When I work with my students, either at NYU or privately, I always cover audition technique and scene study. Often when I venture upon this acting avenue with thespians—viewing what acting skills they have to show—the first presentation foray is just that: presentation. Either the actor plays a singular emotion ('Johnny-one-noting' as I call it) through the entire piece, or the actor gives me a one-dimensional take on the role.
When either happens, I begin to immediately lose interest. I light-grid. 'Light gridding' referring to when I zone out at a theater, looking to the light grid, when the action presented on stage has less excitement than watching dead grass grow.
Whenever presentation happens I'm asking, "Where's the depth? Where are the layers?" The more evolved the choices, the objectives, the twists and turns, the more exciting for the viewer watching the actor.
When directors, casting directors, or talent reps view an actor delving into the text, one who finds surprising, unexpected choices, the more that actor is viewed as intelligent and insightful. Layering is key to that successful summation from others.
I have two 'layer/flavor analogies' that I often provide to an actor when we're working together once they have fallen into the one dimensional-acting trap.
"Like a potato casserole," I'll begin, "with slices of potato both thick and thin layered on top of each other and then covered by a crumbly crust, give me layers within this scene/character."
When that falls on deaf ears (because God knows potato casserole, a less-than-palatable plating, is rarely popular beyond Iowa and parts of Pennsylvania), I go for a better known 'food' staple to exhibit my layer/flavor analogy.
"Think of what you're doing as a Snickers bar. You've got the nougat, the caramel and the nuts. Those are the layers and flavors. The chocolate that wraps up those flavors is the entire scene itself. What's inside makes for the content of the scene and character. Play the interior flavors and layers. Give me more choices. More flavor." Often students give me just the nougat.
Now while all this may sound silly (we're in a business that often is victim of such) there is a serious message here within the text. Successful actors know how to see beyond the font that forms the text on the page and dive into what is not written. (Writers do this intentionally. It's more interesting for the listener/reader to formulate themes than to be told, "It was a dark and stormy night." Next!)
Actors who just read the text and don't consider why one phrase or word was placed on paper are actors who I term to be 'jet skiing.' They just skim over the words without going deeper into what lies underneath. They play only the surface. When this happens in one of my classes I'll be quick to ask, "Why is the character saying that sentence or word?" Often there's hesitation in response. Then comes a fast-food like retort that is symptomatic our short-cut society today; a one-to-two word reply stating an emotion.
Fine. But what prompted that emotion? What was the trigger? What is the character not saying? Play that as well. That's layering.
The more choices, appropriate to scene, character, motives, objectives and story that an actor provides -- without seeming schizophrenic or an actor gone emotionally rouge -- the better casting, talent reps, and audience will respond. At worst they'll think of you as intelligent. At best they'll think you to be brilliant.
So if you find yourself having trouble with a scene or monologue ask yourself. "Am I playing all the flavors and layers that can be found within this? Or am I just playing the nuts?"
Paul Russell's career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. He is the author of "ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor." For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.