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Backstage Experts

How an Actor’s Performance in a Drama Can Save the World

How an Actor’s Performance in a Drama Can Save the World

If you ask 100 actors what is their favorite genre to play 99 out of 100 will tell you drama. Ask them why and they’ll say they want their work to be consequential, to mean something, to have importance, to move people, to change the world, and the Academy Award goes to…

It’s not surprising since the drama is one of the two most powerful film genres, the other being comedy. The reason drama has such cinematic power, however, isn’t because its stories are about important issues and meaningful themes. Its power comes from its ability to elicit compassion from the camera and therefore an audience. This is powerful because “compassion” is one of the two things that can save humanity, the other being “laughter.”

Having this power is one of the reasons the Academy Award goes to whom it goes. The actor whose characters elicit compassion from the camera not only will possess this power, that actor will rule their world. There are several cinematic techniques actors can use to accomplish this. Here’s one:

First, remember that, on camera, dramatic characters always feel they’re losing, even when they’re fighting to win. Feeling they’re losing is what drives them to fight harder. When the camera sees this in an actor’s performance, it feels compassion for the actor’s character. When the camera feels compassion for the actor’s character, it wants to follow that character into the next scene, and the next, all the way to the end of the story. It roots for that character, champions that character, fights for that character and lives or dies by that character’s ultimate success or failure.

So take a two person scene. Normally you would ask yourself how your character is affected by the other character during the scene. Don’t stop there. Add this technique to it. Imagine that at the end of the scene your character is planning to do something drastic to the other character—kill them, kiss them, it doesn’t matter. It’s not that your character is really going to do the drastic act but rather they would like to, imagines they might, really imagines it, like we do in life. It’s very human.

And then, as the scene plays, have your character struggle to talk him or herself out of doing the drastic act. Maybe it’s because your character feels guilt, sorrow, fear, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that your character spends the scene struggling to talk him or herself out of doing something drastic that he or she is planning to do.

For the camera, seeing this struggle is like seeing your character’s conscience at work. The camera’s ability to see your character’s conscience at work is what makes the camera feel compassion for your character. It affirms the camera’s faith in humanity. It gives the camera hope. In the camera’s eye it redeems not only your character—it redeems the world.

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John Swanbeck is a director, author, and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Swanbeck’s full bio!

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