is more fun to be around than us. Writers tend to be depressed, musicians are flakey, painters are moody but actors know how to have a good time and when you put us in a room together, we tear it up. What’s not to enjoy?

Beyond all that fun, we always learn things from other actors, be they older and more experienced or the newbie right off the street, everyone has something to offer. We all have escapades, we all have talent, we all have creative instincts and all of that comes into play. Give us a script with strong characters and sharp dialogue to knock around and we know how to make it sing, that desire is in all of us, we’re born with it.

As to the Cons of being in a play reading group, well there really aren’t any that I can think of. Being in a group keeps you loose, it keeps your actor muscles in shape and the last time I checked, the membership dues are nonexistent. So if you want to be a better actor, read good scripts and read them often. While you’re at it, join a reading group and improve your acting prowess while you have fun. If there isn’t one handy to join, start one of your own and don’t wait for a sign from heaven to do it. Act-Now!

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