Andrew Wood, MFA, Yale School of Drama • Essentials Online starting soon. • Call for a Free Informational Session • (323) 836-2176

on looking at text

My sense is that much of what goes by the name of “script analysis” today is actually not very helpful. Actors often sense that “not-helpfulness” and end up ignoring their analysis of the text, or skipping over it altogether. This has some dangers, most notably, what my teacher at Yale, Earle Gister, called “playing the language”, which seems to me to be what Howard Fine is talking about in The Common Mistakes section of Fine on Acting when he talks about “acting on the lines”. The actor believes she can just look at a line of text and know what to do with it, how to deliver it. So a line like “How dare you!” should be said indignantly, and “You’re so sweet!” should be said affectionately, and so on. This leads to banal delivery and ignores everything else that might be going on, apart from what is being said.

Then actors will notice that often, the most interesting deliveries are those that cut against the explicit meaning of the line. So they will conclude that they should always speak the lines in a way that cuts against the explicit meaning of the line. But in the end this amounts to the same thing. The actor is being responsive to the line and only to the line, and not to relationship, circumstance, need, or anything else. The difference between this and the first approach is only superficial, at best.

So what’s an actor to do? Knowing what to do with text emerges from examining that text, those lines, in the context of circumstances and need. I have discussed this at length in other posts, but I want to say a bit more about the text itself right now. What the character says is not unimportant, it just has to be viewed in relation to those other elements. But if it is important, how is it important? If the explicit meaning itself does not determine what to do with a line of text, but is nevertheless somehow important, in what way is it important? How does it matter?

One thing that is useful to do is to look at a line in relationship to the other lines the character says before and after it. A line like “That’s interesting.” can be delivered in a million different ways, but once you see the other lines that come before it and after it, that may narrow the field a bit. That’s because when looking at a scene from the point of view of action, that is, the basic feedback message an actor is offering someone else about how the other person is engaging in their relationship, things don’t usually change all that often. We, that is to say, people, tend to hold on to our view of others rather tenaciously, and change our view of them and what they are doing, and therefore, the feedback we are offering them, only infrequently. So the points in the scene where the actions changes, where we truly start to give a different kind of feedback to the other person, usually come pretty infrequently. Keep in mind, there are exceptions to this, but I am talking by and large now. These points where the actions changes are milestones of a kind. So that means that generally, when we look at a section of text, the odds are that the action, and therefore the basic message we are sending to another person about what they are giving us, will be the same across the adjacent section of text. Of course, we could happen to be looking at one of those milestones, where the message/action changes substantially, and in that case what I am saying does not apply. But in many cases, the line in question will be a part of a longer section in which we keep offering the same basic message, tweaked from moment to moment based on what the partner is sending back to us.

Once we see a line as a rephrasing of things said before and after the line in question, we can begin to recognize what, in fact, we should do with the line, how we should attempt to use it in the pursuit of what we need. Now, even this narrowing of the options is not going to be decisive, as things always have to be considered in light of need and circumstances, and properly considered, need and circumstances can often change our view of whole sections of lines in significant ways. But at least having some awareness that lines are often reiterations or tweaks of things we have said previously or will say subsequently will give us some sense of what the force of the line is, what is meant by it.

The point I am making about looking at lines in relationship to the lines around it basically corresponds to the “script analysis” recommendation that actors draw lines in the script at the point where the “intention” or “tactic” changes (the scare quotes are there because I think most of the time these things are not well-defined, so an intention could be anything from “to tell someone how I feel” to “to seduce someone” “to get someone to join my side”, three very different kinds of statements of motivation.) However, in my experience, the issue comes up practically when actors are up on their feet, the script analysis has been discarded, and the actors are trying to hammer out the scene. They come to a line and simply don’t know what to do with it. It’s at that point that it’s useful to remember that typically, the lines before and after will be illuminating.

Also: actors are sometimes told that they need to change what they are doing constantly in order to be interesting. This is WRONG, since if there is constant change, none of that change is meaningful. It’s only when there is change in the context of no-change that the change can be seen to be important or significant. Now, that said, that an actor plays the same action across significant swaths of a scene, that doesn’t mean that there is no development from moment to moment, only that the changes are relatively small, incremental responses to what the partner is providing, not major changes of approach. We may play a single action across a long stretch of a scene, but the playing of that action is specified moment-to-moment by the receiving and measuring of the partner’s responses during that section of the scene.

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2018-02-26T21:48:53+00:00