How to Find the Through-Line of a Scene - Advice for Actors

How to Find the Through-Line of a Scene

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When clients come to us from around the world, scene analysis is often their greatest weakness. Sanford Meisner said: “The script is the actor’s greatest enemy.” Improvising an encounter is significantly ore difficult than interpreting someone else's script of the same situation. Transforming someone else’s creative ideas solely from the cold words on the page, it’s really tough. And we agree.

Actors must truly understand the scene they are called upon to perform.  Of course, they understand the meaning of the lines themselves. But we can become blinkered and focused on certain parts of the scene, accidentally giving ourselves a narrow view of what the scene is actually about. Usually our attention is drawn to the bombs, the moments of great drama, the revelations and the climaxes. This tends to make the actor anticipate the bomb from early in the scene because they don’t understand the Through-Line that leads to the climax of the scene. 

But to play the scene to its full potential, you need to understand the Through-Line first. It is essential that before you start to construct your interpretation, you understand the Through-Line, that’s how you get to the heart of a scene. What is a Through-Line?

Traditionally in acting, a through-line is a thematic theme running through a play. I am using this term similarly, but not precisely the same. I am suggesting that there is a thread running through every beat or scene, it covers all the significant lines of the scene. It is a pattern in the behaviour of the character, their lines and stage directions. This Through-Line of Dramatic Action is what we need to understand in order to truly understand what we must represent in the scene. Instead interpreting each line, you try to look for a pattern across the beat or scene. Let’s try it. 

 

Imagine this scene:

 

 

A Church. Day. 

A Priest and the Parent of a murdered teenager sit talking quietly. 

A: I’d like you to play Whiter Shade of Pale.

B: Of course

A: She liked roses, but no lilies, she hated lilies.

B: Roses, not lilies, I see. 

A: She was such a good girl.

B: Of course. 

A: But please don’t mention how she was killed. Don’t mention that. 

If I ask you to read that scene, which one single word sticks out? What gets your attention? Take a look below. 

 

death-2421820_640.jpg

A Church. Day. 

A Priest and the Parent of a murdered teenager sit talking quietly. 

A: I’d like you to play Whiter Shade of Pale.

B: Of course

A: She liked roses, but no lilies, she hated lilies.

B: Roses, not lilies, I see. 

A: She was such a good girl.

B: Of course. 

A: But please don’t mention how she was killed. Don’t mention that. 

Of course, the most dramatic line stands out and the actors hone in on that. But this is what that does to the scene.

A Church. Day. 

A Priest and the Parent of a murdered teenager sit talking quietly. 

A: I’d like you to play Whiter Shade of Pale.

B: Of course

A: She liked roses, but no lilies, she hated lilies.

B: Roses, not lilies, I see. 

A: She was such a good girl.

B: Of course. 

A: But please don’t mention how she was killed. Don’t mention that. 

 

It paints the entire scene in the same colour, and you can't help play the dramatic part from the beginning of the scene.

However, how much of the scene is actually about the killing?

A Church. Day. 

A Priest and the Parent of a murdered teenager sit talking quietly. 

A: I’d like you to play Whiter Shade of Pale.

B: Of course

A: She liked roses, but no lilies, she hated lilies.

B: Roses, not lilies, I see. 

A: She was such a good girl.

B: Of course. 

A: But please don’t mention how she was killed. Don’t mention that. 

When you do this, you can see how little of the scene is devoted to this line. Yes, it's a vitally important line, yes, it drives much of the behaviour of the scene, it is the motivator for the scene, but it is not what the parent spends most of the scene doing. 

You see, the Through-Line is about ensuring that the daughter has the perfect funeral, that she is remembered perfectly. Here the Given Circumstances become essential. What is the Parent doing? She is making Funeral Arrangements for her dead daughter. A funeral is a time to remember the loved one. It's a celebrating of the life of the deceased, but it isn't really for them. It's for the living to remember the deceased fondly. That's the base reality which is essential for us to start our interpretation of the scene from. 

Never try to interpret the scene without filtering your understanding through the Given Circumstances. The lines are not abstracted from the whole scene and the lines cannot be abstracted from the Given Circumstances - which includes you the base reality which surrounds the given circumstances - for instance, it's not enough to say they are making funeral arrangements, you need to understand what a funeral is for and means for those left behind. It is a chance to honour and remember the dead. 

So in this scene, the through-line is made up of two parts: 

 

A Church. Day. 

A Priest and the Parent of a murdered teenager sit talking quietly. 

A: I’d like you to play Whiter Shade of Pale.

B: Of course

A: She liked roses, but no lilies, she hated lilies.

B: Roses, not lilies, I see. 

A: She was such a good girl.

B: Of course. 

A: But please don’t mention how she was killed. Don’t mention that. 

 

Given Circumstances: Arranging a Funeral Service for a much loved daughter. A funeral service is a chance to honour, celebrate and remember positively the life of the deceased. 

Section 1: The first section is about creating a positive memory of the daughter. 

Section 2: The second section is about avoiding ruining the positive memory of the daughter. 

 

So, the Through-Line is about ensuring that the daughter has the perfect funeral, that she is remembered perfectly, unstained by mentions of the murder. That's the through-line. It includes both elements, but planning the perfect funeral and avoiding anything that would ruin the funeral (lilies and the mention of the murder). We must balance our through-line. It's not just saying how she wants the funeral to be, because it's also about how she doesn't want the funeral to be. So planning the perfect funeral for her daughter includes avoiding that which would sully the memory. 

And that probably tells us what the character's goal/want/objective is for the scene - to avoid sullying that memory with the details of her gruesome death. The problem is that the Priest didn't know the child, so he might not present the right image of the daughter as 'a white shade of pale'. 

The danger for all actors is becoming obsessed with the dramatic line and failing to see how it fits into the through-line of the action of the scene. You can have a brilliant crafted scene which leads to the dramatic moment by instructing the Priest how the perfect funeral should go and then at the end of the scene, reveal this amazing moment of your fear that it will be ruined by memories of the death. Or you can play the whole scene like it's just about the death, anticipating the end and causing an anti-climax -  I know which I would prefer to watch!

To You, The Best

COACH

Need help analysing a scene for an audition or a job? Get in touch today!

 

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