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Reading Is Fundamental

You've got the role. Rehearsals start tomorrow, or in three weeks, or next fall. You pick up the script. It's time for those first careful, solitary perusals. At this stage of the process, what should you, the actor, be looking for as you read?

The Big Picture

Uta Hagen makes no bones about the actor's responsibility for exploring the script in its entirety. In A Challenge to the Actor, she writes that you won't truly understand your place in the story unless you first understand what the play is about, its themes and issues, and what the author is trying to say. She advises approaching the task with an innocent, wide-open mind but without over-intellectualizing; it's the director's job to do a complete analysis of the script, but you want to arrive at the first rehearsal as a creative participant, not as an übermarionette.

Allow some time for reading, because a first "skim," according to Judith Weston in Directing Actors, isn't really meaningful; it's more about things you already know and feel rather than the script's own possibilities.

Ask yourself these questions: What is the play's main, and deepest, conflict? Who is the antagonist, who the protagonist? What is the main action? Ultimately what is the play's theme—what is the author trying to say about the human condition?

Be careful not to prejudge your character. "That's trickier than it sounds," Los Angeles actor Wendy Phillips told me. "Actors tend to start seeing themselves and imposing their character on the script." The idea is to initially let the script work on you, not you work on it. "It's a battle to hold on to my objectivity," Phillips admitted, but she is determined to get the big picture before she thinks about her role. "The script is always by my side. I try not to even judge the way I'm reading it—I have to get through it five times, any way, any how." She added, "They say there are five main stories in literature. Probably a good actor has three stories. If you don't let the [author's] story work on you, you'll end up telling your same three stories. And it'll get dull."

As you're reading, hopefully something unpredictable will occur to you that you'd never have thought of if you'd approached the script from only your own character's point of view, said Phillips. "I need to have an idea of what I'd do if I were directing it. This movie or play is about this…. This is the theme…. What are the big archetypes, the metaphors, here?"

Once she's done five read-throughs she studies her character's key, transitional scene. After that, it's easier to understand the end and the beginning for her character.

In rehearsal Phillips functions only as an actor, but in some part of her brain she knows what she wants to contribute to the project. "Moment to moment is what you ultimately want to get," she said, "but you have to frame those moments. How can you have a frame if you don't know what it's about?"

Spontaneous Moments

Los Angeles actor Leo Marks put it another way: "Real spontaneity doesn't come from a blank slate; it comes from knowing a whole lot about the moment you're occupying." You want to give a performance that's fresh and unpredictable—but to do that you have to be utterly grounded in an understanding of the script.

Marks starts right out by trying to find what's strange in the script. That's how he shakes himself out of complacency, out of a tendency to make assumptions. He asks himself, Why is this happening this way and not some other way? What are the alternative possibilities? In this scene, what are the other things that could happen? Why am I silent right here? What are the things that would make sense for me to say that I'm not saying?

So he's looking at the script from his character's viewpoint, rather than more directorially, as Phillips does, and seeking a world of possibilities and subtext. "I begin the work of finding the kind of spontaneity you're always looking for by shaking off the curse of knowing what's going to happen next," he said.

He also separates the givens from the non-givens. For example if the character is from Northumberland, an accent is a given. Maybe a limp is a given, and something he can start working on. "All the things you're relatively certain of, you want to become fluent with, so you can then give in to the uncertain."

Staying Flexible

Bay Area actor Terry Lamb has a method that's somewhere between Phillips' all-seeing view and Marks' personal, subjective tack. He asks himself, Do I care about these people, their interactions? What is my response to that? "I try to have the deepest response to it that I can," he explained. "How deep could this story go, how wide? What could I do with it to touch something within myself and the audience?" He realizes that some of the things he comes up with during those first read-throughs may change during rehearsal, and new ideas will pop up. And that's an important point: You want to generate ideas during your read-throughs and arrive at the first rehearsal ready to show your wares, as Phillips says. But of course things may change totally, whether because of what the other actors do, how you yourself respond organically during rehearsal, or what the director is going for.

Which leads to Hagen's other reason—beyond the need to find your place in the writer's story—for reading the script carefully. "Such preparation should also assure directors that there are no grounds for treating us like 'pawns' or as 'putty' in their hands," she writes. An actor with a mind of his or her own commands—or should command—a certain respect.

Still, you'll want to tread carefully if the director's ideas are different from those you came in with, and try to bring your ideas in line with the director's, says Hagen. After all, there is no such thing as a single correct interpretation of a script, and the director's vision takes precedence.

"I always keep my mouth shut about what I think the play is about," said Phillips. "I have an idea about what I want to communicate, but I don't get into semantics, because you'll lose. If they don't like what I'm doing, I try to keep my cool." She makes slight adjustments to her performance if she gets criticism, and that usually works. "Talking gets you off the hook from doing it," she pointed out. "If they don't get it in your acting, your telling them about it won't help."

Lamb said that coming into the first rehearsal with his own ideas of what the play is about doesn't hamper him. "Often my ideas are not incorporated into the production, and that's OK. I have to trust the director," he said. The important thing for him about formulating ideas during the first read-through is to stretch his imagination.

Indeed it's important to remember as you read that the impressions you're getting aren't necessarily going to translate into playable choices. Hagen writes that as you read you may have all sorts of sensory impressions about the script and your character. But she cautions you to "remember that no quality, feeling, or mood is playable by itself, that only actions have meaning and can communicate."

The Art of Reading

Everybody has his or her own way of settling down with a new script. Lamb usually reads a play two to three times before the first rehearsal. At least one of those is just for the story, another to look at specific interactions among characters. He also looks for the changes his own character goes through, his character's consistency and inconsistency. And he looks at the stage directions, but never first, and only as a springboard for possibilities, not as a guideline. Some actors scratch out the stage directions immediately. Lamb sometimes reads his lines aloud, but only just before the first rehearsal, to make sure the words come out of his mouth right. He thinks reading aloud is a bad idea because it becomes about what he can do with each line rather than about the story.

For Marks, it's dangerous to get too methodical about any part of the process, so he has no set number of times he reads the script. And he's more concerned with interrogating particular pieces of the play, engaging with them, rather than just reading from start to finish. A dense play could require many readings, perhaps daily. He likes to laugh as he reads, find out what's delightful about it. Also, he likes to walk in strange neighborhoods with his script—"something about the unfamiliar homes passing before my eyes shakes it up nicely for me," he said.

Whether you grab for the yellow highlighter and sink into an easy chair, hunch over a cappuccino at a café, or walk on the beach with dog-eared pages in hand, this is the time to let the script work its magic on you. For right now, it's just you and the writer's words, and unlimited windows of possibility. BSW

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