One of the rights of passage in this business is experiencing the thrill and panic of receiving a script in the afternoon for an audition the next day. It is even worse when very little has been revealed about the project and the casting director sends just a few pages of sides. When this happens to you, don't panic; instead, become a super sleuth. Have a parent or friend work with you to look into your lines for clues on making the most interesting choices possible.
Here are a few lines of sample dialogue that I made up for this example:
Bell rings and kids swarm into a hallway as we see Angela approach Douglas opening his locker.
Angela: Hey Doogie! Can't wait to ditch Swanson and his stupid social studies class. RHS will be way cooler than this nursery school.
Douglas: (Douglas shrugs his shoulders and seems preoccupied with sweeping out a few pencil shavings from his locker and neatly organizing his books) It’s Douglas.
Angela: How'd you get that freakin' A+ on yesterday's test? Everybody else bombed it.
Douglas: Lucky, I guess.
Angela: (Angela leans in close to Douglas and swipes at his eyeglasses.) Lemme see those glasses. Hmmm, they make you look like Clark Kent.
Douglas: What do you mean by that? (Doug adjusts glasses and looks down into his backpack)
Angela: I was thinking, maybe you've got a secret to your success, just like Superman.
Super sleuths (detectives) play this game by finding two or more ways to interpret every clue found in each category listed below. It is a fun game and an important part of approaching all your material.
Here are some tips to tackling this scene:
Read everything in the scene. These stage directions, for example, provide an important context clue that this scene occurs in a school in addition to suggesting that this is not a chance meeting between two students, but rather one in which Angela has a purpose. The initials RHS indicate they are heading to high school next year and therefore are now in middle school. Also, consider all other notes on the script, even ones crossed out, for other insights into your character.
Character is what character does. Examine what the characters do and say for clues. Angela calls Douglas "Doogie" and he corrects her. Perhaps Angela doesn't know Douglas well or maybe she is trying to taunt poor Douglas. Alternatively, she could be flirting. Remember to focus on what the characters are doing, not just on what they are saying. Douglas seems to linger a bit to sweep out pencil shavings from his locker. He could be obsessively preoccupied with orderliness or he might be purposely lingering because he likes Angela or wants something from her. Douglas looks down through much of this scene which could suggest either shy or secretive behavior.
Describe the characters using verbs. The information you are collecting will help you form an understanding of your character. What is the character doing to get what she wants? Angela could be flirting, playing, or taunting. She could just as easily be manipulating, intimidating, or trying to impress Douglas, for example. You will notice that the verbs can be put together in many interesting and different ways.
There are no wrong answers. Or right answers, for that matter. You can see, even from this limited dialogue, that there are many ways an actor can approach this material. Don't try to incorporate every possibility. It is critical to examine your clues, make a concrete decision of how you think it is best to play your character, and go for it. If this is a pilot episode for a television series, create options by letting the detective in you anticipate what will happen with their relationship in a future episode.
There are boring choices, however. Avoid the obvious and trite ways of playing your character. Opt instead for interesting and unusual ones. It is almost always a better way to make a character honest and believable.
Have fun playing detective with all your scripts and you will surely expose the mystery in every character you play.
Master your craft, empower yourself, enjoy the journey.
In the coming months, Simon will explore questions about college admissions in a series of free upcoming teleseminars with theater professionals from several well regarded programs throughout the country. See DeniseSimonCoaching.com for more information.
Denise Simon is a New York-based acting coach and career consultant who has been involved in the entertainment industry for more than 25 years as an actor, teacher, director, and personal talent manager. For 10 years, she was an associate with Fox Albert Management, one of the leading talent management companies in New York, where she managed such clients as Scarlett Johansson, Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino, Lacey Chabert (“Party of Five”), and Judy Reyes (NBC’s “Scrubs”). Denise has coached hundreds of children and young adults appearing regularly on Broadway, and in television and film, as well as educating parents on the business of show business.