Creating a great performance as an actor involves much more than simply reading a script and doing the first thing that comes into your head. To produce a deep and engaging performance, you need to know how to study a script, pull it apart and work out everything that is going on beneath the surface.
This ability to analyse scripts and use this to inform your performances is one of the most fundamental skills that professional actors need. It is not something you should expect to be able to do intuitively, however. Learning to effectively study scenes should be a key part of your acting training.
Getting to grips with the fundamentals of scene study will give you a head start when you need to begin using this skill in the real world.
Why scene study matters
If you were to just read a scene once and offer the most obvious interpretation of the piece, you might produce something which is okay, but it will be shallow and unlikely to surprise anyone. Your goal as an actor ought to be to create a performance which has depth and offers the unexpected.
Not only will this result in a more interesting and engaging performance, but by being able to go beyond the surface level and present a novel interpretation of a scene you are proving your value as an actor. When you succeed in bringing something new to a part that people haven’t seen before, you are demonstrating that you are an acting force to be reckoned with. You are also giving people a reason to want to work with you again in the future.
Studying a scene allows you to break it down into its component elements, working out all the different things that are going on. You can then find ways to reflect all of these different elements in your performance, creating a complex, three-dimensional version of your character. Done correctly, scene study will allow you to develop a rich and believable internal life for your character, making them into a living, breathing person, rather than just a mechanical reading of words on a page.
How to dissect a scene
Effective scene study relies on asking key questions of the script. By identifying certain fundamental aspects of the text, you can work out what is going on beneath the surface and then decide how this affects your character and how to play this.
The key things to determine are:
Themes – What are the underlying themes of the script? What is it trying to achieve? What message is it trying to convey? How does your character fit into and reflect the overall themes? What elements of their personality do you need to highlight to reinforce those themes?
Circumstances – Where is the scene taking place? What time period? What time of day? Is your character familiar with the place, or is it new to them? What temperature is the room? Has your character just arrived or have they been there for a long time? Does your character feel comfortable in this environment, or do they have reason to be uneasy?
Motivation – Why is your character in the scene? What is their goal? Why are they trying to achieve that goal? How does their short-term goal in this scene fit into their broader goals throughout the story? What has happened in their life that makes this goal so important? What is the best possible outcome for your character in this situation? And the worst? Are they motivated more by hoping for the best or fearing for the worst?
Relationships – How does your character feel about the other characters in the scene? What about other key characters not included in this scene? Why do they feel that way about them? What do they like about the other characters? What do they dislike about them? How long have they known each other? What question would your character love to ask the other characters, but are afraid to?
Ask yourself as many of these types of questions as you can think of and write down the answers. They will all alter the way your character behaves to a lesser or greater extent. Working out how much of an influence each should have will give you lots of different ways to play your character.
Ultimately, you goal in asking these kinds of questions is to work out which emotions your character is feeling and deciding which of your own experiences to use to inform your performance. To create a deep, layered performance, you need to get across the idea that your character is feeling several different things at once and the only way to do this is by careful examination of, and experimentation with, those options.
Trying out different approaches
When studying a scene you should not expect to hit on the “right” way to play it straight away. Instead your goal should be to work out various different ways to act out your role in the scene and try them out during rehearsals. That way you (and the director) can see the different options, work out which are most effective and appropriate for this interpretation of the script and hone your performance accordingly.
A good way to approach this is to try playing the scene out first while just focusing on one of the elements you have established from your scene study. By working through all the different ideas you have established, then starting to synthesise the successful ones together, you will create a layered, interesting performance that feels real.
It is important to rely on the guidance of your director while going through this process and also be mindful of what your fellow actors are doing with their roles to make sure your choices fit with their performances.
Using method acting techniques
Method acting contains a number of really useful techniques which can help you build a strong performance based on the ideas you have identified through your scene study. By using these techniques, you can find different ways of playing with the ideas you have generated for your character, offering even more options.
Affective memory – By identifying the emotions our characters are feeling in a given moment, we can then summon up the same emotions in ourselves by recalling experiences in our own life that generated similar feelings. This allows method actors to produce real emotions during their performances, rather than having to fake it. Trying out different memories can add different nuances to our performances, helping us to narrow down the best possible version.
Animal exercises – You should not overlook the need to create a distinctive physicality for your character. The key elements of a scene will affect how you character holds themselves and moves in the scene. One way to develop a consistent and unique physical presence is to base your performance on an animal. Think about the fundamental characteristics you need to portray and then identify an animal that embodies those characteristics. Try to incorporate elements of the way that animal moves into your performance and you will end up with a more rounded, believable physicality that is grounded in your scene work.
Speaking out – When experimenting with your character you should not expect everything you try to work out straight away. When you encounter a problem during rehearsals it is often best to break character for a moment, articulate the problem, then carry on with the scene. This allows you, the director and you co-stars to consider why you are having an issue and suggest ways to overcome it. This may require you to go back and do more scene study as problems often arise from an incomplete understanding of your place in a scene.
Moment-to-moment – When you have a deep understanding of a scene and your role in it, you do not need to rely on having every second of your performance mapped out beat by beat. Instead, if you have done your scene study properly, you should be able to inhabit the scene moment-to-moment as if it were completely real. This means your performance will change subtly from night to night or take to take, keeping it fresh and alive and giving you the freedom and confidence to react in character to any unexpected occurrences.
How scene study can help you grow as an actor
The great thing about scene study is that it not only helps you put together a great performance for your current role, it also helps you to keep developing your craft as an actor. By constantly thinking out the mechanics of scripts and how you can best interpret these, you are continuously pushing your understanding of your art.
At the same time, trying out all the different possible interpretations of your character in each scene will force you to exercise your “acting muscles” in new and exciting ways. As you see what works and what doesn’t, you will also be developing your acting instincts, meaning you will be able to find the “right” way through a scene faster and more easily in the future. This should also give you the confidence to progress on to more challenging roles because you will know that you have a clear, tried and tested process for developing your performances.
Learn all the skills to build a successful acting career
If your dream is to become a professional actor, you need to know that there are two key parts to the profession. First, you have to learn the acting skills to make you stand out from the competition. Second, and just as important, you need to learn how the business works so you know how to get your acting skills out there and actually find paid work.
At the Brian Timoney Actors’ Studio we give our students both world-class method acting tuition (including key skills like scene study) as well as a thorough grounding in the business side of the industry. That way every student leaves us with the best possible chances of going out and finding paid acting work straightaway.
Our 1-Year Ultimate Acting Programme covers everything you need to succeed as a professional actor, so if you want to turn your acting dreams into your everyday reality, please don’t hesitate to apply today! Why not read about some of our previous student’s success stories?