Why Actor's NEED Script Analysis

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Why do we need Script Analysis?

Why do we need Script Analysis? Because we are not just feeling machines.  Our job as actors, is less about making ourselves feel than making the audience feel and we do this primarily by attempting to affect the other person in the scene. In a sense acting is about trying to affect change. In order to do that we need to know what to DO, not what to feel. We are in charge of what the audience sees and what the audience sees for the most part, is what we DO.

Just by looking at someone, how do you know what they are feeling? How do you know what emotions they are going through as they stand in front of you? It is difficult at the best of times to even recognise this in ourselves let alone others. We are not telepaths and we cannot read each other’s minds. But we can read each other’s behaviour. Not perfectly or accurately in the objective sense, but subjectively we are programmed to do just this.

Acting and Empathy

Our empathy that we all have in some form, is an albeit imperfect behavioural interpretation tool. It takes a mind map of what we know of ourselves and assumes things about the other person we are observing or engaging with. Note that this can also mean that whatever we shun, repress or push away in ourselves might also happen when we empathise with the emotional lives of others.

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So, back to the question, how do we know when someone is hungry? Well we either see them attempt to get food somehow, or they say they are hungry. In either case they DO something and we interpret this. The audience is part of the story process and whether they want to or not, they will interpret and read into everything you do onstage. So we have to make sure what we do is clear and in-line with the intentions of the writer and the script itself.

So then, if the question is no longer about trying to feel something and instead about what to DO, how do we go about figuring out WHAT to do and HOW to do it, when we act? This is the realm of script analysis.

Which Script Analysis?

There are many script analysis techniques out there and to be sure you need to find what works best over time for your mind, however they are not all created equal. For me I think the Practical Aesthetics acting technique is a great place to start. It provides the essentials and a framework that you can begin to add on to later as you require. But it will in and of itself give you a reliable, practical and eventually efficient system to apply to any audition or script situation. There are four steps in the Practical Aesthetics system in particular which I’ll outline in a brief example at the bottom of this post.

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Pitfalls of Overplanning in Script Analysis

Before that I want to say a few other things around the importance and pitfalls of script analysis and acting itself. Just because we are somewhat in charge of what the audience sees, doesn’t mean we should be shoving what we WANT them to see or feel down their throats. This is the area of bad acting habits known as ‘demonstrating’ or ‘indicating’. It is a cheat, a shortcut and it is essentially and emotional blackmail on the audience. An attempt to guilt them into feeling the thing we subtly or not so subtly ask them to feel, out of pity for our inability to sit with the ambiguity and powerless of how we are eventually perceived.

Audiences will go along with whatever you do as long as you go along with whatever you do. That is to say, as long as you keep playing the game, we’ll keep playing it to. The audience is well aware that what they are engaging in is a willful suspension of disbelief with you and as long as you continue to willingly suspend your disbelief as well the spell will not be broken. The more times you break out of the game (character), or try to hoodwink the audience by changing the rules or asking them to pretend they just saw you do something you weren’t brave enough to actually venture, the more they will be unable to continue to suspend this disbelief. For the rules of the game have become to haphazard and absurd.

Acting Techniques Should Set You Free (Not Make you Feel Trapped!)

Another worry that naturally arises in us as actors is, ‘how do we choose from the infinite number of options available when it comes to behaviour in any given moment?’ This is what we might call ‘the paradox of choice’ and it is the same experience you have when one finds themselves paralysed in the face of a chinese takeaway menu of 150 items. It is perhaps the most frightening question of all in acting and it’s the very fear of this question that leads actors to one of two extremes. Either perfectly choreographing every moment of our performance in a stale and precise way, disregarding what anyone else may do, or never making a choice about anything and letting our unbridled impulses flood the stage and other actors with self indulgent, unrehearsed, destructive and directionless nonsense. Proper script analysis cures this problem. It free us to act on our impulses without jeopardizing the story or risk leaving our partners high and dry. It is the process of ‘thinking before you act, so that you can act before you think’.

My basic rule of thumb is at the end of the day, ‘whatever works’. But it does have to actually work and this means it has to provide reliable results in some sense. Reliable not predictable. The result we want from any script analysis technique or indeed any acting technique, in an experiential sense, is to set you free. To help you find liberation through performance. To allow you to enter into a state of flow and artistic athleticism while still remaining true to the script.

Putting Script Analysis Back in Context

In my experience, if one does not already have a consistent and reliable script analysis technique as an actor, it’s usually because the ones you’ve been introduced to are too complicated, or you didn’t understand them, even enough to attempt to understand them further. Of course we can’t assume we will completely understand a new skill or technique immediately, but after a decent amount of time spent reflecting and attempting a technique, it should begin to become clearer or it should be reframed, re-explained or eventually discarded.

The last thing I want to say is that a script analysis technique ultimately shouldn’t just be a dry formula you learn by instruction alone, like you were instructed to do back in high school maths. It might feel that way at first, but the skill should eventually become embodied as a kind of reverse engineering of human behaviour. It should be able to map onto the world and be a lens through which to view people and help you understand the very building blocks that lead to how we all behave, not just on stage or camera. In this way too though we must remember, that in the end, it is all just a concept of how we view the world, it is not reality itself and to become dogmatic or identified with any one particular acting approach is silly and unhelpful. Remember as Zen Buddhism says, ‘these teachings are like fingers pointing to the moon, they are not the moon.’ If you want to experience the moon, you must go there for yourself, that is the goal of acting.

Example Practical Aesthetics Script Analysis

Please note you would not be able to learn this technique by reading the below example, it’s simply an illustration that I’ve tried to keep brief to describe the logical simplicity of having a 4 step script analysis technique as opposed to 20 steps. It will still take time to learn, like anything in the beginning, but eventually you could break down a scene in a matter of minutes with this approach, which is an essential skill for the last minute audition or incorporating notes one receives on-set or in the rehearsal room.

Example Breakdown:

To start we need to know what is literally going on in the scene, with as little interpretation as possible.  We need to align ourselves with the intentions of the writer to the best of our ability. Which means stripping back and resisting the urge to fill in the blanks. Instead we treat the blanks as blanks.  We simply engage with what the facts are, rather than what we want them to be.

We call this step the literal. Let’s say for example we have a fictional scene wherein a husband and wife are, at first glance, having a fight about infidelity. In order to not get caught in our first impressions and end up acting them from day one we need to boil the scene down to its most factual components such as ‘Johnny talks to Joanne about the affair he has been having and tells her he’s leaving her.’

We then use the literal (step 1) to help determine our character’s want/objective (step 2) by asking ourselves the simple question, ‘why?’. Why does Johnny talk to Joanne about the affair he has been having and tell her he’s leaving her? We then answer using our common sense and trying the find the best case scenario from the character’s point of view trying to be as specific and accurate as possible, not trying to be inventive or different, but also not trying to play it safe. The stakes should almost always be a certain level of high if it’s in a script. Now, often a character would not consciously even know what they want so I prefer to say ‘If the character’s unconscious were writing the scene, how would it go/end?’

An example of this might be (1) Johnny talks to Joanne about the affair he’s has been having and tell her he’s leaving her because (2) ‘Johnny wants Joanne to prove to him that she’s willing to fight for him be excusing his infidelity and threats.’ Another option could be (2) ‘Johnny wants Joanne to accept his decision humbly and promise not to pursue him.’ It depends entirely on the actor playing the part and what their common sense tells them about what the writer was intending for the story and character at this moment. From here we then ask ‘what ‘kind of act’ it would be for the other character to actually fulfil our character’s want/objective?’ (Step 3-a) For example it could be an act of:

  • Love
  • Compassion
  • Respect
  • Duty
  • Submission
  • Generosity
  • Obedience

From here I would then decide on the word I think encapsulates the ‘essence’ of the scene most closely to help determine (Step 3-b) the ‘essential action’ of the scene. The ‘essential action’ is the ‘how’ the character and you go about getting the ‘want’. It’s what you, the actor, will actually do onstage. It’s one simple sentence that effectively embodies that essential quality (3-a) in the context of the scene. For example if I chose generosity, I would then try to think of an ‘essential action’ that captures the way I think would best work to achieve my (2) want'/objective. In this case I might choose, ‘to get someone to open their heart to me’ or ‘to get someone to do me the favour of a lifetime’.

Finally once I had decided on my favourite (3-b) ‘essential action’, I would try to find an (4) ‘as-if’ to personalise the action so that I actually understood in an experiential way the stakes of the situation and how I might behave if I were in similar emotional, not literal, circumstances. For example, (3-b) ‘To get someone to open their heart to me’ - (4) 'It’s as if my brother suddenly became extremely depressed and I had to get him to share his feelings with me and consider seeking help otherwise things might take a severely dark turn for him and my family’.

So to recap in the end my breakdown will end with something like this:

  1. Johnny talks to Joanne about the affair he has been having and tells her he’s leaving her.

  2. Johnny wants Joanne to prove to him that she’s willing to fight for him be excusing his infidelity and threats

  3. a) Act of generosity
    b) To get someone to open their heart to me (The most important part)

  4. It’s as if my brother suddenly became extremely depressed and I had to get him to share his feelings with me and consider seeking help otherwise things might take a severely dark turn for him and my family.

In the end the only steps you will need to remember eventually will be steps 3-b and 4, the ‘essential action’ and the ‘as-if’ and even then eventually the ‘as-if’ will fade as you become experientially familiar with the stakes and urgency of the scene. When it comes to performance likely all that will remain is the full embodiment of the ‘essential action’. What a relief to know there’s an alternative to walking into a scene trying to remember hundreds of verbs in each moment inevitably keeping you locked in your head and out of the moment!