Ross Duncan interviews Steven Robertson – tips for actors with dyslexia

Tips for Actors

 1 – Time
As a student and as a working actor the best help you can hope for is as much extra time as possible. Things have to be read slower and have to be read more often. This will mean having to set alarm clocks for 5am if you have meetings at short notice or if you feel that you are not on top of the work.


   2 – Eat well
I tell this to all students regardless of what they are battling with during their study but it is vital for dyslexics. It is a myth that you can’t eat well cheaply and I have always found that if you have eaten and have slept you will be able to work more, and, work and repetition is the key to overcoming the language barriers.


   3 – Reading
I cannot stress enough the importance of reading something else, other than the text or play you are currently working on, every single day. When you are reading the same thing again and again you start to see a familiarity on the page and not see the words themselves. By reading something else, anything else – personally I prefer short stories and therefore always reach for the Chekov – this act cleans the pallet of your mind and thus gives you the opportunity to re-approach the text with clean eyes. For some reason this also improves my handwriting. If I don’t read (and some of this must be done allowed) for only a couple of days in a row my handwriting falls off the cliff.



   4 – Highlighting
Highlighting scripts is something I find very helpful. Different colours for stage directions, dialogue, things of note that are said by other parts about your character or that you find of interest. Again this must be done slowly and not rushed through – not until you start to get working shorthand for your own language needs. Don’t just highlight the text. speak it as you highlight it, think it as you speak it and remember that what you are doing – though time consuming – is the work of any actor, not just the dyslexic actor!
The reading of text aloud is so very important. Read it slowly – if you are having a bad (or as I call it a Very “dislezik” day) you may find that you have to go word by word or syllable by syllable… sometimes at a speed that is embarrassing to yourself, even if you are alone in the house when doing it. But do it, it makes the difference.



   5 – A physical activity
I think this falls into the cognitive activity and function of the brain. I throw a ball around when I’m trying to learn lines. When I have the chance of a room that is usable for such a thing – I play racket ball against a wall. Up in Manchester, at the Royal Exchange, there is still a wooden bat that I made (it is hidden in a locker!). I would go into the building at 7 or 7.30 and for an hour before people start to need the room to warm up for rehearsal, I would just keep trying to return the ball at the wall as many times as I could. I generally found that once I could get over 20 or 30 hits with some ease, my brain would start to work better as a whole. I believe that dyslexia is in some way caused by a part of the brain forgetting to share information with another part of the brain. It does however have that information, if you have given it to it, and it can be reminded to start playing with the rest of the brain again. I think physical activity helps trigger this interface. Once you feel switched on you can start to speak speeches and lines while you play – I was and am always amazed how much you find you have put in your head in advance and how you are now accessing speeches and meanings with much more ease.


   6 – Form, structure and discipline
When the text is good, as for all actors the form and structure of the work is there to help you. I have found this very helpful to remember and to work from. At its most basic level, for example: if you know it is a perfect line of iambic pentameter and you are missing a beat – find it!
Also, structure your working day around and for the extra time you need! A discipline to your day is a discipline for your mind. Your mind will appreciate this space and will itself plan to work toward using it. You are asking it to do something that it is not at ease doing and you are having to reprogram the computer every day, but, you work in a world that relies on words and language as tools to convey the thoughts and feelings you are driven to share – so reprogram, sleep, eat, read slowly and exercise your mind.


   7 – Technology
I am writing this on my new Mac. It corrects much of what I write as I go along and if I get really stuck on a word I can say the word to the computer and it writes it down. It can also read me back what I have written and read scripts aloud to me that I have been asked to make a judgment call on at very short notice. I find all this amazing even though similar programs have been around for years and I have been trying them since 1998. They are getting better and better all the time and should “Dragon Naturally Speaking” (a brand name!) bring out a new version for the Mac (I think that would be version 4…) I would get that as well. It is expensive though. However, the software on my Mac came as standard and the read back software was even on my old Mac. I have passed this information on to a few people in the industry who have dyslexia and a Mac and did not know that it could do this! Mac obviously doesn’t consider this key feature so do not advertise it, but it is the reason I have one. These helpful things getting better all the time are great for us – the dyslexic actor.

Ross Duncan

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