Script analysis is what you do before you embark upon character development. It's the process by which you discover the broader context within which to make your personal choices. Several of the actors and coaches Back Stage talked to used the same kinds of metaphors as Castellanos did to describe it: treasure map, clues, adventure. One even called it "being bathed in light in the Garden of Eden."
"The premise of script analysis is that there is more than meets the eye," writes Los Angeles acting coach Judith Weston in "The Film Director's Intuition," "that there is subtext…. The lines are clues that invite investigation and translation. We are looking not for what the lines describe, but for what they suggest."
Many actors have created their own personal routines, and some get by perfectly well without any intellectual inquiry. For example, as Weston writes, Anthony Hopkins says he reads his script about 200 times, whereas Meryl Streep rarely reads a script more than once. And at least one prominent teacher, Harold Guskin, isn't so hot on the idea of "analyzing" the script at all.
All She Rote?
Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Robin Goodrin Nordli varies her formula somewhat depending upon whether the text is Shakespeare (with its dense language) or not. She reads the play several times to get an overview of the story being told, then looks at how her character fits into that story, what her character's overall objective is.
Reading the script many times is most actors' first activity. Nordli goes on to find out what her character says about herself, what others say about her, and whose information is trustworthy—all of this before the first table read. And she also sees as many other productions of the same play as possible beforehand, whether on video or on stage, and sometimes phones friends who have played the same role elsewhere. "I like to steal as much as I can!" she jokes. "It's always going to be different with you doing it and in the context of your production."
In the margins of her script and on an extra page, Nordli scribbles things to try out in rehearsal. "The fear is if you prepare too much, you'll be locked in and won't let it go," she concedes. But as long as you're flexible and realize that you may have to discard some of your early ideas, that shouldn't be a problem. "I've done plays where I wasn't as prepared going in," she adds, "and I thought, 'Maybe that wasn't the best choice; maybe it would have been better if I knew the play earlier and made this discovery, this choice, earlier.' Knowledge is power!"
Like Nordli, Los Angeles actor Hansford Prince reads the script first without attaching himself to his character—just for enjoyment, he says. Then he reads it thinking about the story, as many times as necessary ("two or 200!") until he fully understands why it's being told, how his character fits in, how he impacts and interacts with the others. He phones the director, too: "Hey, I was reading this, and I just discovered something!" he might say. So far, not one director has claimed to be too busy to talk.
Prince is looking for what his character feels passionate about. "You keep going over the script," he says. "And it's always something. Sometimes you have to dig deeper. Deeper for me is also understanding Hansford, my own self." That's because the crucial thing that motivates his character may not be immediately apparent; it may be something that Prince himself tends to trivialize. But if he keeps looking at the script, and within himself, he always finds it. The playwright has provided the clues, and sometimes, he says, you have to dig.
Some actors have internalized script analysis to the point where they only need it if things aren't going well. Daniel Talbott learned script analysis at Juilliard, where he remembers being told, "If you can't play it, then it's not script analysis." In other words, the whole point is to come up with a variety of playable choices that you'll work on in rehearsal.
Nowadays, Talbott mainly reads the play a lot and then comes to rehearsal prepared to listen and respond. But recently, cast as Master Ford in "Merry Wives of Windsor" at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, he found himself struggling. So he spent a lot of time breaking down the scansion, the rhythms, the beats—"getting the language deep in my body." That made the role—one he felt himself to be miscast in—more doable; it gave him choices to try.
Revel in the Details
In the script analysis class he teaches at the William Esper Studio, New River Dramatists artistic director Ribalow is all about for looking for nuances. He asks students to read the script straight through twice for starters, asking themselves, what is the script saying, what are the themes, how are they explored?
Nothing is too trivial to examine. For example, look at the play's title. What does it mean? Who is the iceman who cometh, why is the tone biblical? Then look at the names of the characters. "If you've got characters named Jimmy Tomorrow and Harry Hope, it behooves you to look at the other names, like Hickey—Theodore Hickman, called Hickey," Ribalow says. "Theo is Greek for 'god'! And you've got the thing about the false messiah. O'Neill was a lapsed Catholic. Keep looking.... It's a treasure chest. Once you see that, you're able to play a subtext of which you're otherwise unaware."
He advises paying careful attention to three things: what you're saying; your vocabulary, phrasing, and word choice; and what you're not saying. Without script analysis, actors revert to their default comfort zone, playing the same character over and over again, he believes.
At the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, Maureen Megibow carries on Adler's theories. Using several scripts—classic and contemporary—she helps students examine why the play is important for its time and place: Why did the playwright write it? From whose point of view is the play? "Everything that's not the plot, everything that's not pretend, is what we need to get to something truthful," she explains. What's important is not so much what the play says but what it means. "What it means is going to culminate in an action—but how you get to an action that's going to fulfill the play is based on understanding the play" and its context: the larger world of the character. A good play presents a big idea or theme, Megibow adds. The characters are illustrating that idea; in a sense they're in service of the playwright's idea.
Castellanos agrees, and that's why she urges her students at the Jean Shelton Actors Lab to read the play at least twice, then try to express in one word or sentence what the play is about—the ruling idea, the universal value of the play. She suggests framing it as, "When humans do [blank], then [blank] happens." Every character's story supports that ruling idea, so you'll want to find your own character's relationship to it.
Then examine each act, scene, beat, and moment (line by line) until you discover its function in service of the idea. The play, Castellanos notes, can theoretically end on every line, scene, or act. Why it doesn't is a question to be answered. From that starting point, you can go forward toward character development.
The concept of script analysis has a slightly different meaning for Bobby Weinapple, who follows Los Angeles teacher Richard Seyd's "trigger" approach, in which breaking down the script is a way to break down what your character is thinking, thought by thought, and finding out what the trigger, or impulse, is for each individual thought. (Triggers can come from what another character said to you to or from something internal: images, memories.) In this approach, actors need not memorize by rote, nor should they; once they understand the impulses behind what they say and do, their responses are organic. Once you've broken down the thoughts and discovered the impulses behind them, you can make choices based on the context.
"Look for subtext," Weinapple advises. "There's a myriad of things you notice if you go slowly, thought by thought. A chunk of that work needs to be done before the first day of rehearsal." (Or, in the case of on-camera work, usually all of that work needs to be done before the day of the shoot.) He adds, "If you don't do script analysis, you'll be speaking, but it's not coming from anywhere inside you. When you examine where your thoughts come from, it reveals deeper and deeper levels. The script is the gateway to understanding your character."
But coach Guskin, in "How to Stop Acting," warns, "In the conventional view, the actor's work on the character begins with reading the script for himself and then talking about the character and text with the director. The problem with this approach is that from the beginning of the process it places the actor outside the script, and outside the character."
He goes on to write that reading the script is basically an intellectual activity that encourages the actor to think about the character rather than try out different possibilities; it makes the actor distrust his own instincts. Not until the actor begins verbalizing his character's words does the real work begin. The important thing is to start with a visceral response to the material, not an intellectual one.
So when he is working with an actor, Guskin immediately begins with a process he calls "taking it off the page," in which the actor "looks down at the phrase and breathes in and out while he reads the words to himself, giving himself time to let the phrase into his head. Then he looks up from the page and says the line...." The idea is to let the dialogue percolate in your unconscious. You don't need to know in your head how you feel about it; you want to open yourself up to your own responses. "Because you are within the script, anything you do could be or could become the character," writes Guskin. Just breathe into the lines and let the thoughts come without forcing yourself to find an objective or anything else.
But Guskin probably would not disagree with Weston, who writes, "Script analysis is, in a way, a misnomer, because it has less to do with analyzing and more to do with connecting...with finding a hook that makes you feel something. Ideas for script analysis choices must come from what we know about life, from finding something primal in the script that is the same as something primal in us."
However you go about it, it seems necessary to remember that the goal of script analysis is not to plan ahead or to stay in your head—rather, the goal is to understand the material on the deepest possible level, the level at which you ultimately identify with your character's situation. Then, once you get into rehearsal, you can try out different actions. Keep in mind that it's a two-way street: The script needs you and your ideas as much as you need it. "If you don't do the work, you've done a disservice to the writer and the audience," warns Castellanos. To that we'd add, "And to the artist in you."