Breaking Down A Play – Actors Guide To Complete Work

16 mins read

Over the last ten years of training I have worked with some of the greatest acting teachers in the world (Larry Moss, Karl Bury, Patsy Rodenberg, Allen Barton etc ) and although I am familiar with all the famous teachings and methods from the greats, I have never had a particular style. I have read everyone from Satnislovsky, Uta, Stella, Stasberg and even studied Meisner for two years in Los Angeles. Over time form being in class, working on different plays, auditioning and working on set I make notes of what has worked for me and what hasn’t. Eventually I made an actual checklist that I live by and when I religiously stick to it, my work flourishes. I will preface this by saying I always use it when working on plays but if you are working on great film roles most of the criteria still fully applies. If you are working on a smaller role that is one or two scenes not everything in this list may apply. I would not use it when working on a commercial for obvious reasons but if there is anything in there you think can apply then feel free! This is my checklist and I hope it is helpful to people so let’s get right into it.

  1. Read The Play/Script Twice (or more if you don’t fully understand it)

Many of you may be saying are you serious? This is so obvious. Yes it is and you will be surprised how many people show up to class on or set who have only read and worked on their scene. I also do not believe reading a play once is sufficent. When working on great playwrights such as Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller or Chekov there is so much information that needs to be in your bones that one read through will not cut it. Take your time. Read and re read. There is so much the playwright is giving you that you can find when exploring writing in depth. All the information you need for your character is right there in the writing. Need not look anywhere else. The great playwrights give you everything you need.

2. Take Notes In The Style Of Note Taking You Prefer. Some people don’t like taking notes, I can’t do work without it. Whatever style works for you is what you should do. I start at the top, I write down the name of the play, the playwright, the year it was written, the year/timeframe in which the play takes place. Then I will write down all the characters and basically go from there. I like to remind myself of where certain scenes are taking place (location) and what caharcters are in those scenes so I can quickly refer to my notes when I need to. I highlight lines I beleive are important in the development of my character. For example, if other characters in the play keep refering to my character as a “heartless buffoon” then that is an important note to take. That doesnt mean you should play “heartless buffoon”, never play and thing. However, it is great information the playwright has given you on how other characters perceive your character.

3. Research The Play Articles, synopsis, performances done on broadway, notes from the playwright. Research the title of the play, why did the playwright name it that? Research the names of the characters, why did the playwright name them that? The name Willy Loman might not mean much to anyone but the last name LOW-MAN is a total representation of the failure in Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman. Watch footage of the play. What other plays has this playwright written? Any kind of information regarding the play you can find that will be helpful to you.

4. Character/Script Analysis Understand your character based on what the playwright has given you, then start to add to that and bring your version of the character to life (speech, costume, mannerisms, physicality). Does your character have an accent? Limp? Both? If you are playing a character like Moe Axelrod in Awake and Sing ( a Jewish bookmaker from the bronx who walks on a wooden leg after losing it in war) then there is a lot of research and character work to be done. The play takes place in the early thirties so what was that time like? Research the bronx in the thirties, see what type of clothes they wore. Work on your bronx accent and practice walking like you have one leg. DONT JUST LIMP, watch video of people with prosthetics. If you are doing the play professionally I would even go and visit veterans at a VA hospital and really get to understand certain circumstances. Also a wooden prosthetic in the thirties is much different from today’s fancy ones. Research the rashes that people with got on their stump, phantom leg and how that might affect behavior! Yes, acting is hard work deal with it! Ok I’ll calm down….

5. Relationships
Relationships to people, places, objects and events. Ok if you have ever worked with Larry moss you will hear this sentence fifty times in one day, so I’m going to repeat it. Relationships to people, places, objects and events. Go through the play scene by scene and underline every person, place, object and event. Make your relationships to them very specific. For example, if you characters sister is mentioned in a scene, your relationship to your sister must be clear to the audience even if we have not met her yet. How do you react when your sister is mentioned? Maybe during the scene we hear about a certain event that took place during your childhood. What is your relationship to that event? What happened at that event? How did it make you feel? Did it change your character in anyway? Props are an object. Larry says props want to kill actors. Yes, he truly believes that props want to kill you and after years off being killed by props, I agree. Get familiar with props, rehearse with them as soon as possible. A prop is an object and some objects are absolutely crucial to a character. Valentine Xavier in Orpheus Descending has a guitar that he calls “my life’s companion”. Here, Tennessee Williams has basically given you the relationship to this guitar. His life’s companion! You must handle that guitar like you would handle your most precious possession. I once saw an actor (playing Valentine Xavier) walk on stage with a guitar and just throw in on the ground. When Larry stopped the actor, I had no idea what he had done wrong. By the time Larry was done talking I was almost in tears about what that guitar meant to Valentine. It was a lesson I will never forget about relationships to….say it with me…..people, places, objects and events.

6. Behavior What is behavior? Well…it’s how someone behaves. Sounds whatever but this might be the most difficult part of acting in my opinion. Behavior can take a mediocre scene and making it astounding. I have always used step five to influence my behavior, I believe they go together. My relationships to people will influnece my behavior around them. If the play is a comedy and my “crush” comes into the room, how do I behave? Where does it affect me in my body? You can use behavior to make an audience howl from laughter just by reacting to her walking into the room. Maybe you pick up a prop you dont really need and pretend to use it. Maybe she walks in and you laugh uncontrolably from nervousness or maybe you jump behind the couch so she doesnt see you. All of this is behavior.

7. Language I put many different things under the language category just because I believe they group well together. Language consists of breath, voice, annunciation, and intent. Here are a bunch of things you should do in order to handle text/language better.

Get to the end of your sentencesmany people swallow the ends of words without ever knowing. Make a conscious effort to get to the end of your sentences and pronounce every word. Exception to this rule would be if your character has some sort of speech issue or accent in which case that is fine.-Pronounce your T’s – one of my acting teachers says, somewhere there is a room filled to the ceiling with T’s that actors have misplaced. Pronounce your T’s.

-Send your ideas to your partner – you can use language creatively to convey things like emotion and intent. Use it to get what you want from your scene partner. Explore all the different ways language can help you communicate ideas.

-Use Circumflex – circumflex is basically changing the rhythm in which you pronounce words or sentences. Many times we get stuck in the same paterns when we deliver lines and circumflex adds variations in how you say words and sentences. You can elongate certain parts of words or slow down a sentence at a certain time to convey ideas. Its a great tool to play around with and create variations in how you deliver lines. Jack Nicholson for example speaks almost exlcusively in circumflex. Watch him work and see if you can predict how the next line comes out. It’s nearly impossible.

-Practice being on your breath – I was gonna write a whole thing here about breath work but I don’t think I would be doing it enough justice so here is an incredible article about breath that does a much better job than I would:

-Use full range of your voice – You will be surprised as to all the amazing things your voice can do and what using your full range can do for your acting. For example, someone steps on your foot and you let out a high screech. Then when asked if you are alright, you answer “NO” with the low bass range in your voice. The juxtaposition of the high and the lowwill both be comedic and also show you are trying to hide the fact that your foot is killing you. Watch Jessica Lange on stage and see how she uses the entire range of her voice. She does it better than anyone that I have seen.

8. Circumstance, Circumstances, Circumstances Where does the scene take place? Whats the weather like? Are the characters facing any obstacles? What was the moment before? What are the current circumstances in a given scene and what caused the circumstances to be as such. Characters must always be playing in the circumstances.

9. Use The Fourth Wall What is the fourth wall? The fourth wall is an imaginary, invisible wall that stretches along the front of the stage separating the actors from the audience. When you are looking out into the audience you are using the fourth wall. If you are describing a location in the story and you place that location out into the audience, you can bring the audience along with you when describing the location. In Tennessee Williams’ Orpheus Descending, the character Lady speaks about the confectionery she is building and what it means to her after the death of her father. By placing the confectionery out in the audience you can bring them in as you describe what the confectionery means to you. The audience has a clear look at your face as you take them on this emotional journey.

10. Moment To Moment Make sure to work moment to moment so that the scene flows smoothly and makes sense within the context of the play. What is moment to moment? When you act, you must be present in the moment: in connection with both text and scene partners. If you get ahead, you will anticipate and this in insincere. Live truthfully on stage from moment to moment and your acting will be more engaged, more truthful and less self-conscious.

11. Read The Play Again


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