Acting with Dyslexia
I had wanted to be an actor since the tender age of 8 but only took the idea seriously when I was about 16 and started looking into Drama Schools. It wasn’t until I got to Drama School that I realised the irony of my career choice. I thought that doing something practical, ‘Acting’ would work to my strengths. Little did I know that being an Actor is about 70% reading and, of that, at least half is reading out loud in front of people, usually to try and persuade someone to give you a job. As I am dyslexic, this was and still is an enormous challenge.
‘You are all ‘wordsmith’s’’
‘You are all ‘wordsmith’s’’ my Course Director said, during my third year at Drama School. Words are something I had always avoided when growing up, reading and writing them, I can safely say as a Dyslexic, words are not my strong point. Why did I become an actor again?
There are a lot of dyslexic actors out there, all struggling in their own way to read that 200-page play by tomorrow, learn that 3-page audition piece or navigate that rehearsed reading. Each one trying desperately to breathe life into a character whilst trying not to look like an 11-year-old reading Shakespeare out loud in class for the first time. For those who will be reading this, who are dyslexic, I’m sure you will recognise some of the insecurities and obstacles I’m going to talk about. For those that aren’t dyslexic, I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight about what dyslexia actually is and how it affects people.
It wasn’t until I was at drama school that I truly understood what Dyslexia was. I had known I was Dyslexic since I was 7 but I had had so many people telling me different definitions about what it was I was a little confused. I found out that I could get extra support at Drama School, with things such as extra time in exams, not that we had any, having time with a mentor and more importantly a free laptop. However, in order to get this, I had to get reassessed. I had spent 12 years of my life being told I had special needs, the suggestion that I might not be dyslexic made me wonder if my whole life up to that point had been a sham. I went for the assessment and as it turns out, I had exactly the same score as I did when I was 7. Hang on, How had I not improved?
assessment for Dyslexia
The assessment for Dyslexia is not a test of ability, it’s a test of process. Dyslexia is simply a way in which the brain processes information, which is different from the majority of the population. There are many different types of Dyslexia. For some people, it affects how they interpret what they hear, some what they see and others a bit of everything, which is what I have. It is something you are born with and has nothing to do with a bad education or upbringing. It has nothing to do with a visual impairment or your general intelligence. It is actually common for Dyslexics to be very creative, and succeed in many fields, the Arts, Science, Engineering, Business etc… It can be, but is not always related to Dyspraxia, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Dyscalculia. You can learn to read and write normally and manage your dyslexia but you can’t cure it, it is just part of who you are. Dyslexia is not just a reading or writing issue, it can also affect spoken words, memory, following instructions, organisation, spacial awareness, awareness of time and expressing a point of view. It is quite individual to each person depending on their own strengths and weaknesses and can be mild or very severe.
I can only speak for myself but when I read, words are not blurry or jump around on the page. However, I do however struggle to concentrate when reading and listening. I often misinterpret what people say and misread words and sentences… fantastic for when you need to read and understand a play quickly! I find I have to take breaks when reading big chunks of text and concentrate really hard when receiving instructions, especially in Auditions. I pull a face that looks like I don’t understand because I’m trying extra hard to listen. Something which inevitably doesn’t inspire confidence. I saw a note from a Director once, that was after the first rehearsal of a play that said ‘Think carefully how you give Philip notes’. This was before he knew I had Dyslexia and after I eventually told him I think a lot of things about me fell into place. I think sometimes I’m so preoccupied trying hard just to read fluently, I take a bit longer than I should to take on a note. That particular first read-through was tough enough with a room full of co-producing theatre people watching and an updated draft of a new play without worrying about revealing my 12-year-old reading age. Saying this, reading is something I do work hard on and with practise, I am improving.
The world has changed immensely in the past 25 years. In the 1990’s English schools only just started to recognise Dyslexia but were reluctant to do anything about it due to lack of funding and a general lack of understanding about what Dyslexia actually is.
When I was 7, my parents fought my school to get me diagnosed and given extra support. The effect of this I guess was bittersweet. I was taken out of class every day to write words in the sand, play with wooden letters and mimic phonetics. This early intervention really set me up to succeed further down the line and I have only gratitude for the time those Support Assistants and my parents gave me. On the other hand, being taken out of lessons from the age 7 created my own inhibitions about having ‘special needs’. Over the years I went through the different phases of Dyslexia teaching, as a kind of guinea pig, given coloured overlays to put on my text books and wearing red, orange and then green glasses, even musical learning, with some methods being more successful than others. I was lucky enough that the schools I went to were supportive of my Dyslexia, but many of my friends with Dyslexia did not get the same support at their schools. I think now, due to changes in the law, funding and a better understanding of Dyslexia the Education system has become far better at diagnosing and helping those with it.
Before the ’90s and for a long time after, dyslexics were considered thick, slow or lazy and disregarded. In 2015, in Education and across most industries Dyslexia is now recognised as a real thing, although in many workplaces it’s still a somewhat mythical, misunderstood and taboo subject. I’m sad to say for the theatrical industry, that has so many dyslexic members, dyslexia is still, in my experience, unempathetic. Scripts come just a few days or the night before, in some cases lines are expected to be learnt or worse read and direction is expected to be taken with joyful, fluid ease on the spot. Of course, this is what is expected of any Actor. My teacher at Drama School told me to not tell anyone because it would just count against me. I think for a long time she was right to say this but I wonder if in the last few years things have changed. I’ve spent the past 5 years trying to deal with the processes of being an Actor as a Dyslexic, trying to teach myself how to get to the desired standard without making a fuss or an excuse. It’s something my agent and I spoke about when I first joined them and we decided it was best to use discretion and pick when to mention it to Casting Directors. I have had to mention it to a few directors after I’ve been given the part, who I’ve felt needed to know, in an effort to explain my methods or perceived lack of preparation. In fairness, this has always been received well. I do think, there is a difference between telling someone at the point of audition and telling someone during a job. There are many reasons for a future employer not to give you a job, so surely it’s not pragmatic to give them yet another! Perhaps this fear is irrational, perhaps by not explaining my dyslexia, I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face. Perhaps the world has changed and the industry is more tolerant and has time to give me. I guess my approach has always been to overcome the issues I have and preparing harder. I do not want dyslexia be an excuse for not being good enough.
I’ve recently met an actor who is also dyslexic, whose agent makes a point of being open about it when receiving an audition or booking jobs. He feels he has not had any problems and finds the industry sympathetic to his needs, for example, trying to get him the script early and not springing text on him in the audition. I find that comforting and promising for the future of dyslexics in the business but it’s really not the nature of the business that I see daily. Scripts come late and if they want you to read something else in the room, that’s what you have to do. If you read like a 7-year-old, you’re not going to book the job. Another reason to come out of the dyslexia closet is the fact that in 2010 dyslexia was recognised in this country under the Equality Act, meaning that ‘workplace settings have a duty to make reasonable adjustments to ensure that those affected by dyslexia are not disadvantaged compared to their peers’. I think a bit of grace with learning lines and understanding in read-throughs and rehearsals can go a long way to building a confident performance uninhibited from anxieties that your difficulties are holding everyone back.
there are many successful dyslexic actors
For those needing inspiration, there are many successful dyslexic actors including Judi Dench, Henry Winkler, Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Cher, Jennifer Aniston, Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, Salma Hayek, Vince Vaughn and the late Robin Williams, to name a few. They show us that there is a way to overcome difficulties and make an acting career work. Right now I’m still embracing being a dyslexic actor, trying to read more, write more and still learning how best to deal with what this industry throws at me. I’m still analysing auditions and wondering if I messed up the prep, if I just had the wrong kind of look or if I’m just crap at acting. A thought I think I share with all actors.
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Philip D McQuillan
This article was written by Philip D McQuillan, actor, writer, director of Headshot Hunter and the Headshot Hub.