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Backstage Experts

Why ‘Interpreting’ Scripts Is a Dangerous Idea, Pt. II

Why ‘Interpreting’ Scripts Is a Dangerous Idea, Pt. II
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One of my favorite things on the internet is the commas save lives meme. It juxtaposes “Let’s eat, Grandpa” with “Let’s eat Grandpa” to humorously illustrate the importance of the comma in clear written communication.

Many teachers encourage actors in the line-learning process to remove all punctuation from their scripts, which I find to be a pointless and frankly dangerous exercise. Literally pointless, because it removes the point of the lines. Not dangerous in that you will die (unless you’re Grandpa), but dangerous in that it promotes interpretation before it promotes understanding of what’s actually being communicated by the writer. Acting mythology repeatedly spreads the story of Christopher Walken doing this with his scripts, but to my knowledge, he hasn’t done this for at least 25 years.

Writers from Pinter (“I gave you three dots, you gave me two!”), to Mamet (“Most plays are better read than performed.”) and countless unknown writers to this very day, would agree that many actors jump to interpreting before they truly understand. In fact, I’d go so far as to say many actors interpret because they don’t understand. Once you can guarantee you know what the writer is saying, then feel free to loosen it up. That said, by the time you reach that step there will usually be no way to interpret a line that is actually crystal clear when you just read what’s on the page.

“Oh no” (expression of surprise and/or regret) is very different from, “Oh. No.” (surprise followed by a decision to opt out). Mashing two thoughts into one is probably the most common error I have seen repeated by thousands of actors over the years, and this presents the writer with something of a quandary. If the actor is no longer reading scripts correctly, the writer is forced to write more expository dialogue and stage directions in order to be error-proof. And we all know what teachers say when stage directions or big print are deemed to be overwritten: cross ‘em out!

READ: Why ‘Interpreting’ Scripts Is a Dangerous Idea, Pt. I

So what’s a writer to do? Write pared down scripts and have actors misinterpret them or write bloated scripts and have actors accuse them of being overwritten?

On this very point, most actors are never taught what good screenwriters are taught very early on: the only time directions should be used in parenthesis is when, without the direction, the actor would get the complete opposite impression of its meaning. As an example, take the line from a scene I regularly give to actors:

LUCAS

But once I get there...I’m a man of my word.

ROMAN

(reassured)

Yeah, you used to be.

The writer has specifically added “reassured” because actors would be forgiven, in context, for seeing it as sarcasm. Hence the note to keep it light. Despite this, hundreds of actors over the years have played this as cynical or mean, which is not only far from the writer’s specific intention but it turns a supportive and optimistic character into a negative and cruel one. If this is simply allowable interpretation, then it is the least interesting of the two versions because almost everyone goes the negative route. If you follow the script in this instance, you would literally be about one in a hundred.

Out of around 700 actors I have heard deliver this line in the past 17 years, only a handful have ever followed the parenthetical direction, which means that ironically, only the people who ignored their teachers’ order to cross out writers’ directions ended up following the writer’s original intentions. And if you are not at least starting your journey by attempting to understand the writer’s intentions, why are you doing their script at all?   

The good news is that there’s one incredibly simple way to solve this problem. Read what’s on the page and understand it before doing anything else. It may be an error, but since the writer has spent much more time writing the script than you have reading it, give them the initial benefit of the doubt. Anthony Hopkins claims to read a script hundreds of times before doing anything with it, and to me that makes perfect sense. Don't rush to interpret. Leave rushing and interpreting until way down the track.

Cleanly and simply transmit the writer's intended meaning and his or her honorable intentions will be considered a gift from you both. 

Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs regular on-camera classes in Los Angeles and online around the world. For more information, check out Barry’s full bio!

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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