In episode 21 of Casting Frontier’s Bring It! series, casting veteran James Levine and session director/actor Charles Carpenter discuss a direction actors might hear in the audition room or while acting on set: “Compress the scene.” If you’re unfamiliar with this direction, Levine breaks it down this way:

“[Compress the scene] means, ‘I want the same scene [but] shorter.’ Alright? Let’s say this is a fifteen-second spot or thirty-second spot and we’re doing it now sixty seconds. I need all the same information reduced to a shorter story without sacrificing any of the story. I just need it to happen in a compressed form.” 

The idea is to take the material you were provided and be able to decipher which elements of the story are most essential to giving a successful performance. Levine continues, “And so the key to that is: What happened in the story? Break the story back down in your head again. How does it start? How does it end? What happens in between? How do we get from A to B? Where do things change? And don’t sacrifice any of them … Often, we don’t want to change anything about it except how long this takes to tell.”

Carpenter draws attention to a common misunderstanding actors make when told to compress a scene—that is, they think they’re being asked to speed up their performance. But, Carpenter says, “It isn’t necessarily about saying it faster. It’s just making the point more clear.” 

How can you keep a scene’s storyline, dialogue, and overall meaning intact while simultaneously shortening it? Try to summarize or skip the portions of the scene that are less exciting so you can get to the more significant, dramatic parts of the material. 

It can be a challenge to compress a scene especially when first attempting to do so. Therefore, while preparing for the role, it’s helpful to play around with the words, experimenting with what precisely makes the scene hold water. Carpenter puts it in a nutshell saying, “Make your choices, be specific, understand what helps move the narrative along, and you will be able to compress it, take the air out of it every single time.”  

On a side note, Levine uses this example of a direction to encourage talent to honor their current level of skill and experience, and not try to pretend they’re knowledgeable about something if they’re not. When given a direction they’re not sure about, he urges actors to ask for clarification. He insists:

“You need to make sure that you do understand something or clarify it. And people say, ‘I’m afraid to look dumb.’ And I say, ‘Would you rather look dumb when the camera is rolling or before?’ And it isn’t dumb if it is useful, important, and you need to know. It’s better that you know from us now before you get in the room, but that piece of direction will be on set and in the room. And if you don’t know it, you can’t achieve that. You’ll think something else, and you’ll sacrifice part of the scene.”

Determined to help actors cut through the mystery associated with the casting process, James Levine authored an enlightening book entitled Bring It! along with Charles Carpenter and Jim Martyka, which will be released digitally in the near future. In the book, Levine shares helpful audition information from the vantage point of a casting director as it relates to commercial, film, and television acting. 

Casting Frontier’s YouTube channel publishes weekly video tips, tricks, best practices, and interviews with industry professionals. Tune in each week for the latest valuable insights—or better yet, subscribe now.