Tips to Analyze Scripts

November 11, 2016

The skill set of script analysis is a powerful, if not vital, tool for actors. This applies to small parts, starring roles, and anything in between. To understand, move, breathe, and speak for another person, actors must dig into the internal life of the character. And how much time and effort an actor invests in their character shows. Indeed, preparation can be the key to unlocking a truly moving performance.

New York acting coach, John Windsor-Cunningham tells a story of Anthony Hopkins who once answered questions before a reading, saying sometimes there are actors who read a play 20 times to prepare. Continuing, he’s quoted to say, “I don’t understand that…everyone’s welcome to work in their own way, but it wouldn’t enter my head…To read a script in advance 20 times. Because it wouldn’t enter my head to turn up at a first rehearsal of a play or a film without having read it at least a hundred and twenty times.”

While that might sound extreme, properly analyzing a script can indeed take several reads. The journey of exploring the material starts with getting acquainted with the storyline and characters, but soon moves on to interpretation. Actors can notice similarities with their own experiences, or what they’ve observed in others. Interpreting the material also requires a curious mind to ask questions like “Why?” and “How?”

Kimberly Jentzen, the author of Acting with Impact urges actors to, “Remember that history justifies behavior. So if you don’t understand why a character does what they do, the best thing to do is to read the whole script or the whole play, and you’ll really get some clues. A script is laden with clues and dynamic, interesting thoughts and ideas and metaphors that give us the meaning and the understanding and lead us to our interpretation.” Jentzen strongly believes that any time actors sense they are being general about something, then that is not good. When it comes to matters like a character’s history, intentions, or personality, she insists, “Everything must be specific.” 

Also in pursuit of interpreting a script, many performers make a point to experiment with which word to emphasize in each sentence. Robin Wright, for example, chooses a word that she loves in each sentence, and one she hates–as well as the reasons why her character feels this way. For practical purposes, once actors have decided on which word to emphasize, they can pencil mark their decision onto the page before continuing with the script. Also, many actors find it advantageous to pencil mark their script where changes in emotion occur. For example, if a portion of a particular sentence starts off tearful, an actor can mark precisely where those tears shift to outright anger. For this reason, a script can get messy with markings and notations. Pencils are always handy because they allow for changes later on.

Script interpretation comes in many shapes and forms though. Christopher Walken, for example, has described breaking down his scripts in a unique way. He describes his process saying, “I cross out all the stage directions, I cross out all the places where it says, you know, ‘He says this angrily;’ I cross out all the punctuation. And I just speak without punctuation. I mean, except the way it happens…No periods, no commas, no nothing. Really. A period comes when it comes. But it’s a good thing really. If you, next time you take a script, take all of that out and read it. Because the other actors are going to tell you what their talking about anyway. And it’s better to hear it from them.”

Regardless of your personal approach, it’s vital to come to understand your character without passing judgement on him or her. Uncovering the character’s true nature along with his or her vulnerabilities and flaws is much more important than if you personally like the person he or she is. And really getting to know your character frees you up to be spontaneous when new approaches to the material are thrown at you. After all, many people on set might be involved with the details of your character including wardrobe specialists or, of course, the project’s director. Directors likely have their own vision, and have a say about creative decisions for your character. Whether the director gives suggestions or specific directions, actors need to be ready to adapt, while maintaining a firm understanding of their character. Often times, the collaboration between a well-prepared actor and the director takes the depth of a character to the next level.