Here are some rehearsal techniques that I use in scene study class at the Andrew Wood Acting Studio:
I teach this on the first night of class, and it’s good to do at the outset of a rehearsal process. Two partners sit opposite each other. The rule is: no one speaks without eye contact. What this means, effectively, is that when it’s your line, you need to look down at your script, memorize a short bit of text, resist the urge to start speaking while looking at the page, look up and make eye contact with your partner, find the impulse to speak in the eye contact with the partner, resist the urge to look down to get more text while you’re still speaking, STOP speaking, look down to get more text, etc until you have completed your line and it’s your partner’s turn to speak. If you embrace the rigor of this, you can learn a lot about the scene, and you will start to feel a connection with the partner through the eye contact. However, the reading will proceed at a slow tempo, nothing close to a performance tempo, and this is normal. Also, to be clear, this is a rehearsal technique. It is not the intention that this leads to a performance in which you maintain eye contact all the time. It’s just an exploration.
Throwing the ball
For this, you’ll need something to throw. A playground ball or a dodge ball is ideal, but you can also use a cushion or you can knot up a (zipperless )sweater and use it as a ball. You’ll also need to know the lines in the scene. In this exercise, you speak a sentence of text and throw the ball to your partner on the last word of the sentence. Not after the last word has been spoken, not on some operative word in the middle of the sentence, but on the last word. If your speech is more than one sentence, then your partner throws the ball back to you without saying anything, and speak your next sentence and throw the ball again on the last word. Then when it’s your partner’s turn to speak, she does the same thing: speaks a sentence (only one!) and throws the ball on the last word of the sentence, and so on. This exercise is great for practicing targeting and impacting the partner with your words, and also being targeted and being impacted by your partner’s words. It’s great to do at the start of a rehearsal, to warm up and re-establish the connection with the partner.
Repeating the last line as a question
In this exercise, before you say your line, you repeat the last sentence of your partner’s line back to him as a question, changing “you” to “I” and vice versa. Suppose you had the following dialogue in a scene:
A: I want you to stop that.
B: Why should I?
A: Because I said so.
B: That’s not a reason
A: It’s reason enough.
B: I don’t think so.
Doing the exercise, it would look like this:
A: I want you to stop that.
B: You want me to stop that? Why should I?
A: Why should you? Because I said so.
B: Because you said so? That’s not a reason.
A: That’s not a reason? It’s reason enough.
B: It’s reason enough? I don’t think so.
A: You don’t think so? …
The great thing about this exercise is that it forces you to really listen to what your partner is saying, since you have to repeat it back to her. Listening is the essence of acting. Doing this exercise helps to cultivate the habit of listening.
In this exercise, you use the inner monologue technique described in a previous post. Before each sentence that you say, you say aloud three to five stimuli that you are encountering in the moment, and then you say the sentence. Your partner does the same. Then you can reverse it: you say aloud three to five stimuli after each sentence that your partner says, and you partner voices stimuli after each sentence that you say.
Improvising the Dream Come True and Nightmare
Suppose we have two characters in a scene, Character A and Character B. They are played by Actor A and Actor B, respectively. In this exercise, Actor A and B switch roles, so that Actor A is playing Character B, and Actor B is playing Character A. Actors A and B proceed to improvise Character A’s Dream Come True, that is, the best way that the situation of the scene could turn out for Character A. What is great about this is that it gives Actor A control of Character B, so that Actor A has to get really specific about what he most wants Character B to do. Then Actors A and B improvise Character A’s Nightmare, that is, the worst possible way the situation of the scene could turn out for Character A. This forces Actor A to get really specific about what he most fears Character B will do. Then both actors do the same for Character B’s Dream Come True, and Character B’s Nightmare. This is a great exercise for exploring the stakes of the scene in an experiential way.
For this exercise, you need to have found an underlying objective. Let’s suppose your underlying objective for your scene is respect. You want to win your partner’s respect. Then you play the scene, and after every sentence that your partner says, you say alound either “Getting respect”, if in that moment you are getting respect from your partner, or “Not getting respect”, if in that moment you are not getting respect from your partner. The idea is that every time your partner does something, she is either giving you what you need or not giving you what you need, and you need to make that evaluation in the moment each time your partner says something. You can also do it after each sentence that you say. ‘
These are some of the techniques we use in class at Andrew Wood. Enjoy!
In this clip, actor Michael Fassbender (The Killer, X-Men: Apocalypse, Alien: Covenant) talks about wanting to “be well-prepared so I can have freedom”. This may seem surprising to some aspiring actors, who think that preparation gets in the way of freedom and spontaneity. But in fact it’s the opposite: to paraphrase the great scientist Louis Pasteur: ¨Fortune favors the prepared mind.¨ It is THROUGH preparation that we arrive at freedom. A teacher of mine at the Yale School of Drama would say: “Freedom lies on the other side of technique”, a related sentiment. Through doing the homework, as Fassbender says, we get oriented to the character’s situation and we are prepared to respond spontaneously and appropriately to the input we get from our fellow actors and the scene environment. As General Eisenhower said: “Plans are useless, but planning is essential.” The process of preparation raises possibilities which can then be explored fruitfully in rehearsal. As I discussed in a previous post, Jeremy Strong, of Succession fame, said of acting:
“Most of acting is about preparation, so that if you are armed with a visceral understanding of this character, you can get to set and essentially just play and be in the moment. And I’d say or do anything formed by that understanding.”
How to prepare is a huge part of what I teach in acting class. It’s a huge part of what technique is all about. Through technique, we learn to explore and frame the character’s situation in order to set us up to do the best possible work when we are in rehearsal and performance. It’s through preparation that we are truly able to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.
In her new bookListening and Talking A Pathway to Acting, Evan Yionoulis, chair of the Acting program at Juilliard, describes a technique for inner monologue as a rehearsal technique.
By inner monologue we mean the progression of sensory stimuli that form the character’s path through the action of a scene.
Here, Yionoulis is talking about stimuli, which I discussed in my previous post. Stimuli are sensory perceptions that the actor/character¨bumps up against¨ in the course of playing the role. She tells us:
A stimulus can be a tangible object in the play’s physical world, something existing in the character’s reality that can be either actually present for the actor—…—or imagined by them—…. It could also be an inner object, something not physically present in the character’s reality but rather living in their “mind’s eye.” For example, as I type these words, my attention is directed to the touch of the keys on my computer keyboard and the image of the accumulating letters appearing on the screen. I hear my husband rustling papers in another room and the sound of chirping birds and playing children out the window. I’m aware of the faint taste of jasmine tea in my mouth and the smell of lotion on my hands. These are actual stimuli present for me in this moment. I might also focus my attention on you, sometime in the future, reading this. Or look at my watch and remember that my daughter is at the airport about to board a plane. You and my daughter exist for me in this moment as inner objects. My attention goes to you, but you’re not in the physical space with me. Both inner and actual objects will be important elements along the path we’re building. (Of course, we’re using the word “object” quite expansively, to mean anything we might see, hear, touch, or otherwise perceive.)
So there are two types of stimuli: actual objects, which are part of the character´s immediate reality, whether real or imagined, and inner objects, which are objects not in the same physical space as the character. And note that she indicates that by object we really mean any sensory perception.
So far so good. Now we are ready to consider inner monologue. Yionoulis says that sometimes inner monologue is conceived of as the character´s thoughts, such as ´It´s cold out here. We should go inside.¨ But this is not what she has in mind:
However, we want to keep our interactions as physical and immediate as the tossing of the ball, an enterprise of the body rather than the mind. By the time our thinking proceeds from image to the conscious realm of words and sentence formulation, we´re already a step removed from the pure ball in play.
Throughout her book, Yionoulis uses the metaphor of tossing a ball to conceive of the exchange of energy that acting entails.
So what does this inner monologue actually look like?
For a particular scene my inner monologue may be: foghorn, lighthouse, ships, waves, rocks, cliff, wind, stairs, lamp, kitchen, chowder, mother. As I speak the words simply and without predetermined expression, I allow myself to receive from each stimulus, seeing the lighthouse or hearing the foghorn or smelling the chowder. I range freely from stimulus to stimulus, from actual objects to inner ones and back again, letting associations happen as they will.
Inner monologue consists of verbally delineating the stimuli that the actor encounters in the course of playing out a situation or a scene. Yionoulis cautions about trying to ´narrate´ the situation as you name the stimuli:
When using this exercise in rehearsal, resist the impulse to perform the inner monologue by expressing your point of view about the stimuli you’re identifying. Don’t try to convey a story to the director or other actors. No one needs to understand that you’re smelling the chowder rather than seeing it or that you’re both feeling and hearing the wind. You don’t need to let us know that you’re seeing the lighthouse keeper racing up the spiral staircase toward the lamp while her son carefully ladles chowder into bowls. You don’t need to communicate that your character’s dear departed mother used to make chowder, the taste of which you’ve always found . . . unappealing. The goal of the exercise is for you to experience viscerally what you receive from the images you’re taking the time to identify and from the chains of association you’re allowing yourself to explore.
She closes her discussion with the following reminder:
Again, we limit the words spoken to a simple voicing of images, rather than a complex verbal formation, in order to keep us in a physical relationship with the imaginative world rather than an intellectual one.
The power of this approach to inner monologue lies in its immediacy: it keeps the actor directly processing her reality, rather than ruminating on it.
The stockpile of possible stimuli that the actor can draw on when engaging in inner monologue is greatly enlarged by the process of personalization. As the actor imaginatively explores his given circumstances and discovers stimuli therein, these stimuli become fodder for the actor´s inner monologue.
Inner monologue can seem foreign at first, but it´s a muscle like any other. The more you train it, the stronger it gets. It´s a valuable tool for exploring a character´s inner life in a given scene. It´s worth the effort of learning to use it.
A frequent question that aspiring actors have is about technique. If acting is a matter of instincts and impulse, as it surely is, at least in part, then why study technique? Isn’t it going to put you in your head? Isn’t it going to block the flow? After all, technique, by definition, means there is a way of doing something, a right way and a wrong way, and isn’t that the opposite of doing what comes naturally and following your instincts and intuitions? Evan Yionoulis, the chair of the acting program at Juilliard, proposes a great way of thinking about this in her fantastic new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting:
Some actors fear that technique will rob them of spontaneity and freedom and be a kind of straitjacket that will block them from their instincts and some sort of unexpected magic. On the contrary, technique is what allows an actor to be truly and consistently open and available. Think of technique as a trellis. (A trellis is one of those, often wooden, frameworks that support vines and other plants as they climb up the sides of buildings. The crisscrossing strips of wood usually form a pattern of open diamonds.) Technique provides a structure through which the intuition may freely move. If the intuition is flowing—if the vine is climbing—technique, like the trellis, doesn’t interfere. But if, at this rehearsal or in this performance or for this take, intuition seems to have abandoned you, you’ll have the structure of your technique for support until it returns.
So technique is there to support you in moments when you find yourself at sea, when your instincts seem to have abandoned you. It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) impede the flow of intuition and impulse when it is not needed.
There’s also the matter of consistency across multiple performances or takes.
Some people might think that working in film or television is easier for the actor. After all, you only have to get it right once. The reality on set, however, is that there’s rarely time—because time is expensive!—to do a scene over and over until a particular actor—or every actor—manages to do their best work. When working on camera, you have to give a full, truthful, and seemingly effortless performance on demand. There’s no way to rewind a sunset or crash another car or two to accommodate blunders or an “off” performance. You have to get it “right” the “once” when it counts! And when several angles of a particular scene are filmed, you have to do so in a consistent way in every take so that the editor can fashion the various shots into a coherent whole.
So technique can support you in having to provide a consistent performance across many repetitions. I once spoke to a student of mine who had just come off his first experience playing the lead role in a feature film. I asked him what surprised him about the experience. He said he was surprised by how many times he was required to repeat things, and that the director wanted the same performance in every repetition. In these kind of situations, technique is invaluable.
Acting will always be both an art and a craft. To the extent it is an art, things like instinct, intuition and impulse are indispensable. Technique is there to help us consistently access our instincts, intuitions and impulses.
In the preface to her outstanding new bookListening and Talking A Pathway to Acting, Evan Yionoulis, head of the acting program at Juilliard, mentions her teacher at the Yale School of Drama, David Hammond, and credits him with providing “a life-changing understanding of stimuli and the path”. So what is this notion of stimuli that is so life-changing? She doesn’t outright define stimuli, but it becomes clear from her discussions of them that she is talking about sensory matter that the character “bumps up” against: things the character can see, hear, taste, touch or smell. Over the course of the book, she provides examples based on work on a short play by John Patrick Shanley called A Lonely Impulse of Delight. The play is about two friends, Walter and Jim, visiting Central Park Lake at two in the morning, because one friend has something he wants to show the other. In discussing how the actor playing Walter, who is expecting his mermaid lover at any moment, might plant stimuli in the scene environment, she writes the following:
Some stimuli in Walter’s romantic, middle of the night park might be: the gentle rustle of leaves in the wind (sound and sensation), a bright white or harvest-orange moon, fireflies, cooing birds, the distant glow of city lights, the lapping of water on the sandy shore or rocky outcroppings, the smell of honeysuckle, the dappled moonlight on the water and through the leaves of trees, the gentle croaking of frogs.
So here we see that stimuli (or triggers) are sensory stuff that the actor playing Walter might “bump up” against or encounter prior to or during the course of the play. The potential stimuli that Walter’s friend Jim, who is resistant to being in the park at that hour, might find are quite different:
Jim’s park might include: scary shadows, the sound of sirens racing down Fifth Avenue or up Central Park West, mysterious rustlings in the bushes, the buzzing of mosquitos, occasional raised voices from deeper in the park—are they shrieks of joy or terror?—the smell of urine, barking dogs, the hoot of an owl, the howl of a . . . not sure what, the squish of the muddy bank, an abundance of goose and occasional dog droppings dotting the patchy grass, treacherously slippery boulders, broken glass under a flickering street lamp, abandoned litter washing up on the shore—cigarette butts, deli wrappers, coffee cups, an old syringe.
These two examples make it clear what Yionoulis has in mind when she speaks of stimuli: sensory input that the actor can “bump up” against in the course of playing the scene. The physical environment of the scene should be “loaded” with stimuli, but stimuli are to be found in the character’s past history as well, as I discussed in my post on personalization and as Yionoulis describes in her book. In fact, the actor’s homework, according to Yionoulis, is practically solely concerned with identifying stimuli that the character has experienced or might experience along her journey:
In the analysis phase of the work, your job is to identify stimuli and triggers in the world of the play that have affected or might affect your character. You’ll imaginatively “bump up” against stimuli from your character’s past during your personalization process and encounter others from their present during the action of the play itself. At that time, your response to each stimulus will lead you to the next point in your character’s path…Part of your homework—which continues into rehearsal—is to make objects in the world of the play—and, by extension, all the circumstances of your character’s life— specific and resonant. You want to uncover—and plant—potent stimuli.
The sequence of stimuli that the actor encounters across the arc of the play is called the path. Much of the path will be made up of the lines of the other actor/characters, but that is not the only source of stimuli or triggers, as Yionoulis has demonstrated. So what about stimuli and the path is life-changing for Yionoulis? Yionoulis says at one point that stimuli work “in and on the body”. The senses involve our nervous system and in that sense our body, and by identifying stimuli that have affected or may affect the character, we are imprinting ourselves in a physical manner with the stuff that makes up the character’s reality. And that, I think, can be life-changing.
In the excellent new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting by Evan Yionoulis, the chair of the acting program at Juilliard, Evan explores at length the concept of the underlying objective. I also teach this concept in my acting classes at Andrew Wood Acting Studio. It’s a sophisticated way of understanding the character’s motivation, and it’s quite challenging for students to learn.
She defines it as follows:
a longing for something the character can’t survive without because it proceeds from a deep void or gaping hollow in their lives. We call the quest to fulfill this need the character’s underlying objective.
In contrast to the underlying objective, she defines plot objectives:
Plot objectives are so called because they are connected to and may have fulfillment in the plot or sequence of events of the play.
I like to say that plot objectives can be thought of as plans that the character has to get the underlying objective met.
Understanding the relationship between the underlying objective and plot objectives is a significant undertaking, and I recommend reading the full chapter in Evan’s book to begin to understand this. But I wanted to call attention to two things from her discussion. First, the title of this post, which is also the title of the chapter on objectives from Evan’s book: “What will you listen FOR?” It’s a commonplace that acting involves listening, but one of the reasons that learning to work with the underlying objective is worthwhile is the way in which having an underlying objective sharpens the actor’s understanding of what she is listening for in a scene. If I know that I am listening for security from my partner, that will sharpen my apprehension what he is sending my way. I won’t just be listening to him, I will be listening FOR a particular kind of energy from him, an energy that gives me a sense of security.
And this brings us to the justification for the underlying objective apparatus that Evan gives us. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to just pursue plot objectives and call it a day? Plot objectives are much easier to identify than the underlying objective. What makes learning to operate with an underlying objective worthwhile:
Many actors—and teachers of acting—speak of objectives solely in terms of plot. While plot objectives inarguably give the actor something to pursue that is concrete and doable—that’s why they’re helpful and necessary—without an
underlying purpose, the actor isn’t compelled to engage in the deeper listening that makes the character human.
An underlying objective compels us to engage in the deeper listening that makes the character human. That makes it sound worthwhile, no? But to be honest, I think she undersells it a little. An actor who has embodied an underlying need compels our attention through their vulnerability, in fact, through their visceral vulnerability. When an actor has embodied an underlying need, we understand in some mysterious way, at the level of our nervous system, that they are undertaking something worth watching.
Keep in mind that it’s a long road from being able to identify an underlying objective to being able to embody one, but as a wise man once said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.