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Other Actors

There is no way, long or short term, to know the core dynamics of another person, if they don’t want you to. Profiles are only accurate when based upon significant behavioral events. We can guess all we want, but in the end, it’s just a guess. Further, it’s none of our business.

The working relationship is obvious: people tell you what they want to tell you. You won’t know anything they don’t want you to know. You’ll only know what you know is true about everyone: some actors are wonderful, some are not. Some are confident, some are not confident. Some are very confident in their work, but not in themselves. Some are pretty relaxed, others nervous. Still other appear relaxed, and are hiding worry and anxiety. All this we know.

At the core of discomfort is, of course, fear. We forget that Production is much more fearful than the individual actor could ever be. Fearful that the roles – roles in which so much has been invested, reputations on the line – will not be well cast. Casting worries about it, producers worry about it, directors worry about it, studios worry about it. And why not. A lot is riding on the actors’ performances, their ability to perform well over an extended period of time, and on them being someone that Production, Studio and the Cast finds agreeable to work with.

Indeed, even a very fine actor will find producers unwilling to take the chance on him or her, if it is felt by enough people that the real ‘who’ of the actor is being obfuscated in some way. This is not to say that we need to ‘tell all’ to anyone – and certainly no one wants to hear it, fascinating as it may be. But if we cannot be trusted to be the entity we purport to be, then other human beings will not be able to place their confidence in us – we who are an important element in an incredibly expensive and potentially very lucrative enterprise.

So, in working with other actors it is pointless to try to identify ‘things you are getting’ from them. The things you are getting are known. and they are: ‘I want to keep this job’, ‘my husband says we need the money’, ‘my agent is on my back to get asked back’, ‘my wife will kill me if it’s only one episode’, ‘I think you’re taking too many liberties in this scene’, ‘why are you working so big’, ‘why are you working so small’, ‘why are you being so quiet’, ‘why are you being so loud’, ‘do you know the director or the producer personally’, ‘are they paying you above scale’, you seem so detached’, ‘you seem so aggressive’, ‘you’re not giving me anything’, ‘you’re not looking at me’, ‘you’re leaning into my light’, ‘I really need to make that lunch meeting’, ‘I hope we get out of here before 8’, ‘this writing sucks apples’, ‘why don’t they turn the air conditioning on’, – and the list goes on – and not one of these things is based in anything other than fear.

I’m reminded of that one actor in every play’s cast who embraces you like his very, very best new friend in the world – when all he wants is to get the scoop on you and to find out what has to be done to marginalize you in his bosses eyes. Yes, he’s there, too. But you can’t change him, either. The Scorpion and the Frog.

Do your work, don’t worry about the rest. Desire to know what the director is communicating to you, and if it is unclear – reach out. Make a joke, smile, tie your shoe, break the spell of the fear-driven false directive of ‘needing to know everything’ (you can’t and you won’t – only Hair, Make-Up and Wardrobe know everything, because you have a big mouth!) and shift effortlessly to the human condition of the ‘acceptance of not knowing’ what we are not intended or tasked to know. Let the Editor find the good work in your performance and integrate it with the story, she’s very good at that.

In our world of entertainment we create illusions, and in a world of illusions – ignorance is bliss.  Johnny Depp is right – it’s none of your business what anybody thinks of you.  You can care about what they think, but it’s none of your business. Because even if it isn’t what you’d like – and it never is – there is nothing you could ever do about it with your magic wand or your magical charm. 

If the world admires us it’s because of what’s cranking between our ears, the quality of our work, the examples we set, and the company we keep. If there is nothing admirable in these things, then they will not admire us. They will merely pretend to. And that will be something else we already know.

Besides, if you’re not the star, they’re not looking at you anyway. That’s just vanity. They’re watching to see if you are interfering with the story being told; and if you are not interfering with the story being told – and your nose isn’t dripping  – you’re good to go. And then one day, you may be a star.

Archetypes in Audition Sides, Continued…

Andrew Vogel had a very good evaluation of the previous blog post regarding the sides I chose to discuss your audition sides for the archetypal role of the ‘Security Guard’.

“I think realistically the security wouldn’t communicate that “If you don’t listen to me, the three of us will destroy you” because he wouldn’t want to threaten a gang and put his life or other people’s lives in danger. But rather, he would communicate something like “There’s no reason for you to be here right now other than to cause trouble, and you don’t want to start trouble at a public event like this. So just turn around and handle your business elsewhere so we can all move on.”

And at the same time. The posture of the security guard could communicate “I am prepared to use my weapons as a last resort” (That is, if the security guard is armed which normally would be the case I think)

Another option, that might work even if the security guard isn’t armed, is to be calling for backup on a walkie as the gang approaches. Assuming the gang would see this, the security guard could have confidence in communicating “Look, you shouldn’t be here. You know you shouldn’t be here. So leave now before 30 guards show up and make your day a lot worse.”

I’d say the trap some actors might fall into would be to try and start a conflict with the line as opposed to trying to end a conflict and get the gang out the stadium.”

I think Andrew has given a very cogent evaluation of the important elements of an actor auditioning for the role of ‘Security Guard.’ And the KEY to pulling off this important moment would be the PHYSICALITY  of the guard as the gang members approach the gate. The body language of the guard, male or female, would be to at once caution the bad boys to stay back, without egging them on to do something really stupid. The guard’s free hand is palm out to them, the business hand is either on the gun or the radio. The voice is non-confrontational, but definitively ‘all business’.

The trap is for the actor auditioning for the role to play it like he’s won – or that he’s somehow unassailable – instead of like he/she is in the middle of an unexpected event of an uncertain nature, fraught with potential danger.  The ARCHETYPE is: competent, capable, trained, and dangerous if need be. Then we, as audience, can accept the plausible conclusion that the gang members ‘get it’ , that messing with the guards would, in all likelihood, be more trouble than it is worth to them.

Here is where casting – and the director – often make the mistake of casting an implausibly clumsy or ostentatious blowhard in the role. Were this the case, we – as audience – would not be able to accept the ‘code’ of a meaningful deterrent to the gang – by which we, as audience, accept the premise of the gang’s ‘moving on’ to the next location. If we, as audience, do not accept the premise of the gang moving on to the next location, then our subconscious minds will be stuck there, relegated to defending the plausibility of what we just saw – a conscious event – meanwhile having been pulled out of the subconscious dramatic event in which we had been previously engaged. You see how important the of casting archetypes is?!

With proper casting and performance, we can go on to the next beat in the story, having been coded with the proper dramatic stepping stone by the archetype of the guard. Fun, eh?

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Analyzing the Archetype’s Sides

I’ve just been looking at many dozens of fresh sides, preparing for my bi-annual Film Acting Workshop in Baton Rouge, in a bit over a week from now. This time I concentrated specifically on feature films, as that’s been where my head has been of late. I have a young, star client who is working on a very big film in South Africa, and we work via Skype on his upcoming roles – even while he is shooting the film we worked so hard to get. Certainly, it is elevating and educational to work with a star actor who truly is ‘up’ for every role he goes out on.

Well, first, he has had early-entry into the business, which while not always necessary, can be very helpful – if you don’t burn out. Then he hit on a good role, for his type, on a widely-watched television cable series. And he’s smart, dedicated, driven – and likes to act. You know how he found me? The Internet. God bless the Internet, because working with this actor has been another really satisfying professional relationship – as most of my client/colleague relationships have been over these many years.

I also love to work with late teens – and early-to-mid twenties actors, because they are so amazed and appreciative when they find out ‘the good stuff’ after having heard all the other stuff for so long.

And  I wanted to next discuss (following up on our last post about how we should be looking at the material – philosophically) how to look at the kind of role you will probably play before you ever get to star in a film or television episodic.

And that kind of role is often the Archetype. Now we’ve talked about archetypes before, but let’s look at one example that caught my attention just today, and you can then extrapolate how this extends to your next audition. And this is not just for actors! This is also for Directors, Producers and Casting execs, as well!

The Role: Security Guard

One Line: “Game’s over fellas, keep moving!”

Circumstances: Our lead has been chased by gang dudes who think he stole their drugs. I don’t know if he did or not – but they think he did. So the whole film is about him running from a pack of nasty, drug-dealing gang members. He’d rather be chased by those huge, hand-sized Chinese hornets than these bad boys.

So now the chase has taken him to a sports arena, where a game has just ended. He struggles against an exiting CROWD, and into the turnstiles. An Attendant let’s our breathless lead re-enter the stadium, because “I forgot my jacket”.

The Security Guard  sees the whole gang coming toward he and his two fellow Security Guards, against the crowd. They all, simultaneously, try to slip through the turnstiles, but they are TURNED AWAY  by the guards. and then exit into another shot. One of the gang members watches our lead go down the concourse, determined to continue the chase.

IN THE SCRIPT, the Security Guard says his – or perhaps ‘her’ line, and the whole gang is turned away.

IN THE SCRIPT, the next shot has our lead slipping into a janitor’s closet. We know that one of the gang members still has a bead on him, but cannot enter past the guards.

IN THE SCRIPT, the Security Guards are not blindfolded, and therefore obviously can SEE that whatever was going on – there are GANG MEMBERS involved.

You have the line “Game’s over fellas, keep movin’.”

Your questions as actor are:

* What would have to be the psychological  and physical posture of the Security detail, in order to persuade a likely knife-and-gun-carrying gang not to over-whelm them at the turnstiles?

What would Security Guard need to communicate to the gang for them to desist.

What would Security Guard need to ‘show’ for the gang to desist.

What would be the proper volume of the Security Guard’s line – based upon the circumstances?

Would the volume require  the Security Guards’s intentional modulation? And why?

Ask these questions, and then visualize how this usually goes WRONG…  for example, production frequently casts a big, tough guy for the one line role – often a stunt man or woman. And that’s fine. But we all know what REAL security guards look like, right? Why would the management have  placed the ‘perfect guard’ to  be there at ‘just the right time’ to refuse these gangbangers? Doesn’t that just ruin the plausibility for the audiences subconscious mind? “Oh, right, perfect tough-guy security guard just happened to be at this turnstile when all this happens.”

Note to Actors, Directors and Writers:  an audience’s conscious mind isn’t always savvy, but their subconscious mind IS – ALWAYS savvy.

Now we have a further problem: The script doesn’t say if the security guards are armed or not? Whoa!

So now we have TWO compelling scenarios to consider for our audition. Our Security Guard being armed, and our Security Guard being unarmed. Huh. Who knew this stuff could be so complicated?!

What would the psychological and physical posture have to be to deter the gang from overrunning the turnstiles if our security guard detail is NOT armed?! Yikes. One thing is for sure – we’ll need to be ready for either possibility when we go in to audition, or when we record it for production to look at.

Care to comment? We’ll discuss the possibilities in our next post!


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Go to to get the new book Comprehensive Contemporary Acting, by Shawn Nelson.

Comprehensive Contemporary Acting ON SALE NOW  at

About the New Book


In my new book, I have compiled hundreds of powerful tools – and bona fide discoveries – to bring to your acting work a professional credibility and an artistic veracity that is very difficult to attain under normal circumstances. Simply put, I call this book a “companion” because this is precisely what it will be for you!

In case you may not have time to go to to see what’s in my new book COMPREHENSIVE CONTEMPORARY ACTING, (a 21st Century companion for Actors, Directors and Writers in Stage, Television and Film ) – here is just a few SAMPLES of what you will find, that are not in any other book on acting :

*NEW! A detailed account of the 12 human behaviors – and how to act them *NEW! A glossary of over 300 externally-oriented act-ables -(a trans-formative gold mine)  *NEW! 15 essential and frequently-written acting components – and how to pull them off *NEW! 23 behavioral duality models – (a gold mine for actors, directors and writers) *NEW! The 7 types of Love Scenes: how to see them, how to define them – and how to act them + a flow chart to track them throughout a scene!

And there’s more. 

*NEW! Behavioral secrets for handling highly emotional scenes – especially for camera! *NEW! A new model for Spontaneity in the work (and no more craziness). *OLD! Re-discovered 16th Century insights by Kabuki masters for analyzing given circumstances*NEW!Continually applied modern and up-to-date Dramatic Theory  *NEW! Literally hundreds of new practice points (a gold mine for teachers as well *OLD! Dozens of quotations and valuable insights by ancient and modern masters  *NEW! Bullet points and chapter reviews throughout the book! 

I know you’ll be pleasantly surprised by all the usable, proven-to-work material in the book. I think you will find it a real value to you (or anyone in the dramatic arts and film and communication arts) and an important element – going forward – in your work and in your career. Here’s the link below!

Thank you for your time!

Very Best

Objective vs Objectivity


One of the amazing things about most people on Earth is their ability to present themselves objectively to the world. In my new book, Comprehensive Contemporary Acting, we discuss this in detail in the chapter on Objectivity.  But in my book you will find no mention whatsoever of the frequently-used term ‘the objective’ as it relates to acting in a scene. In truth, the consideration of ‘objectives’ in a scene is unnecessary once the concept has been introduced.

First of all, we all have the same objectives, don’t we? I mean, do you know anyone – anyone who is not mentally ill – who wants to live something other than a life of happiness, health, abundance and love? We all want these things, so what other objectives can there be? Even if a character wants revenge, that’s never something that can be accomplished in only one scene – unless it’s the climax (or the set-up) of the story. In which case this would be a device of plot, not of character.

Hypothetical Scenario: The audience witnessed the character’s husband gunned down in a robbery.  The audience knows that the character wants – at the very least – justice, and very possibly revenge. Simple. Done. And if she doesn’t want revenge, then the story will be about WHY she doesn’t want revenge. See how easy?

We know all about her objectives that we are meant to know.  And if the character goes into a convenience store and buys a fifth of whiskey, she may well be doing it out of guilt – to see if she, too, gets gunned down. Or maybe she’s packing a snub-nose .38 and is looking for a bad guy. But if she goes into a store to kill a bad guy, then she’s going into the store to kill a bad guy. That’s no longer her objective, it’s her intention, for it has now become an objective-in-action.

And neither is act-able.

An objective without an action is just a wish. And when a wish becomes an action, it is no longer an intention – it is destiny in progress. In any event, there is no need for you – the actor – to act, to feel, to focus on or to feature what your character’s objective is. When you go to the stove and cook food your objective is to satisfy your hunger, but you’re not thinking: “Oh dear, my objective here is to satisfy my hunger, and my intention is to eat –  I sure hope this cooking thing goes well!”

No, you’re thinking “Skillet, heat, butter, eggs, spatula, cheese and bacon!” In the same way, our character in the above scenario is not thinking “My objective is to obtain justice (and maybe revenge) and my intention is to kill this murderer in order to accomplish that objective”. Nope, she’s thinking “Hold the gun out and away from my body” and “Squeeze, don’t pull the trigger” and  “Walk, don’t run away.” If she is ‘thinking’ anything at all, she is thinking the instructions of her actions. She has moved from the macro to the micro. So then, it must be the same for acting.

But this kind of intensity can only go on for moments at a time in life. No one can go through life with the internal conscription of moment-to-moment objectives and intentions for long without landing in a loony bin.

“Well, you see officer, my objective was to head east on Main, and my intention was to turn left, when obviously it conflicted with her objective to get to work on time, and her intention to get through the light before it changed.”

We just don’t do that in life. Scenarios are imprinted, courses of action generally or specifically set (“I’m going to work today” or “I’m going to work at 8:30 today”) and decisions are made: to knock on – or not to knock on – the door you’re considering; or to open – or to not open – your mouth to what you are already thinking. It’s always and just that – unless someone stamps on your big toe, to which your cry “Ouch!”

So, then to, it would only be in similar scenes in a script where the actor would even look to employ such internal direction, and then for only very short periods of time. Most scenes are not written in a way that we, as actor, need to assert an objective any greater than the most obvious ones: we avoid conflict because we want to be happy; we work hard and watch our spending because we want to be wealthy; we try to stay in shape and not over do it, because we want to be healthy; we restrain our egos, because we want to be loved. Are there more important objectives than these?

Besides, she’s not doing it because it’s what she wants. She doesn’t want to kill anybody. But the bad guy has demanded justice by his actions. It is he who wants something – and baby, she’s gonna to give it to him.

The audience KNOWS what your objectives are because they are human.  The details of the plot are inconsequential compared to the overriding fact of human desire, so there is no point in playing that your character wants to: win, succeed, get love, get  money, get revenge, get even, get sex, get food, get a reservation or get a gig. We know this already! These are extant within each of us.

If the audience is given any of these as plot, there is certainly no need to include them in the acting. Further, if the audience is not given them in the plot, then they are of no artistic consequence.  So, you really don’t need to worry about your objective in a scene. Besides, acting objectives tends to make the work a little bit strange to the viewer: it tends to run either aggressive or passive aggressive, and in parallel to the story – rather than in harmony with it. Frequently, it looks like the actor is doing a different scene than the rest of the cast, because obvious or hidden importance is extracted and featured, instead of it being perceived by the observer – as is what occurs in life.

Rather, be objective in your work. As we will next discuss.


What if the script isn’t any good, what do I do then!


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In my many, many years assisting actors with performing written material, one of the most repeated complaints I hear is the one that asserts the unworthiness of the material at hand.

Writing is a funny thing. On one hand, the writer is endeavoring to relay an entertaining universal experience, while on the other hand the writer has a naturally biased world view, based upon his or her upbringing, cultural background and use of the language. Each writer has a personal empirical encyclopedia from which they draw, and no amount of superimposed objectivity is going to completely discolor the result.

Some writers even have an agenda: social, political, cultural, historical, through which they filter the results of their creations in order to bring the audience to their world view – although those who do so are rarely successful in the artistic field, as agenda-driven entertainment tends to disconnect the subconscious mind of the viewer from the emotional continuum of the dramatic event.

In this month’s Directors Guild Monthly magazine, of the 14 films to be screened this month of September, 2013 at the DGA here in Los Angeles – 11 are films written by the writer/directors themselves. 11 of 14!

How we look at material is a predictor of how well we will understand the material. The actor does himself – or herself – no favors if he reads a script and decides that it is not any good. First of all, a lot of other people obviously do think it’s good – or at least good enough – so one should at least reconsider the source of disagreement!

Additionally, those people who think this script is good – or at least good enough – are also putting their money where their mouths are. They are invested. Therefore, the proper position for you, the actor – to take into an audition – is that you must also be invested.

Additionally,  it’s important to compartmentalize your reactions to a script. You may not especially like a script, but that doesn’t mean that the script is not any good. It only means you don’t like it. And, on a precautionary note, we frequently do not like that which we do not understand. It’s only human nature, after all.

So the only proper position to take when looking at the sides or script that you have been given to perform is:

a) to accept that a goodly number of people have invested in the script, in the belief that it is of value as entertainment material, and

b) that looking for “what to do with the script” is an imperfect posture for an actor to take if you want the material to reveal itself – as it is. It stands to reason that if you, the actor, are looking for “ways to do the scene” then you cannot be looking for “the way the scene goes”, as written. It is metaphysically impossible to call for chaos, and expect to be receive order!


Set your goal to one of understanding the material, and you will find the  value in it. And – if you have good philosophy and technique – you will come to know what to act, and how to act it.  

Lots more at

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Anton Chekhov, Sakata Tojuro and Yogi Berra

We learned from Kaneko Rokuemon in the Actor’s Analects a number of important inclusions for the task of playing someone who was physically wounded.  Let’s continue our journey in 16th Century Japan to see what   example the master Sakata Tojuro left for the knowledgeable actor to follow.

In the Actor’s Analects we read:

“The great Sakata had always been constitutionally incapable of distinguishing between what was useful and what was not. He was a man who did not consider anything as of no importance.”

It continues:

“One day he noticed that inside this shop they were preparing tofu, and he  stood at the entrance without going in and sitting down, and asked searching questions to acquire information about the process of preparing tofu for eating, and then he left, expressing his admiration. Everybody talked bout his characteristic of not ignoring anything, however trivial, and his straightforwardness.”

In a much later example we hear playwright Anton Chekhov (also spelled Chekov)  talk about actors – albeit this time a little disparagingly:

“Actors never observe ordinary people. They do not know landowners, or merchants or village  priests or bureaucrats.”

Yogi Berra, the famous manager of the New York Yankees once famously opined:

“You can observe a lot by just watching.”

Certainly what we are being enjoined to do by these masters of acting, writing,  and baseball is one thing – to watch, and to closely observe the details of everyday life and ordinary people. The smallest detail is not only food for thought, but a vast and deep well of reference material for the actor who knows how to spot and appreciate the apparently mundane and pedestrian.

Remember: the mundane and pedestrian – when placed in the well- written world of comedy or drama – can be spellbinding to watch. And when true, intrigues the audience’s subconscious mind deeply into the scene. And as we observe life, the actor’s subconscious mind is also deeply engaged. Soon, you will find yourself knowing “just what to do.” The actor will become a magician-at-large. The director who knows these things is a walking genius, ready at every moment to seduce the audience with haunting verisimilitude. The writer who knows how to include the simple things in a script will be a conjurer of vivid images.

From cooking a roast to swinging a mop, the observant actor makes a habit of curiosity. We don’t even have to like being curious, particularly. We just need to cultivate the habit. Watch how the workman steps into his work; how the doorman times his protocols; watch how the seamstress examines the bodice; observe the landlord interacting with his foreman; watch how the clerk makes change while talking to the next customer; watch how the shopper counts her money; watch how the grocer serves a client with a cabbage in each hand.

These are the things we get to watch – free of charge – on a daily basis;  the raw material for our creation of a plausible world in the audience’s mind. As we go about working within the circumstances given to us in the writing , we want our understanding of “the ways of men” to be so complete that we don’t have to go out and “research” much of anything – because we’ve been doing just exactly that all along!



The Audio Blog of this blog – is now up at the website with eight posts already up!

You can listen to these same blog entries, narrated by me, anytime. Just click the link on the Audio Blog page. And remember to check out the first audio session of The Impersonal Actor. Please share them with your friends and colleagues.


Masterful Words of Wisdom on Acting ‘Wounded’

cropped-369_369_img_7916a-1.jpg  In the Actors’ Analects, that wonderful collection of wisdom from the Kabuki tradition in 16th Century Japan, we hear the following from one of the great teachers, Kaneko Rokuemon, who offers the following about playing a wounded warrior:

“Playing a teoi part is not only a matter of leaning on one’s sword, gasping for breath and acting as if one were in great pain. If he thinks that his enemy is still in the vicinity, he must be very tense, directing his eyes all around, but at the same time appear to be severely wounded and indicate by his posture that he is suffering. Again, if he thinks that his enemy has fled, he should show that then, and not until then, his wound becomes painful. If men from his own side should run up and attend his hurts, he should speak words of strength, but at the same time show that within himself his spirit is failing and his is growing weak.”

Here, the masters are telling writers, actors and directors to pay very close attention to behavioral and philosophical details, or the audience will suffer distractions in the telling of the story. These details in ‘the looking’ and in ‘the movement’ are extremely complex, and in the human experience are not at all random. They follow observable and predictable human behavior – given an exact set of circumstances, of course.

If the audience does not see a wholly believable and complete sequence of events – notwithstanding editing – plausibility is sacrificed; and their attention will suffer. Such fine detail was part of the master’s craft, and openly discussed. They knew that the random or arbitrary portrayal of very specific circumstances – relying solely on the actor’s imagination – was not nearly good enough. Rokuemon continues:

“Again, even should he lean on his sword when walking after receiving his wounds, to take short steps and bring forward his sword to lean on at each step is an ugly sight. If he uses the sword in this way, he should take two or three steps, then bring his sword forward two or three paces from where his feet are and put it to the ground, then walk forward to a point two or three paces forward from where his sword now is; then bring his sword forward two or three paces in front, as before. “

The artistic concern for what was ‘ugly’ is purely rational:  if awkward, it would become comedic; and this could not have here served their purpose. Think upon Rokuemon’s words as they apply to all wounds – physical, psychological and emotional, and you can add a lot of emotional content to your ‘wounded’ work!

Modern day actors, writers and directors do well to pay close attention to details in our respective crafts, for doing so not only makes a world of difference in performance and in the dramatic impact upon an audience – but also follows in the footsteps of masterful tradition. The whole point of ‘walking over the backs of the masters’ is to save time and avoid being redundant in the process. Good technique includes the best of what has already been discovered. We don’t have to rediscover ‘the good stuff’ all over again.

All we have to do is include it in our work!


Listen to the free AUDIO BLOG, and the complimentary audio download the first session of The Impersonal Actor!

It’s Probably Just Physical

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

If the Scene Doesn’t Work, Try Doing the Scene


Meg Ryan, Mark Taylor, Harold Sylvester, Shawn Nelson, Dir. Joe Dante, Warner Bros Pictures

Meg Ryan, Mark Taylor, Harold Sylvester, Shawn Nelson, Dir. Joe Dante, Warner Bros Pictures

Looking at my trusty August 2013 issue of Directors Guild of America monthly, I see that of 23 films to be screened at Guild Headquarters in Hollywood, 8 of them – over a third – are scripts written by the directors of the films. Of the 15 films screened in June, 9 were penned by the directors.  In the July batch of 12 films screened, 5 were director-authored. Almost half.

In television, the Executive Producers run the writing rooms in virtually every single show – with only few exceptions – in both comedy and drama. So the executive producers who look at your recorded audition or your acting or directing reel, are themselves the creators and head writers of the show. They know what they have written. They know how the scenes ‘go’. They know what the audience should walk away with at the end of every single beat.

It isn’t like doing Williams, or Ibsen, or Miller, or Strindberg or even Albee, because they have all gone in to the Great Writer’s Pool in the far beyond. You can do their writing in just about every Little Theater in the world, but you cannot ring them up and ask them ‘what they meant’ when they wrote so and so. And they cannot fire you for doing their material badly.

In this blog we’ll be discussing many things about scene work in film and television (and theatre), and we will be going over many dos and don’ts of getting at and into the guts of good writing. I say ‘good’ writing because the first thing we have to remember about the material we are given to perform is that the writers are usually in the room. If not in the room, then at the business end of a camera lens in another room nearby. They are not a distant concept. They are the powers that be.

They have also put their reputations on the line with every single script they write, each episode, each scene, and each line; and they take it very seriously.  They give out big-time awards for good writing, you know – career changers: the Oscar, the Emmy, the Golden Globe! They are also paid a great deal of money to take it very seriously.

So they have all had a say, and agreed that the script that originated in and percolated through the writing room, or which was contracted out and sent through the wringer in the writing room – is now a good script. So it is essential that every actor and director proceed from this same position – this is now a good script.

We take this position for a very selfish reason: if we do not, we will always be looking for a way around the script, instead of looking for the artistic resolutions within the material itself. Relevant to mention here that the very word ‘material’ is rooted in the Latin ‘mater’, mother. This script, then, is the mother of our end- product, our 22 or 44 or 90 minutes of entertainment. And we shouldn’t go messing with mother.

When we look deeply into the material for the intention, attention, vibration, tone and direction of the writing, the scripts secrets will reveal themselves to us – precisely because we have stated that understanding the material is our artistic goal. Then we can bring living truth to it.

Our goal is not to ‘do something interesting’ with the writing. We have begun our work with the confident assertion that the writing is already interesting. When what the actor wants and what the director wants is the same as what the writer wants, good things are bound to happen!


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