Something that has come to my attention…and this is not the first time this has come up…is how reluctant most actors are to embrace the conflict in a scene. Part of this comes from the fact that we’re human beings first and actors second. The nature of being human (for most of us anyway) is we will do anything possible to avoid conflict. We will walk around the block, or around the world, to avoid running into an ex-wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend – pick the appropriate category.
And while this may be the accepted way we function as human beings, as actors we have to do the opposite. We have to run into the fire, not away from it. Why? Simple. We’re storytellers and in order to tell a story successfully we have to create tension and in order to have tension there has to be conflict – yeah, that very thing we as human beings want to avoid.
So, instead of looking at the impending situation and trying to figure out, “How can I avoid getting burned?” we need to look for the opportunities to jump into the flames while things are burning around us. We need make sure we get what we want.
I had an acting teacher who made this analogy between a good actor and a bad actor. The scene is a large cocktail party; the character, a waiter serving drinks. The bad actor, my teacher said, will paint the glasses to look as if they are full, glue the drinks to the tray and walk around the outside of the crowd. The good actor will fill his tray with overflowing drinks and walk through the middle of the crowd. One is creating tension; the other is avoiding it.
Often, one of the reasons actors don’t create enough tension in their scenes stems from the choices they make about their characters.
Case in point. Recently, I was directing a reading of a play. It was about a woman whose husband is accused of molesting a child. The woman had a girlfriend and these two women had several scenes together. However, those scenes weren’t clicking the way I felt they should so I asked the actress playing the girlfriend what her character’s objectives were in those scenes. She told me she felt sorry for the other woman, she wanted to help her, be a sympathetic ear.
“What’s in that for you?” I asked the actress playing the girlfriend.
She looked puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
I said, “All the things you say you want are about helping the other person, making her feel better. These are all altruistic choices. A good thing to do in your real life, not so good to do in your reel life. Altruistic choices don’t spark conflict. If you do something for another character and there’s nothing in it for you every bit of tension will be sucked out of the scene. Look, her husband’s involved in this big scandal, right?”
“It’s the biggest thing to hit the town in years, right?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know the inside dirt? Did he do it, didn’t he do it?”
“So what, so I could tell my other friends?”
“That’s certainly a choice you could make. And if you make that choice, without changing anything in the script, you go from being a goody-two-shoes to being a conniver, a person with an agenda. That gives you something stronger to play and it will change the motivation you have for saying your lines. Plus it will add tension and thus conflict to the piece.”
“But being a conniver, is that a good thing?”
“Don’t forget, we’re here to serve the story. This play is about a woman who is faced with a difficult choice. Does she stick by her husband and lose her child or does she abandon her husband in order to keep her child? If she suspects that you are just being nice to her to get information, that heightens the tension in the piece. This may not be a choice you would make in your real life but it is a vital choice for this story.”
The actress made the changes and the results were spectacular.
When you’re doing your homework make choices that will stir the fire up, not let it die down. Choose things that will enhance the storytelling. Pick tension over comfort, conflict over conformity. That way your characters will be more interesting, your scenes more exciting, and you’ll have a lot more fun.
Four weeks ago Kimberly Graham, from Judy Henderson Casting, an Emmy award winning casting director of Homeland, was the guest at our FREE industry workshop. Twenty-six actors showcased their work for her. Our next workshop will be on the 21st of January 2016. Peter Kaiser with the Talent House Agency will be our guest. Keep an eye out for the announcement.
So here it is – 20 “sweet” 16.
That New Year’s resolution you made, the one about this being the year you’re really going to do something about your acting career? How’s that going?
Check out the Classes Page for a couple things you can do to make sure this year’s resolutions come true.