Why Scene Study is Still Essential

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Today’s marketplace of acting classes confronts students with an array of offerings including cold reading, audition technique, on-camera, comedy intensives, improv, and many other offerings. Scene study is still around, but actors hear messages from all directions that they need to take the “biz” classes listed above because, as actors are told, this is what the business demands.

A common piece of counsel actors hear about scene study is that it’s unrealistic. In the real world, you don’t spend weeks or months on a single scene. You won’t meet with your scene partner to rehearse a scene. In fact, on a gig, you might not rehearse your scenes at all. Therefore, actors are told, scene study is an outmoded and artificial approach to learning to act. Audition and cold reading classes more effectively approximate what actors are going to be facing in the real world.

I take a different view. To lay it out, I’d like to call on a guy named Josh Waitzkin. At age 13, Josh won the title of National Master in chess. He also became a student of Chinese martial arts and went on to win world championships in two categories in the form. He noticed there were common things between his study of both chess and martial arts, and so wrote the astonishing book “The Art of Learning” about what he’d learned regarding studying and ultimately mastering a craft.

READ: Why Script Analysis Is So Important + How to Do It

In the book, he describes one of his principles “making smaller circles:” We have to be able to do something slowly before we can have any hope of being able to do it correctly at speed. Basically, the desire to be able to learn to do something quickly is often a major obstacle to learning to do it well.

When I was growing up, I studied piano with a teacher who had me play pieces at half-speed. When I started a new piece, I could only hope to play the piece well, using effective hand position, honoring the phrasing and the dynamics of the piece, by playing it half as fast as it would eventually be played. At the time I found this tedious, but I could also see how trying to play too fast, too quickly tripped me up.

You can think of a scene study class in the same way: as an environment in which the process of developing a performance is slowed down so that all aspects of it, from how you frame the scene for yourself to how you execute it, can be attended to and scrutinized in ways that will allow you to actually change the way you go about your work...and change it for the better.

I recently saw a tweet that said, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” If you’re not slowing things down in the way that Waitzkin described, then your habits are in the driver’s seat and it will be very difficult for there to be real improvements in your skill.

Developing your skill this way requires a certain kind of format that provides time to look at things from many directions, to try out different approaches, and to reflect on feedback. A class that doesn’t afford such opportunities might have things to offer but one of them is not the opportunity to learn to wrestle with the complexity and richness that make our favorite films and shows so endlessly enthralling.

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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.

Andrew Wood
Andrew Wood is a graduate of the MFA Directing program at the Yale School of Drama, and he has a Ph.D. from Stanford University in literature. In 2004, he founded his acting studio in San Francisco, and expanded it to Los Angeles in 2008.
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