Cold Read, Warm Heart

Reading aloud with Ian Raffel & Gerry Trentham at Canada’s National Voice Intensive, U.B.C., 2009 (photo credit: Marcus Wu)

Reading aloud with Ian Raffel & Gerry Trentham at Canada’s National Voice Intensive, U.B.C., 2009 (photo credit: Marcus Wu)

When I was growing up, my family used to have a holiday tradition of a reading of Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’. At some point in the afternoon on Christmas Day, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins would arrive, and, as my father cooked the Christmas feast, we would gather in the living room with copies of the story, all taking parts and reading it aloud. My father liked taking the role of Marley’s ghost, especially when he discovered he could enhance his performance by bashing cooking utensils and pots for sound effects. “I WEAR THE CHAIN I FORGED IN LIFE!!!” he shrieked from the kitchen, nearly giving my grandfather a heart-attack.

At the time, I just saw it as part of our weird English family’s old-fashioned ways - like the carols we always sang together while my mother accompanied us on the old upright piano.

But those readings have done more for my career than I knew or appreciated at the time. Any actor worth their training knows the value of good cold-reading skills for tv, film, or theatre auditions. And they are essential for voice-over work. When you get called to the studio for a voice-over audition, you may or may not get the script or copy in advance. Mostly you just show up, head into the booth, and fire away. In these situations, you’ll make faster friends with the engineer and director if you don’t waste time stumbling through long passages or struggling to grasp the sense of a phrase.

As a coach, I advise actors to develop this skill by, you guessed it, practicing. The simple and obvious truth is that if you read aloud every day, you get better at reading anything aloud. It doesn’t have to be painful, you don’t have to make it a race – like the novelist Donna Tartt says, “if you’re not enjoying something, it’s almost always because you’re doing it too fast.” And let’s not get mired in questions about talent or artistry. As the plié is to the mover, so reading aloud is to the speaker. It’s your barre work. Read Charles Dickens, read Toni Morrison, read Marie Clements, read any writing you love…just read good words and speak them out loud.

Do it every day, so that it becomes as natural as breathing.