SCRIPT ANALYSIS: Part 1 – Actors! You Really Should Know What You’re Talking About

July 17, 2018

Two Questions:

If you were given the instruction manual for a new product but the manual was meant for a completely different product, do you think you’d have much success properly operating that product?

If you landed in a foreign city and were given the map to a completely different city, would you be able to navigate the streets of that city very well?

Answer:
Not likely!

Holding a script that you haven’t correctly analyzed is like holding the wrong instruction manual or trying to navigate with the wrong map. Imagine being handed a script for one scene in an audition but after reading it you then deliver a read that’s completely different from the scene as it is written. Now, would you purposely do that? Of course not. However, it happens all the time. Right now, just as you’re reading this article, there are actors all over this city, and beyond, misreading their copy, and as a result… blowing their reads as well as their chances of winning their auditions (let alone the room). Not a very good situation to be in.

Resolve:
Continue reading this article for a deeper insight into the prevention of this chronic actor ailment.

WRITER’S INTENT – THE BLUEPRINT

We’re going to cut to the core of script analysis in order for this teaching to empower you with the tools necessary to understand copy as the writer had intended it; we call this Writer’s Intent or Given Set of Circumstances.
Writer’s intent is similar to the blueprint for a building project. If you don’t follow the blueprint during construction, the end result will not turn out to be exactly what the designer had initially envisioned. In telling a story on film, it’s the writer’s job to provide the roadmap or blueprint, and it’s the actor’s job to stick to that blueprint. That is if your intention is to bring the story to life as the writer originally envisioned it.

 

Of course, actors are always looking for ways to make strong and interesting choices in order to stand out. In and of itself, the bold act of making interesting choices is not a bad thing. However, it’s important to remember that interesting choices can’t directly conflict with the given circumstances and must line up with the story’s original intent or there’s going to be issues. What kind of issues? The kind of issues that will prevent you from getting called back.
Remember: It’s not the job of the actor to change the blueprint… even if you think you have come up with something better. You must first understand what’s on the page before you can nuance what’s on the page.

AUDITION TIP

Never criticise or insult the writing during an audition. The writer could be in the room! If you honestly feel the writing is subpar and you’re still willing to audition for the project, then prepare something nice to say about the script ahead of time, such as “I am excited to be working on this material right now.”

I often remind actors in my studio to consider the writer as the smartest person on the project. Remember, more often than not, writers have worked very hard and labored long hours over word choice, syntax, grammar and placement of punctuations. It’s out of this general respect for all the hard work committed by the writer that the actor should seek to honor writer’s intent.

If you feel judgemental over the quality of the writing you’re only building up obstacles that can prevent you from really analyzing the script and digging out all the nuggets. Sometimes the simple act of believing that the writer is the smartest person on the project will open your eyes to things in the script that you hadn’t seen before and you’ll end up elevating the writing through your performance. Just as bringing the character to life is your performance art, the writer’s art are the words on the page. Honor them!

SCRIPT ANALYSIS

Now that we’ve established that the script is the blueprint for an actor’s performance we can set about the daunting task of reading this blueprint. Because, after all, a blueprint is completely useless if you don’t know how to read it. In other words, we know that it’s the job of the actor to understand writer’s intent, but how exactly do we know what the intent is? The process of figuring out writer’s intent is called script analysis.

As actors, we need to be able to read a script and understand all of its ins and outs, its literal and suggested content, its text and subtext and all of its detail. Basically, it’s our job as actors to be able to properly decipher and then communicate to the audience what the writer wants to communicate through the story. This is a tall order, and for some actors, decoding and analyzing story is incredibly intimidating. If this applies to you, don’t worry… we’ll take it step by step so by the time you’ve finished with this article you should have a lot more of the tools necessary to become a better interpreter of copy, script, and, story and as a result you’ll become a better actor!

ANALYSIS BEGINS WITH STORY

It’s true. Everything is all about story! Any actor who’s studied with me for even a little while knows that I fervently reinforce that everything, everywhere, all the time, has always been — always is — and will always be — about STORY! Think about how we communicate in everyday life: What’s your story? Would you like to hear a story? What’s the latest news story? Let me tell you what happened. Look at this picture. Check me out on Facebook and Instagram. Look at all of my photos, videos, blogs, and status updates. It’s all story!

And, that’s exactly how we’ve all been constructed. We’re built to respond to story. So, keeping all of this in mind, can you see how having a better understanding of story will empower you in your ability as an actor to tell stories? It should.

So let’s talk story.

Without turning this into a writing intensive I’d like to point out that there’s a general agreement amongst writers that there are really only a small handful of basic story plot structures that simply get reinvented over and over again. Some believe that there are only seven basic stories, some think that it tops off at twelve. Director Ron Howard makes the statement that there might only be one! Regardless of the number you come to, the bottom line is that there aren’t that many. As an actor it would greatly benefit you to learn these stories and become proficient at recognizing their patterns and identifying their structures. Doing so will definitely help you when it comes time to analyzing a script. If you’re serious about diving deeper into this topic, here’s a great blog-post I came across by Neil Perkin. Neil’s post is a good jumping off point in your study of basic plot and story because he presents an argument for seven core story structures as well as a couple opposing views. He also provides links to further resources that you can reference for a deeper understanding.

This particular post is titled How Many Stories

If after reading How Many Stories you still want to learn more, or confuse yourself a little further… then read Damien Walter’s post titled Two. Four. Seven. More. How Many Stories Are There? Damien also provides resources for the monomyth theory (the argument that there may only be one type of story).

The more you dive into the research the more you’ll find there is contention over the number of different stories there may be. But remember, as actors, knowing the number doesn’t matter… being educated in story structure is what matters. So take some time, do the research, learn the difference between a story that’s about overcoming a monster, and a story about a journey. Having this knowledge will greatly benefit you as you journey through the analysis of scripts.

There’s so much more to properly understanding story for effective auditioning. However we’ll pick this up in Part 2 of this teaching. But for now, the first step is to raise your awareness of script analysis and writer’s intent. Don’t miss this because you want to focus on memorizing your lines. Instead, develop proper cold reading skills you can count on and spend the little time you don’t usually have prior to your audition on the understanding of scene-story as well as the character’s story. Doing so will take you so much further than simply giving a memorized read. Take your time, put in the work and you won’t be that actor who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.


Clay BanksClay Banks is a former Fortune 500 Business & Life Empowerment Coach, a Motivational Speaker and Consultant. After a successful eighteen year acting career, he founded Clay Banks Productions & Studio International (CBSI) where he’s the Head Coach offering ongoing on-camera acting classes. He’s presently a recurring Master Coach at SAG-AFTRA Headquarters as well as a regular-guest Master Class Auditioning Coach with the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Hollywood.

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.