While all of the above are very important, the skill set that any actor working in theatre, film or television absolutely must learn is scene study. Simply put, scene study is taking the writer’s words and carefully analyzing why the characters are having the conversation they are having, how does it move the story forward, and how can the actor take these words, make them personal, interesting, truthful and emotionally compelling.
I learned scene study from the late Roy London in Los Angeles in the early nineties. I found that it not only helped with being a skilled film and tv actor, it also helped me become a more capable person. Knowing exactly what a person wants and having the ability to fight for it is very empowering.
The first question every actor, in any scene study class, will be asked is “What is the character’s intention?” This is also known as the motivation. If a character shows up for no reason at all, there isn’t really any reason for the scene to take place so why even perform?
At the studio, we teach classic scene study which incorporates the following tools:
- OVERALL OBJECTIVE What does your character want more than anything else in life throughout the story? Love, power, validation, money, etc.?
- PRIMARY EMOTION – What the character is feeling throughout the entire scene. Being able to identify this will often help the actor score the scene with the most interesting choice.
- SCENE OBJECTIVE What does your character want over the course of the scene? Must support the OVERALL OBJECTIVE.
- OBSTACLES What are the physical, emotional, and mental roadblocks that make it difficult for your character to achieve his or her OVERALL OBJECTIVE and SCENE OBJECTIVE?
- SUBSTITUTION Finding the person from your own life to endow the actor you are doing the scene with that makes sense with the OVERALL AND SCENE OBJECTIVE. The right SUBSTITUTION will give the scene heat, energy, an emotional life, and truth. For example, if your are trying to get the other person to love you, you would endow that actor with someone from your life that you want to love you but probably does not.
- INNER OBJECT The images you see in you inner mind when you speak of a person, place, thing or event. If you don’t know what you are talking about, neither will your audience.
- BEATS AND ACTIONS Are the mini-OBJECTIVES that support the SCENE AND OVERALL OBJECTIVE. When asked what your beat or action is try to answer with, “I’m trying to get him/her to __________” or “I am trying to make him/her _______.” (SEE ATTACHED ACTIONS/INTENTIONS)
- PLACE AND FOURTH WALL Putting up an imaginary fourth wall to block out the audience and deepen the required intimacy between you and your scene partner. A place that evokes the kind of emotion required in the scene.
- MOMENT BEFORE Whatever happens immediately before the director yells “Action”—It gives your character a place to come from physically and emotionally and gives the scene more energy and truth. The difference between the character’s moment before and the actor’s.
- LINE BETWEEN THE LINES A word or phrase or sound that gets the actor out of their head and allows them to feel the performance and tap into the essence of their character.
- DOINGS Using your physical world and props in order to establish behavior for your character. Should support the overall and scene objective. Great acting is about movement and behavior. Not lines. People read books if they just want lines.
- INNER MONOLOGUE Whatever is going on in the character’s mind when they have no lines.
- PREVIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES The entire life of your character. These experiences will infuse your character with a history and enable you to use your own life experiences to personalize it.
- FORGET ALL OF THE ABOVE And move it from your head zone (brain) to your heart zone (life).
The above technique has been around for well over a hundred years and was first introduced by Konstantin Stanislavski. Throughout the years, it has evolved and most of the other acting methods incorporate elements of it.
I have found this technique to be extremely valuable and effective. It is effective because actors who use it work. A lot. The reason being that people are most interesting to watch when they have a personal need or want that has tremendous obstacles standing in the way, and they are compelled to find a way to get past the obstacles in order to win the prize or the scene objective.
Acting is very personal and it is important for the actor to explore what schools are available. All of us learn differently and it is vital to know what will work for you before committing to any one training technique.
I will say that once an actor has taken a look at what options are available, I would suggest that they stick to that technique. I’ve seen actors get into trouble trying to work multiple methods at the same time. They become overwhelmed and ultimately, ineffective.
The best advice I can offer any actor regarding their choice of techniques is to learn it, learn it well, and use it. Over time, actors are constantly adding to their acting tool box. There are tools they will always use, some they know will never work, and some that will work on occasion. As the actor matures, these elements will change and need to be reexamined and sometimes replaced. The people, places, and events that once triggered them no longer have that power and life will, hopefully, hand them new tools that will be even more delicious and effective.