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Into the Words

In the beginning, there is the playwright. Then there is you. When the playwright and you, the actor, merge, when the playwright's words and your innermost self—your memories and thoughts and feelings—connect, the result is what we call a "character." Script analysis is a useful first step in the process of creating the character.

I'm paraphrasing San Francisco acting teacher Jean Shelton's introductory remarks to her script analysis class. Never having studied this approach to acting, I sat in on a few sessions to find out what it was all about. Of course, a few sessions are not enough to get an in-depth understanding, but I got a brief overview, which I'll share with you. I hope it will leave you hungry for more, as it did me. (Bear in mind that this is one teacher's approach to script analysis, the method she learned from Stella Adler. If others know a different approach to script analysis as it applies to the actor, I'd love to hear about it.)

When you learn to respect the playwright's moment-by-moment work, Shelton believes, you will be able to simplify your own job as an actor, because you'll find that your other actorly tasks will follow naturally. Script analysis, she said, is neither psychoanalytical thinking nor English-major thinking. Already I was surprised. I'd always assumed that script analysis involved a scholarly approach to the text. Not so. Script analysis means understanding what the play is about, understanding what is happening in each scene, and then zeroing in on your character to find out why she is saying and doing the things she says and does when she says and does them.

"In the theatre," explained Shelton, "the lines are about more than they are in real life, even though the play's style might be natural." She added, "The lines are the tip of the iceberg. They say, 'Go this way.' You start with what the writer gives you, and you use your understanding of yourself to match the writer. The playwright and the actor become one, and move as a unit. Both you and the playwright have something you want to communicate. The playwright is your partner."

This type of work presupposes, of course, that you've done enough introspection to be in touch with your deepest self. Clearly, the best playwrights have done so.

It also presupposes—and this, said Shelton, is very important—that you do not judge your character, that you are open-minded and willing to motivate and justify all your character's words and actions. "Don't worry about what the other characters in the play say about your character," she cautioned, and this is clearly an anti-English-major viewpoint. "You're responsible only to your character. Believe what your character says! Get behind your character!" The rest is up to the director and the audience.

How do you support your character? By digging deep enough into your own experiences and observations of people and the world around you to identify with her.

Taking What's Given

Let's get down to basics. First, read the play at least twice. In one sentence, say what the play is about. If the playwright is good—and for the purposes of this discussion, let's assume that to be so—the theme is universal. That doesn't mean we all need to agree on what the theme is; it can be a subjective thing. We used True West as our first exercise in class, so I'll use it here. I think True West is about sibling rivalry. You may think True West is about finding one's own identity, or about failure, or something else.

Next, examine each scene individually. What is it about? What is its function in the play? This too can be subjective. Shelton thinks that the first scene in True West is about the two brothers reaching out to each other and missing. I'm not so sure. I think it may be about each marking his own territory. What do you think?

Now it's time to examine the script from your own character's POV. First, what are the given circumstances—that is, why is your character here and what baggage has he brought with him? The script will provide most of the answers; the rest you'll have to fill in. Which means that every actor who is preparing to play, for example, the role of Lee, the rough brother in True West, will have a slightly different, individually tailored, set of given circumstances. Shelton cautioned against writing a lengthy biography of your character. Choose only those circumstances that will help you play the scene.

In our classroom exercise, we examined the character of Lee. Shelton started out by mulling over the first few lines of the play. She recalled everything she knew about Lee from reading the entire play, in order to create given circumstances for Lee that would work for her were she playing the role:

Lee: So, Mom took off for Alaska, huh?

Austin: Yeah.

Lee: Sorta left you in charge.

Lee has arrived from his isolated desert home thinking he'd see his mother, but instead he finds his screenwriter brother, Austin, who has been given temporary custody of the house. Lee hasn't seen Austin in years. Their father also lives in the desert, and he's sick, so something has to be done. Lee has no money. Is he here to get money? To find help for his father?

Knowing, and making decisions about, the given circumstances lead naturally to adjustments. Adjustments are not your character's feelings but rather your character's point of view at any given moment—particularly his point of view upon entering the scene, or upon a major change of beat (see below for discussion of beats). The clue to your adjustment, once again, is within the play itself. What is Lee's adjustment when he says his first line? For Shelton, it's cautious: He wasn't expecting to find Austin there and he's not sure how he feels about it. If I were playing Lee, I think I'd choose hostile. I think Lee knows exactly how he feels about Austin in this situation.

Next you want to look for beats, the chunks of text that comprise the scene. When the subject of the dialogue or the action clearly changes, that's when a new beat begins. You'll want to understand exactly what your character is doing within each beat. You might be: 1) wanting something from the other character; or 2) engaged in a personal physical task, or 3) sharing a story or memory. One of these three activities will be your character's primary—although not sole—point of concentration.

Make It Personal

Now it's time to personalize. "You must always be present and find a way that you can personally relate to your character," said Shelton. "Take the situation of the character and create a detailed memory/reality to use as truthful reference for the lines in the scene." Make all your choices as personally meaningful yet as close to the reality of the play as possible.

If I were playing Lee in True West, I would feel that Lee is jealous of Austin for many specific reasons. I have a sister. I know all about jealousy, and I bet you do, too. If you can effectively personalize, you will naturally care about what you are doing, and you'll be at one with your character, so you won't have to work for the emotion.

You must also look for ways to physicalize, said Shelton. Physicalizing helps get you out of your head and into your body. "The more you can physicalize anything onstage, the more of an impact you make," she noted.

As you follow this analysis process for every line and beat and scene of the play, your character will emerge bit by bit, evolving as the play develops, like a Polaroid snapshot.

The key when analyzing is to go from the general to the specific: from an understanding of what the play is about to an understanding of what each scene is about to what you personally know about it all, on a moment-to-moment, beat-by-beat, action-by-action level.

As you examine your script, always seek to empathize with your character. To hone your empathy skills, Shelton suggests observing others and trying to understand their motives and their emotions. Why is empathy so important? If you can't empathize with your character, whether it be Iago or Amanda or Adolph Hitler, you will be playing one-dimensionally. Let the audience judge whether your character is good or evil. Your job is to work with the playwright's words to motivate, defend, and support your character.

At the end of the day, reiterated Shelton, "the words of the playwright and you—you in a funny hat and glasses, maybe—that's the character. The script is your starting point." BSW

E-mail Jean Schiffman at

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