MY EXPERIENCE OF PREPARING SCENES
As an acting coach, I’ve worked on many scripts, from Netflix Originals, BBC shows and Hollywood Feature films. I was always surprised that even some of the most experienced actors did not really have a process for approaching and preparing any scene. Even after I went to drama school, I did not have the tools that I needed to help actors to properly prepare for professional work. It seemed like the tools were fun, creative, perhaps even analytical at times, but they failed to produce consistent high quality results within the actor’s performance.
A WORD OF WARNING ABOUT WATCHING SCREEN ACTING PERFORMANCES
I want to say something that you might understand but that you haven’t considered in any depth.
Every performance you have ever seen on the screen is highly mediated. What I mean by that, is that it is constructed. When you go to the theatre, you sit and watch an actor, from one seat in the theatre, and you observe them perform live in the here and now, they are present with you.
When you go to the cinema/movie theatre, you are watching the result of the work of a lot of people. The actor’s performance is only a part of that, a contribution. But furthermore - the actor’s performance is a construction. You may be watching the work of the actor from 5 days of shooting. That two minutes you are watching may have been shot on separate days.
The establishing shot, may have been made at midday on Tuesday.
Whereas the medium shots were on Thursday evening.
And the final close up may have been taken two weeks later in a different location.
And the sound might have been ADR’d six months later. In fact, that voice might not even be the original actor, but someone who sounds like them.
So the performances you see on screen are fitted together to produce the overall performance. And you have no idea when each shot was taken. This even means that the actor may have been on the 8th take on the wide, the 22nd on the medium and the 99th on the close up. So comparing your run through of a scene to an end product, it’s impossible.
An actor’s performance on screen is a made thing, a constructed, an edited thing. Remember that and don’t compare yourself to the end result.
UNCOVER THE PRACTICAL CIRCUMSTANCES
You’ve heard of Given Circumstances, the Who, What, Where, When questions attributed to the Russian acting guru Konstantin Stanislavsky. These questions help the actor to understand the environmental, historical, temporal and situational conditions that any character exists within.
Uta Hagen, an American actress and acting teacher created her own version of these. About the given circumstances, she said:
“The circumstances given by the author of the play must be dug out of each word he has set down. They can determine or condition our conflicts, can supply our motivations and specify the nature of our actions. They are rarely dealt with sufficiently. The imagination of the actor can’t really begin to work until he has found them, filled them in, rounded them out and fully extended them.” UTA HAGEN
She created 9 useful questions to plumb the character’s world for significant circumstances.
1. Who Am I? Who is your character? Identify all the details: name/age, physical traits, relatives, education, personal opinions, likes, dislikes, hobbies, fears, ethics, and beliefs.
2. What time is it? The year, the season, the day, the minute. What is the significance of time?
3. Where am I?Identify the country, the city/town, the neighborhood, the building, the room, the specific area of the room.
4. What surrounds me? What is happening in the environment around you? Weather, landscape, people, animate/inanimate objects.
5. What are the given circumstances? Identify events in the past, present, future. What has happened, what is happening, what is going to happen?
6. What are my relationships? This is more than your relationship to other people. Think about your relationship to objects, characters, and events.
7. What do I want? What do you want immediately? What does the character want overall?
8. What is in my way? What are the obstacles to getting what you want?
9. What do I do to get what I want? What actions do you take (both physically and verbally)? What tactics?
However, I have a slightly different take on the Given Circumstances, I like to think of them as Practical Given Circumstances. It’s not the circumstances, it’s how the circumstances affects the behaviour that the actor will produce. No doubt if it’s meant to be cold, you should be wearing thick clothes/layers and rubbing your hands together to keep warm.
In classes, I would watch actors repeatedly put their keys on the floor, keep their shoes on in their living rooms, or fail to deal with wet umbrellas. There are practical matters to deal with and interacting with the real world circumstances will bring you into the world of the scene in a powerful way that will awaken your imagination.
So you start your analysis of a scene by looking at all the situational circumstances and how they might affect your performance through the scene. Then, you will be able to interact with your environment, the props and the situation in a realistic, but also spontaneous way.
Legendary Acting Teacher: Uta Hagen