It’s a mistake that is at the root of actors getting derailed in scene work more often than not. And that mistake, in short, is failing to see the other person in the scene as having something to offer. Something worth having. Something worth asking for. Something worth being vulnerable for. Something worth insisting on. Something worth fighting for.
Let me explain.
Anyone who hangs around acting classes for any length of time will learn that drama is conflict. That’s what makes it engaging: people are fighting, values are clashing, wrongs are being confronted, words are being had. However, the recognition that a scene that an actor is working on entails conflict is a very, very preliminary recognition, and a dangerous one to try to take to the bank. If you do try to take it to the bank, you come up with an account of the scene that sounds like this: “everything would be great if the other person would STOP DOING that really annoying thing that they are doing. that annoying thing that they are doing is causing all the problems, and if they would just STOP THAT, just GIVE IT A REST, we would all be just fine.” What’s the problem with looking at a scene in this way? Well, in this version, the other person is producing some kind of negative condition or circumstance, and your job is to STOP THEM. If your relationship with the other person is defined by shutting down their negative noise, then you are engaged in shutting them down, not in obtaining something positive from them, some kind of value. So you are not seeing them as someone who has something to offer you. If you do not see them as someone who has something to offer you, you cannot need something from them. And if you cannot need something from them, you cannot be vulnerable to them. And vulnerability is what it’s all about. It’s the whole game. As audience members, we are arrested and compelled by raw vulnerability. It’s relatively rare that we see this, in the theater, on films, or on television. When we do, it is truly inspiring and memorable. We do not soon forget it.
Let’s give an example. Suppose we are playing Blanche in Streetcar. In the first part of the play, we will see Stanley as uncouth, coarse, abrupt, and inconsiderate. If we describe what we are pursuing as “to stop Stanley from behaving like a barbarian or a jerk”, then we are engaged in shutting down what we take to be Stanley’s defining behavior. No one watching this is likely to find it compelling or urgent on its face. However, if we define what we are doing as “get Stanley to prove his respect for me as a true woman, a woman among women”, then we see him as having something yummy to offer us (respect!), something we can thrive on, something we value. The important point it how we SEE Stanley and how we describe the way in which we are trying to influence him. If we do so in a way that opens our eyes to the potential value to be had from him, from the yummy stuff he can send our way, then we have a scene going. A scene that people will be glad they paid money for, will remember, will be inspired by, will talk about to their friends, will generate buzz about. Nothing the matter with that.