I write often on my blog about how getting better as an actor is generally not a matter of tips and tricks, but rather a matter of learning a craft, something that takes time, persistence, dedication, and patience.
However, here is a simple thing that can make a difference: whenever you have a line in a scene that is phrased as a question, in other words, a sentence that ends in a question mark, TREAT IT AS A REAL QUESTION! All the time, I see actors treat lines written as questions as merely rhetorical questions. This is almost never a good idea.
Why not? Because a rhetorical question is by definition, a question that is not intended to elicit an answer.
And why is that a problem? Because the poser of a rhetorical question is assuming that she knows how the person on the receiving end of the question will answer.
And why is that a problem? Because it’s making a decision about the UNIMPORTANCE of input from the partner at some point in the scene. And that is never a good thing to do. Usually, when actors unconsciously decide to make a question rhetorical, it’s so that they can get on to the next line without having to do anything like look for an answer from the other person, that is, to receive off of them, as we say in my classes.
But that receiving is what exactly has to be happening at each moment.
“Treat it as a real question. Wait for an answer.” is a simple directive that often achieves powerful results very quickly.
Just treating a line written as a question as a real question is already a good thing to do, but a further next step is to ask yourself: if this question that my lines include is in fact a real question, how might that prompt me to reconsider how I have understood the scene? This can be a powerful nutcracker for getting at what is really going on in the scene. Usually the choice to make a question rhetorical gives aid and comfort to some (unhelpful) assumptions an actor has made about the scene. The question of how the scene would be viewed differently if what were taken to be rhetorical questions were actually treated as real questions has revolutionary potential in the mind of the actor, but she has to be open to seeing things differently.
I can hear you thinking: can you give me an example?
Consider this speech of Stanley’s from Streetcar:
“When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them colored lights going! And wasn’t we happy together, wasn’t it all okay till she showed here?”
The speech ends with a question: “wasn’t it all okay till she showed here?”
Now do the thought experiment. How would you speak the above paraphrase as a rhetorical question, which is the way we are all likely to be tempted to say it? In other words, if you know that it was all ok until Blanch showed up?
Now — what would it be like to really ask that question as a real question, to which the answer was important?
Do you see how it changes the scene?
By speaking the speech as a real question, Stella’s answer — to the all-important question of whether the relationship was sound or not — matters. Which is a much more high-stakes, much “hotter” way of treating that moment then treating her answer as a foregone conclusion. That would make the speech veer perilously close to being a lecture, something that has no place in a scene like this.
PS While in real life people do ask rhetorical questions, it’s better to err on the side of caution as an actor and assume a question is a real one, and then let a director tell you otherwise if she wants the line delivered as a rhetorical question. We as actors are tempted to treat questions as rhetorical, and not for good reasons, so the best rule of thumb is to always treat questions as real rather than rhetorical.