The script creates the plot and the actor creates the story. In other words the script creates the “what” and the actor creates the “why.” And the “why” is the character’s story. And the character’s story is not the same as the overall story. As a matter of fact the overall story spends the entire movie trying to talk the character out of his or her own story. It’s not the actor’s job to create the overall story. It’s the actor’s job to create his or her character’s story and then fight like hell to make sure the overall story doesn’t influence it. Sometimes your character will succeed. Sometimes your character won’t. But the struggle between your characters’s story and the overall story is what commands the camera’s attention. It’s what makes your character’s story interesting. The less you let the overall story talk your character out of his or her own story, the stronger and more vivid your character will be on screen.
And here’s how you can do it quickly if you have to. It’s called “The Scene Before.” Actors are taught to create “the moment before.” In film they will want to create “the scene before” and then let their character be emotionally stuck there—that’s the character’s story.
“The Scene Before”
Read the scene. Determine what the characters are talking about. Of all the things being discussed, one of the things will be your character’s most recent past encounter with the other character in the scene or other characters in the story. Just make sure your character was actively involved in the encounter and not a passive observer. Now put your character back in that previous encounter and—here’s the tricky part—try to keep your character emotionally stuck there while playing the current scene.
For example, a scene is between a boss and an employee. In the scene the boss is firing the employee and the employee is protesting and the boss is holding the company line. Imagine, for example, the boss’ most recent scene was with his or her own superiors where they were forcing the boss to fire the employee and it was breaking the boss’ heart because he or she cared about his or her employees. Let the boss be emotionally stuck in the previous scene with his or her superiors, while in the current scene, the employee is protesting being fired and the boss’ words are trying to defend the company.
Want to use the same cinematic weapon to create comedy? Let the boss’ most recent past encounter have been a seductive flirtation with a coworker. Now let the boss be emotionally stuck in the seductive flirtation while in the current scene—the employee being fired is protesting and the boss’ words are defending the company.
By John Swanbeck
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson