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It’s Probably Just Physical

August 11, 2013

Okay, so you have good writing, good acting, good direction (which probably means you wrote it, you’re acting in it, and you’re directing it) – heck you know this material back and front – but it’s not working!

You know exactly what you wrote, you know how to act it, you know how to get everyone else to act it – but it’s not turning out right!  Something’s off here, and you don’t know what it is. Everyone is on the set, you’ve rehearsed it once and it’s, you know – okay – but far from really good. And – tick-tock – it will soon be time to shoot it.  Uh,oh – now you’re in trouble. It was so good at the sit-down read-through; all the emotional content was there, nothing left out. So what’s the prob!

It can’t be you, can it? I mean, you just shot that really tricky Argument Scene and that went great, didn’t it? All the content was right; it was all about Issues and not about personalities; then you got some really nice, truthful vocal overlaps in the wide shot and the deuce; and then good, clean non-overlaps (for sound) on the coverage. The actors were great in all four set-ups. You nailed it!

But now this – you thought – much easier scene is tanking and you can’t figure out why. So, why?

Well, here is the likely culprit: if you are certain that everything else is is place; that your writing doesn’t have to be tweaked; that the scene is understood by the actors; that they aren’t adding anything arbitrary or unaccountably negative to the scene – then almost without exception – your problem is physical.

We cover all of this in detail in The Impersonal Actor audio companion, and list and name everything in detail – often repeatedly – in my new book Comprehensive Contemporary Acting, A 21 Century Companion for Actors, Directors and Writers in Stage, Television and Film.  But let’s cover a few things that always have to go right, if a scene is to come into line with the Circumstances set down in the material.

Directing a scene that eludes you  (meaning you get it sometimes, but not at others – same with the actors) the usual mistake is to concern yourself with the personal relationship of the characters involved. But their personal relationship is already there in the script.  I paraphrase what Joseph Hacker says in his really good book – Auditioning For Camera, An Actor’s Guide  – “we know these two people are definitely going to get together, because it says so in the script!”

What’s meant to be known, the audience already knows. So don’t waste your time here or anywhere else. Your solution – almost every single time (meaning upward of 95%) is in the physical relationship of the characters involved: where and how they are, and what they are doing.

Is he slouching in a chair, when he knows he is about to leave? He shouldn’t be, unless it’s for a joke. Is she standing by a door, when she has every intention of coming in? She shouldn’t be, unless she’s unnerved.  Are they way too relaxed to be expecting a weighty phone call? Is one of them about to leave, and the other decidedly staying – but your blocking has confused the two? Are they talking to one another, when they should be talking with one another? Or the other way around? Are they both operating at the same speed when the circumstances clearly indicate otherwise? Is he sitting when he should be standing, or standing when he should be sitting? Have you directed them to be staying, when you should have directed them to be waiting? If they’re staying, have you directed them to be staying for the length of time the characters think they will be staying? Has she just walked out without her purse? Why? Did he just hand somebody money without counting it? Is there a reason for that? How many well-acted restaurant scenes have been dramatically negated by a poorly handled bill and tip? If you’re not going to cut away from it, it has to be done well. And when done well, it can say so much about the characters involved!

Or as the famous philosopher Balthazar Gracien says: End all things well. This is especially true in regard to scenes. Remember, even if the conscious mind of the audience misses it, the subconscious mind will not.

These are the kinds of things that can interfere in a scene progressing in the organic, harmonized way intended in the writing.  There are many more. The correct ingredients create the ever-desired dramatic event to occur in the subconscious mind of the audience. Otherwise excellent performances can be minimized if the details of physicality are not carefully reviewed and executed – by writer, director and actor – every step along the way!

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copyright 2013 shawn nelson

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