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. Words are not my strong point. In fact, they are something I actively avoided when growing up.

I’m dyslexic.

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 offering 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 exactly the same score as I did when I was 7. Hang on, How had I not improved?

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. 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 too, has changed immensely in the past 25 years. 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 that in the theatre industry, which has so many dyslexic members, dyslexia is still, in my experience, handled with little empathy. 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. 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 I just don’t want dyslexia be an excuse for not being good enough. That said, once you have got the job, 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 you’re difficulties are holding everyone back.

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 of you.

Sources and Useful links:

Series 3 of the podcast is coming soon, including interviews with Adrian Lester, Joanna Scanlan, Tom Riley, Kate Fleetwood and Jonjo O’Neill. Series 1 & 2 are available free on iTunes, along with a special live episode for Equity recorded in November 2018, and follow-up interviews with all seven of the emerging actors, conducted in October. Go have a listen

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Philip Duguid-McQuillan

Philip is or has been an actor, dyslexic, Bradfordian, awkward door opener, co-op agency member, waiter, DVD collector, barman, restaurant table coordinator, ‘please take these’ flyer-er & dream weaver of headshot photographer comparison website