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.

Audra McDonald’s Words of Wisdom

April 1, 2016

Actress-singer Audra McDonald is in a league of her own when it comes to talent and achievements. She’s especially noted for her musical and dramatic stage performances in Broadway productions such as Ragtime, A Raisin in the Sun, and Porgy and Bess. The 45-year-old star is the first person to earn a whopping six Tony Awards for acting, and on top of that she’s the first person to win a Tony Award in all four acting categories–and she’s still going strong.

McDonald recently was interviewed by Shanice Williams, who starred as Dorothy in NBC’s The Wiz Live!, for an Artist to Artist talk at Lincoln Center. In the hour-long interview, McDonald shares her artistic inspirations, describes several twists and turns she experienced along her creative journey, and reveals many important lessons she learned along the way.

For instance, McDonald recounts some of her influences as she was growing up, and through her determination to sound like others, she eventually learned to embrace her uniqueness. “I tried to sound like Barbara Streisand…I tried to sound like Judy Garland, I tried to sound like Lena Horne, I tried to sound like Ella Fitzgerald. I tried to sound like Patti LuPone. And what I eventually discovered in trying to sound like all of these women is that they sounded like nobody else. And as I got older, I realized that was the beauty in what their voice was–that they sounded like nobody else.” Thus, she learned the value of sounding like herself.

Although McDonald can say she’s a Juilliard alumna, in her case, she found the prestigious school limiting. “I felt that I was not on my right path, and studying all this classical music and opera…I didn’t feel good about myself, artistically.” She felt so close and yet so far from Broadway–where she truly aspired to be. While McDonald did make the most of the school experience by gaining classical training, she says, “In the end, what Juilliard taught me was that there was another side of my voice that I had not discovered yet.” As far as the importance of performers listening to their inner voice, she asserts, “If you love it, and it makes you feel like you’re flying or you’re soaring? Do it. Follow that. That is your soul telling you that this is a yes.”

Regarding the audition-room jitters, she advises performers to shift their mind frame. She suggests, “Go into the room being the solution to their problem. Instead of saying, ‘They’re going to judge me,’ say, ‘Hey guess what? I’m going to solve your problem for you. I know you’re looking for the right person, and apparently I am that right person.'”

As far as what attracts her to a role, McDonald says she goes for what intimidates her. Rather than staying in her comfort zone, she’s attracted to “something where I’m going to be challenged, something where I feel at the end of the experience, I’m going to know more than I did going into it. Evolution is very important to me as an artist.” Also, McDonald encourages performers to take the work that comes their way as this sends “out into the universe that you are accepting, and more work will come.”

Another tip she gives to performers is to be purposeful about who you keep in your life. “Friends and family will tell you the truth. Even if the truth hurts, they’ll always tell you with love. Keep people whose opinions you trust around you, and anybody who kisses your butt on a daily basis, keep far away,” she advises.

Watch the interview above for more of Audra McDonald’s words of wisdom.

Memorizing by Role—Not by Rote

November 1, 2011

If you’ve ever felt anxious looking over your character’s lines, wondering how on earth you’ll ever be able to cram all those words into your brain and retrieve them when the pressure of an expecting audience looms, here are some helpful tips.

As an actor who is being required to memorize lines, realize you have the advantage of playing a role. So, instead of going over lines as you sit in a rehearsal room, try saying your lines as you roughly stage the scenes—without sets or costumes. Michael Boyd, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, believes once dialogue is entered into an actor’s brain, the words are like “broken bits of memory” requiring a combination of memory, emotions, and movement to be reached. Thus, give yourself physical cues, and learn your required motion (i.e., walking into the living room with a snicker on your face) to assist your brain in recalling the information.

Also, remember that you are ultimately communicating with an audience. Boyd suggests to say your lines aloud to somebody as much as possible–even when you’re just starting out.

And then, make the lines your own, allowing yourself to become that character in that particular situation, using those specific words. This internalization of the role will help transport you into the proverbial zone.

For more detail about this topic, please click here.