“I didn’t see that in the scene. How did you see that?” is a question I often hear after critiquing an actor’s work. They’re even more astonished when they discover I’m not familiar with the scene. “Yes, I see it now,” they say, “but I’ve been working on that scene for two weeks and I didn’t see it before. How do you do that?”
The answer is quite simple. You have to look at the material with new eyes. There are certain elements that govern the success of every scene. Once you know what those elements are, once you develop this new way of looking, it’s easy to see what’s working or not working in a scene.
First, you need to figure out what type of scene it is. The choices are: power scenes, love scenes, bonding scenes and two-people-meeting-for-the-first-time-scenes. Almost every scene you’ll ever work on will fall into one or a combination of those categories.
Second, no matter whether it’s drama or comedy, the key components of every scene are tension and conflict. They are the building blocks of good storytelling. What does this means to the actor? One person in the scene wants something and the other person is going to say “no” to that desire.
For our purposes let’s say Character A wants to sleep with Character B. Once Character B spurns Character A’s first attempt at seduction, Character A has to come up with another way of trying to get what he wants. When Character B rejects the second attempt Character A is forced to come up with yet another way and so on and so on until either: Character A gives up, Character B gives in or the scene is interrupted. In which case the scene, or a version of the scene, will play itself out later in the story.
The third element is competition. If Character A isn’t doing his very best to get Character B into bed the scene falls flat and ultimately proves to be unsatisfying for the actors as well as the audience. Even if at the end of the scene Character A fails in his attempt to bed Character B, he still has to fight like crazy to try to make it happen.
Character A’s fate—all of our fates—is in the hands of the writer but that doesn’t mean Character A doesn’t fight to get what he wants. If he does anything less than go all out in his attempts it comes across as indifference and indifference is not only difficult to play it is tedious to watch. A way to make sure your work doesn’t slip into the trap of indifference is to know you are right. Not think you’re right but know, with all of your heart, that you are right and play the scene with that conviction.
A fourth element, which is tied to the third, is keeping score. There are two possibilities in every scene: you’re either getting closer to what you want OR you’re moving further away from it. With each beat of the scene you need to assess, “Given what just happened am I getting closer or moving further away from what I want.” Knowing this will help you determine how much vigor you need to pursue your goal.
“Okay, I get that if it’s a power scene but what’s if it’s a love scene?” The same rules apply. Even in love scenes there has to be conflict. There may be wonderful moments in the scene where two lovers proclaim or consummate their love but there is also conflict and/or tension building up to and often following those moments. Even in a love scene where the two characters both seemingly want the same thing, if you look hard enough you will see they are competing, they each want it their way. Each wants, figuratively and often literally, to be on top.
The last element is status. Too often actors aren’t aware of their status in a scene or how to portray it. One of the ways of determining status is eye contact. Actors have a tendency to either “lock eyes” on the other character thereby claiming a “power” that may be inappropriate for their character or they avoid looking at the other actor altogether. Just knowing when to make eye contact and when to avoid it is important. Both convey a message and you need to make sure you’re sending the right message at the right time. If you don’t your performance will suffer.
A simple rule of thumb is: people with high status make eye contact; people with low status avoid it. There is a lot more to the “status” element when in comes to developing a character but simply knowing when to look at someone and when to look away is incredibly important for you and incredibly revealing for the audience.
Looking at the scene with new eyes will help you explore your character in new and different ways and will enable you to see things in the scene you may have missed. All of which will help maximize the effectiveness of your work. And isn’t that what we all want?
Questions? Let me know.
And don’t forget, for those of you in the New York area, Kimberly Graham from Judy Henderson Casting will be our industry guest on May 20th. Stay tuned for details of how to sign up for this free workshop.