Pace and Energy in Stage Acting

Pace and Energy in Stage Acting

It’s an exciting time at ACS right now - next week is production week for all of the courses, and we are fortunate to do what others can’t at the moment, and perform in our own in-house custom built Old Gym Theatre.

I’ve had the pleasure of directing my students on the Professional Diploma course over the last couple of weeks and I wanted to share some thoughts on dialogue (particularly in two person scenes) which can help any Actor or budding Director improve their scene.

It’s all too easy for actors to play what I call ‘polite tennis’ - one person gently delivers their line, the other patiently waits for it to arrive, thinks a fair bit about it, and then delivers something considered back. This ‘your turn (slight pause) my turn’ is like watching a steady metronome tick back and forth. 

The other common mistake is when actors think that being by default slow, and pausing for effect, means they’re being terribly interesting and dramatic. When in fact (unless the writer specifically wanted to change the gear of the play) can look self indulgent and boring.

Dialogue can be (and often should be)  a messy, quickfire affair; shooting from the hip. 

Think about it - when you’re having a conversation with your friend or loved one, how often do you wait for them to finish, then think about how you want to react to it, and only then formulate a response? I’ll tell you - almost never. 

The truth is, we start formulating a response in our head before the other person has finished speaking, and as soon as the opportunity presents itself - BAM - we fire back at them. It’s so seamless we don’t even notice the gaps. 

It amazes me how I can walk into a green room backstage at the theatre and feel the crackle of conversation pinging back and forth between people like an urgent table tennis match, and then I watch the actors perform their scene on stage, and suddenly everything becomes Driving Miss Daisy.

I know why it happens. It’s because we are so used to a diet of TV and Film drama, where ‘gritty’ scenes usually involve lots of moody silences. But what you don’t realise is, how much work the composer and the editor has put in to make things look and sound dramatic. In camera acting it’s useful to have a visible reaction to a line - it gives the editor something to work with - and hey, they can speed up or slow down the action of the scene with their cuts.

In stage acting, you need to react ON your line, and more often than not you need to pick up your cues and come straight in, and be bold in your choices. This is what makes the audience feel like they're witnessing a conversation - an exchange of ideas, a battle of wants. 

Because then, and only then, can we truly utilise the dramatic pauses. But you have to EARN them, by first giving us pace and energy. 

Pace and Energy is the cure all, wonder fix for any tricky scene.

Nick J Field
Co-Principal and Studio Producer
Professional Diploma Course Leader

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