The entrée to strong dynamic choices that create great acting
4 Week Class Starts July 18th
The great director Sydney Lumet, in his book on directing, discusses in great detail understanding the purpose of the scene Before shooting begins, he meets with the writer, producer, and all the different departments: cinematographer, wardrobe department, set decorators, hair & make-up, etc.
They discuss what they want the film to say. Then very specifically why each scene and each shot are in the shooting script. What they are trying to accomplish with each shot. Everybody discusses all the options to make sure that what is needed by the audience is clearly brought out in each scene. He makes sure everyone is working towards the same goal.
What are choices? Where to they come from? How do we know if a choice is a good? Worrying about all of this can freeze an actor’s brain.
The acting process starts with reading the material, then stepping back. You need to understand what the writer is trying to do with the scene before you begin to make any choices. This is called script Analysis. Without it actors may give a great acting performance that fails to the job required. Every audition and job are actually a commission. The buyer is looking for someone to do a very specific job need. If you do not satisfy that need you don’t get the job no matter how great your audition.
Here is a piece I came across written by Stephen Tobolowsky for BACKSTAGE ESPRESSO. I thought I would pass it on to you. I had the good fortune of working with Steve about 25 years ago (I doubt he would remember me). He probably works as much as any actor in LA, doing interesting supporting character roles. Here is what he had to say.
“I have spent my life reading scripts. Some of them have been good. Most weren’t. But it didn’t matter because I wanted to be in all of them – even the one with the bionic dog. For years, I have taken acting classes and read advice on how to do well in auditions. I would like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned along the way – tips for auditioning and performing. I hope they help. If not, I hope, at least, they’re not annoying.
The first problem I always have is reading the script. It’s never easy. It’s not that the language is difficult. Good or bad, scripts are always filled with things that are incomprehensible. For example, I have read many television dramas where the writer has described a character as LAWYER, 40. That’s if the part was written for a man. If the same part was written for a woman, the script will say LAWYER, 34, ATTRACTIVE.
As actors, we read that and move on, not even aware that we are already lost. Personally, I have no idea what any of those descriptions mean in terms of auditioning or playing a part. I don’t know what “LAWYER” means. I don’t know what “40” means. I certainly don’t know what “ATTRACTIVE” means. I’m not joking. This is a first real challenge in working with a script. Take “LAWYER.” Am I a good lawyer or a bad lawyer? Do I come from a long line of lawyers, or am I the first person in my family that got a college education? The answer may not be in the script. It not only makes a difference, it makes all the difference in the world.
Often the writers and directors aren’t aware of the pockets of nothing that are in their projects. It is the actor’s job to find them and fill that nothing with something – hopefully, something truthful. I have found that true always trumps clever. To do that, we have to be aware of what questions to ask. Then, we have to ask them. None of that is easy. I had an experience that opened my eyes to the power of positive questioning.
I was working on a television movie where I was playing LAWYER. Because it was one of those scripts that was “based on true events,” I was able to do research by calling the real lawyer I was playing. Lucky. I didn’t think it was appropriate to ask him if he was a good lawyer or a bad lawyer. Instead, I asked him if he always wanted to be a lawyer. He laughed and said, “God, no. Never. I always wanted to be a country-western singer. I always had my guitar in my office. Everybody made fun of me for plucking a tune when I was interviewing my clients.” Talk about a goldmine.
I showed up on the set with my guitar the next day. I talked to the producer and director about my new plan for LAWYER. They were happy to fill in the blank with something that was real. That was a fluke. Actors almost never get that lucky in creating a character.
Stephen Tobolowsky has appeared in more than 200 movies and television shows. He is the author of “The Dangerous Animals Club,” published by Simon and Schuster. He teaches improvisation and comedy for Kalmenson & Kalmenson.
For more on Auditions and Script Analysis read Penny’s book ACTING LIONS