One moment in a great performance, overlooked by actors at their peril, is the beat before they step onstage, the pause before the director calls “Action.” Caught up in what they have to do under the lights, actors often forget that they exist—theoretically, at least—offstage and that they enter not from the wings but from the real circumstances of their characters’ lives.
Michael Shurtleff calls this crucial point the Moment Before. “Every scene you will ever act begins in the middle, and it is up to you, the actor, to provide what comes before,” he writes in his superb book “Audition.” “You have to do a number on yourself, you have to talk to yourself, flay yourself into feeling, so that you are aching to get on that stage and start to fight. You want to be propelled on by your feelings, not led daintily by your head.”
Construct a “moment before” poised to give you maximum results. If the scene’s about getting dumped, for example, why not decide you’re coming from purchasing your girlfriend an engagement ring? Your moment before is a final check of the beautiful ring, secure in its blue box. Sure, you never mention it in the lines—but think of the power your positive expectations will have on the scene, how far you’ll get to fall. What if it’s a nothing little scene of exposition? Try imagining you dropped the entire contents of your purse on the floor just outside the door and have just finished stuffing everything back in before coming inside. How does that blunder make you feel: Flustered? Irritable?
Now you’re bringing reality on with you—and that’s the point.
Jackie Apodaca is an associate professor and the head of performance at Southern Oregon University.