No one ever taught me to professionally read a script of any kind. Over the years, I muddled through. If you read a script like a story, you are reading it from a literary narrative perspective. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you are missing an understanding of the sense of the dramatic. I worry that Drama Schools and Universities do not teach students how to read a script properly. Why not? Cos no one taught them either. So, we get a set of highly analytical tools that offer us an academic perspective, which is no use to anyone who wants to use it to produce, act, write or direct.
Coquelin once wrote that the actor “must read the play carefully over many times, until he has grasped the intention of the author”. Too many actors are willing to accept their first impression of the script, and then rush off to highlight their lines in pink. But without the tools to discover ‘the intention of the author’ who can blame them? It doesn’t matter how many times you read a play as a story, if you don’t understand how the play is made, you’re off to a losing start.
Only after going to the Atlantic Theater Company’s Acting School did I have anything like a set of tools that could be used for professionally reading a script. At Atlantic, we were taught to use some simple Aristotelian ideas to disect a script and come to a solid understanding of it so that we could figure out our character’s part in the script.
I’d like to offer you these tools in an easily accessible format and talk you through them. My advanced students won’t find this particularly new, but might find the explanation interesting. When I pick up a script, I read it once through for pleasure – I published a guide to read throughs in a past blog. From then on, I’m looking at the script as a tool of work, so I ask the question:
Q – Who’s Story is it? In other words, who is the protagonist? Over the years many people have described the protagonist in different ways, but I would define it as the character that undergoes the most change in the course of the events of the play/film.
Q – What is the Protagonist’s Driving Underlying Need? I’ve added the word ‘driving’ to my own training, because I felt that the need should compel the character throughout the film or play.
Q – Through the Script, What Conflicts Arise As the Protagonist Attempts to Fulfill their Need? Make a list of all the things: that happen, that others do (the antagonist or antagonists) and they do to themselves that serve as barriers, or obstacles, to the fulfillment of the need. Work through the play until you know all the conflicts. You’re uncovering the ‘drama’ of the story of the film or play as you do so. Drama after all is conflict in action.
Q – How does the Protagonist Change During the Course of the Story? Look at their starting point, the need. Look at the conflicts. Now see where they end up.
Then I do something of the same for the antagonist, and lastly for my character to see how I fit into the overall story. (If I’m not in the lead role or the antagonist).
I use these exact same questions when I’m writing a play to ensure that the character’s have clear driving needs, conflicts and journeys. The clarity it provides to me as a writer is astonishing. This is the clarity it offers the actor too. Yet, I fear, many are still willing to pick up the script and start talking, as if the words were all there was there.
Is this all there is to know? No. Of course not. BUT, if this IS all you did, you’d still be better off than the people who only read the script through or immediately get their highlighter out and starting counting the number of lines they’ve got in the script. These questions unlock the script, and help you start approaching the role. Whether you’re an actor, director or writer, these questions each help you gain clarity.
Try it out, if you have any questions, contact me.
All the Best
Mark Westbrook is an actor trainer and acting coach based in the United Kingdom.