A PRIMER FOR THE AMATEUR AND THE PRO.
You’re taking a scene study class, and getting together with your scene partner to rehearse for the first time. Where do you begin? I am assuming that you have already read the play, at least once. (No small assumption when dealing with people taking a scene study class for the first time; see Part 1 of this article.) You have already done some of your own preliminary homework, thinking about your character’s circumstances, the relationship between the characters in the scene, what your character wants from the other character. You have not memorized the scene, for reasons that will be touched on elsewhere. And now you are showing up at the home of another actor, someone who may be a relative stranger to you, who may have more or less experience than you. How do you proceed?
First, some matters of etiquette. If you are the guest, arrive on time. If you are the host, offer something to drink, water, coffee, or tea. If you need to straighten up, be sure you do so before your partner shows up. You should plan on rehearsing for a specific period of time. I recommend an hour and a half, two hours at the most. Anything more than that in a single session gives, I believe, diminishing returns. You should start working as soon as you get together. Don’t socialize and waste time. You can do that afterwards, if you both want to. But make sure that when you have rehearsed for the allotted time, you are ready to leave, in case your partner has things to do.
Next, just sit together and read the scene. Read it once or twice before you engage in any discussion about it. Read it very simply, with no acting allowed. By this I mean pay attention to meaning and syntax, but don’t put any spin on the words themselves, express no point of view, convey no subtext. Let’s take for example a simple circumstance: A man is asking his wife, “What time are you coming home for dinner?” If we have no preconceived notion of what is really going on in the scene (and we shouldn’t, yet), then you will simply ask the question. It is a simple question, and it calls for a simple response: the time that the wife will be coming home for dinner. Ask the question as a request for that simple information. Later, as you explore the scene, you may have discovered, or decide to try out, different underlying questions that are really being asked with those words. For instance, “What time are you coming home for dinner?” can be read to mean “I know you already told me, but I wasn’t paying attention. What time did you say you were coming home again?” Read another way, it means “You’re always late.” Read yet another way, it means “Are you coming home for dinner? Are you ever coming home again?”
After you have read the scene a couple of times, you can begin to discuss things with your partner. But it is important to note that there are some things the two of you should discuss, and other things that you might want to keep private. First, let’s look at what should be discussed and agreed upon between you.
You need to determine and agree as to when the scene takes place: What is the year, the season, the month? It may be necessary to determine the actual date or the day of the week, if that is something that would have significance. Friday and Saturday night are different than Sunday. Characters in a scene that takes place on November 21st, 1963 live in a very different world than those in a scene in March of 1964, even if the events of November 22nd are never discussed. Other elements of time are important: The hour of the day, how long it has been since you have seen each other.
What is the relationship between the characters? Is it familial, or are you just friends, co-workers? Are you strangers? If friends, how long have you known each? How did you meet, and where?
Where does the scene take place, and how should you set up the space? If the location in the story is under the control of one of the characters in the scene, then that person should have more say about how to set it up. For example, if you’re doing a scene from The Rose Tattoo, by Tennessee Williams, the actor playing Serafina should have more weight in deciding how the set is laid out, after paying due deference to what is in the script. If, however, you are doing a scene from Talley’s Folly, by Lanford Wilson, you should discuss the set up and agree to it with your partner. That’s a location that is not under the control of either character. After you have discussed this, set up your space as best you can in the living room you are in, or wherever it is that you are rehearsing. Do your best to come up with a layout and set that you will be able to replicate using what is available in the class space. You want to be able to transfer your work into the class as easily as possible, and not be in a situation where you are saying, “Well, when we rehearsed it, the door was over there.” Keeping these things in mind when you set up will allow you to focus on the work, and not the logistics. The same should be kept in mind as you determine what, if any, activities you need to be doing in the scene. If the scene requires you to be ironing, as in Tennessee William’s The Magic Tower, work with an iron, ironing board, and shirt in your rehearsals, and then bring them to class. Whether the activities are dictated by the scene, or are activities you have chosen yourself, make sure you have all your props so that you can actually do them, rather than faking it.
Next, you want to divide the scene into beats. Beats in a scene are not clearly defined, so this may take some discussion between you and your partner. With a little practice, you’ll get the hang of finding them. They are the small energy shifts in a scene. A husband and wife enter the kitchen and are making breakfast, exchanging small talk. Then the wife says, “I didn’t hear you come in last night. You must have been very late.” If the play is about the husband’s suspected infidelity, such an exchange will shift the energy of the scene, and there you have the end of your first beat. You will find that dividing the scene into these beats gives you a deeper understanding of what is going on underneath the surface for you.
Next, you want to select a manageable portion of the scene to present in class. This will vary from class to class, depending on how many students there are, and how much time the teacher has to devote to each pair of partners. Initially, you might want to do only three to four pages. Don’t feel it is necessary to do the whole scene. Remember, you’re not there to entertain, but to learn. If the scene is really bearing fruit for you and your partner, you can always work on more of it later. To start, you want to simply spend your energy diving as deeply as you can into a small portion of the scene, really fleshing it out, exploring all facets of it. You will get much more benefit out of it that way then if you do a more shallow presentation of the whole scene.
Now that you have your set, and you’ve selected how much of the scene you’re going to put up, start playing with it. Script in hand, dive in. Get up on your feet, or stay seated, if that’s how you are at the beginning of the scene, and start reading. Start putting action into the scene. Find the activities that you would be engaged in and do them, until something compels you to stop. If you’re supposed to be making salad dressing or putting on a tie, getting undressed or ironing, do so. But never say to yourself, “Boy, I’ve been sitting here a long time. I should get up and do something interesting.” Move, but don’t move until you are moved to. Have an activity to do, but only if it is something that furthers the exploration of the character, and his or her needs and desires.
Test different approaches to the scene. Don’t worry about the right way to do it. Probe it. Try it one time as if you both hate each other, and then another as if you love each other, then as if one of you hates and the other … you get the idea. Try going through it once where neither of you can say a line without finding a way to physically touch the other character, in as justified a way as possible. It might be that none of these approaches is the right one, but each of them will teach you something. For instance, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, George and Martha may be at each other’s throats, it may seem to all the world that they hate each other. But how much more interesting, truthful, real it will be if there are other colors and layers underneath, if there is love underneath, fueling the rage over unfulfilled needs.
Note: A good guide to use as you continue the rehearsal process is Uta Hagen’s list of six steps, set forth on page 134 of her text, A Challenge for the Actor. Examine these questions as you approach the text, and return to them between your rehearsals to confirm, challenge and deepen your discoveries.
Now, as to memorization: This is often the first thing about which theatergoers ask an actor: “How do you learn all of those lines?” and it’s something that many beginning students worry about excessively. Don’t. First, the necessary repetition during rehearsal will take care of much of the learning. But more than that, as you rehearse, test, probe, and explore the scene, you will begin to connect with the needs and wants of your character. Your inner thoughts will start to take shape. You will begin to build what is underneath the dialogue, and then the next line will be that much easier for you to learn and remember, because your desires will be leading you there. Moreover, since you have not slavishly learned your lines by rote, you will not be tied to meanings that you have assigned to them arbitrarily, and you will be more free in your explorations. Then, as you arrive at the meanings that work for you, in the moment, the lines will be learned.
A question I frequently encounter is, “What shape should the scene be in before we put it up in class?” There are differing views on this, and some teachers are happy to work with students when very little work has been done on the scene, guiding them along as if they were engaged in some sort of rehearsal process. I will do this, as well, if by chance there is not much work going up in class that particular week, or if there are students who need a demonstration of techniques for approaching the work. But this is not how I prefer to work, and I think it is a waste of the resources of a good class. The metaphor I use when discussing the issue with students is this: Suppose we were in a carpentry class, and the assignment was to build a table. You go home, get to work with your tools, and at the next class you present me with a beautiful table top, and four finely turned legs. I’m going to look at that and say, “Great. You have a tabletop and four legs. Now, go home, and attach the legs to the table.” The student will then say, “Well, I know that, but what else?” My response: “What else? Nothing else. I don’t know if you know how the proper way to attach the legs to the table, or if after you do, the table will stand after I put a heavy book down on it. And that’s what I need to know.”
Likewise with a scene. The teacher doesn’t know what is in your head, where you’re planning to arrive after all your work and exploration. Neither do you. Only after you have done that work on your own can we really dive more deeply into the scene. Only then can we see if the choices you have made will support the weight of the character’s needs and desires. So work as hard as you can on it. Get it in the best possible shape. Prepare if as if you were going to be appearing on Broadway, or on a live television broadcast. Only then can a skilled teacher take you further than your own imaginings, talents, and skills. That is what you want — to grow beyond the limits of your current vision.