How to respond when an actor asks, “What should I do?”

I get to teach and work with young actors. Some have experience. Others do not.

It’s incredibly fun seeing someone take the stage for the first time and try to find their way, try to understand their character, try to understand the relationships between the other characters, and try to, ultimately, figure out what they are supposed to accomplish in the scene.

One question that I am frequently asked as a director is “what should I be doing in this scene?” This almost always happens when an actor doesn’t have any lines for a while but is supposed to stay on the stage. This is a frightening dilemma for the inexperienced actor. They always wonder if they should just go off-stage at this point and come back in later. I had one actor ask me once, “should I just sit down and read a magazine?”

But the answer to the question “What should I do?” is quite simple. The answer is another question. Here it is: “What is your scene objective?”

In essence, why did the playwright put you in this scene? What are you supposed to be accomplishing? And, this is crucial, why didn’t the playwright have you exit IF you don’t have any lines for a while. Was this just an oversight? Not likely. The playwright wants that character to continue to try to accomplish his/her objective on-stage EVEN IF he/she doesn’t have any lines. So therefore, it’s easy to know what to do. The actor has to do actions, movements, and facial expressions which push them closer to accomplishing their scene objective.

Example, if an actor is playing a father who disapproves of the young man his daughter is sitting with, what would the actor do to show that disapproval even if he doesn’t have any lines for a while? He wouldn’t just sit down and become detached from the scene by reading a magazine (unless he sat right in the middle between his daughter and her beau.) Perhaps he would pace nervously, perhaps he would keep looking back at the young man, perhaps he would hover over them, or cringe when she slides in closer. There are many possible actions here depending on the dialogue and situation.

So what I try to do with my young actors is to have them identify why they are in the scene. Have them think of actions which help fulfill their objective and keep them connected with the flow of the story. If they can do this, they will learn to live “moment to moment” on stage, and they will get much better with having spontaneous and authentic actions. In essence, they will be better actors.

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