So the refrain goes. Television production happens on a frantic timetable, and TV casting people need you to be able to deliver immediately. Just show up with your lines learned, looking your best, hit your marks, look your partner in the eye, and tell the truth. Therefore, goes the thinking, much of what goes on in scene study classes, that is, the preparation, the thinking, the WORK, is just not relevant. It’s a quaint anachronism that the actor who understands the realities of today’s showbiz world can afford to simply disregard.
The idea that the way that television is produced makes intensive scene study obsolete is a fatuous one. The fact is, when you show up for your TV show shoot, you bring whatever readiness to go the distance that you have in with you, and nothing more. There is a persistent fantasy that when opportunity knocks, the actor, through a combination of talent and determination, will rise to the challenge and somehow deliver something extraordinary, something memorable, because, after all, they picked him, the TV people did, and they must know, so that must mean he’s “got it”, whatever “it” is.
The ability to move quickly to the essence of what is transpiring in a scene, an essence which is never explicit in the text the actor is given to speak, and to work from that essence, is something that is acquired through lengthy study, hard work, and bumping one’s head against one’s own misconceptions. It is the result of a change in how people and situations are viewed, and an understanding of the way incidents matter to the characters involved. The scales have fallen from the eyes of such an actor, but this is not easily purchased. Anyone who promises a quick and easy way to achieve great acting is probably going to offer you a set of Ginsu knives if you act now.
Consider the fact that actors such as Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Paul Giamatti, Frances McDormand and Patricia Clarkson all attended the Yale School of Drama, a three year conversatory program that trained them to act in plays. All went on to have stellar careers in Hollywood, some of which are still in progress. They are all enormously gifted actors, and probably would have found a way to flourish no matter what path they took, but I am sure that many of them would say that their training at the Drama School was excellent preparation for what came after. It is the experience of having taken acting classes with master teachers, and of working on countless productions, examining roles in depth and taking time to develop them across substantial rehearsal processes, that prepared them to work quickly, intuitive, incisively when the situation called for it.
Can you imagine someone saying that since they were only going to play jazz improvisation on the piano, they were not going to learn to read music or to learn to play any previously composed music? The ability to improvise and work spontaneously comes from an intimate familarity with the medium in question, that comes in turn from lengthy exposure to the patterns that recur in various forms again and again. The only way out is through, a wise person once said. Wanting to be able meet the challenge of working spontaneously on a quick timetable without putting in the time to learn to work well under less strained circumstances is wanting a way out without going through. And except for those very few, freakishly talented exceptions, that isn’t going to happen. All the other people showing up for the call you are going to have been to the same Acting for the Camera classes you have. The question is, what else have you got?