Reading Between the Lines: A Guide to Script Analysis for Actors

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“It's all about the script,” according to Ewan McGregor, the face of Obi-Wan Kenobi and star of films including “Trainspotting,” “Moulin Rouge!,” and “Doctor Sleep.” The script, he feels, is “the foundation of everything.” Closely examining the text helps you better understand your character, whether you’re preparing for an audition or you’ve already landed the part. From sentence structure to subtext, here’s advice from four acting coaches on how to approach script analysis as an actor.

How should actors approach script analysis?

Think before you act.

Jacquelyn Landgraf, Atlantic Acting School, New York, New York
A great motto of the Atlantic Acting School is “Think before you act, so that you can act before you think.” As actors, it’s a relief to know that the answers to how we should approach the text are in the text. Our job, then, becomes simple but profound: to bring the fullness of ourselves to the story that the writer has laid out for us. We want freedom onstage and on camera, we want to concern ourselves only with acting the truth of the moment, and we’d prefer it to be fun! Analyzing the script creates a blueprint of clear choices that activates the actor to play truthfully and impulsively under the given circumstances.

At the Atlantic, we teach practical aesthetics, a technique that asks actors to break down a scene simply and specifically, in four steps: 

  • What is the character literally doing? 
  • What does the character want the other characters in the scene to do? 
  • What is my action?
  • What is that action like to me? It’s “as if…”

This analysis keeps the actor on a steady course with the writer’s intentions, so the actor can boil down the scene into a playable objective, an essential action—a goal he or she can attempt to accomplish night after night, take after take. Script analysis is not an academic exercise. That would be of no use to actors. It’s an organizational skill and a collaborative tool that helps us make clear and confident choices in our preparation, so in performance we’re free to work viscerally, boldly, and bravely.

Look for patterns to help you engage intellectually, emotionally, and physically.

Peter Arcese, HB Studio, New York, New York
Patterned language is the actor’s key to script analysis. All scripts contain patterns of sound, sight, and sense. Look for these patterns in the language and learn to use them. Patterning allows the actor to fully embody the text by simultaneously engaging it intellectually, emotionally, and physically. It’s the patterning that charges the script, creates beats, provides purposeful blocking, and supports action.

So, handwrite your lines to make a physical connection with the text. Notice their relative lengths, rhythms, pauses, cadences, and punctuation. Do they flow or run on? Are they broken, interrupted? Repeat the lines aloud, noticing how these patterns influence your breathing. Do you become calm or excited? Find the dominant vowels and consonants, then mark the text where they repeat through assonance, alliteration, or consonance. Notice the physical effort of producing those sounds. What emotions and actions do you associate with them? Are they aggressive or pacifying? Do they support vengeance, seduction, or discovery? Then find the nouns that offer sensory imagery and imaginatively place those persons, places, or things in the performance space.

Rehearse by addressing or blocking in relation to these objects. Do you want to move closer or further away? Notice how the patterns create transitions and beats through theme and variation. Only then ask, Who am I? What do I want? What are my given circumstances? This is experiential! You can’t just think your way through this process. The patterns create the direct channels through which the action enters your body, heart, and mind.

Group of actors doing script analysis


Understand the language. 

Ellen Gerstein, private teacher, Los Angeles, California
First of all, some actors don’t approach script analysis at all, which is a huge mistake. Script analysis is the road map to your work. Actors make their acting choices from the knowledge given to them from script analysis.

Script analysis is the key to understanding the scene. The first thing actors must do is read the scene over and over and over. They must then go through every word and every bit of punctuation. They must learn how to take in and understand all the information the writing is giving them. For example, very happy is different from happy. An exclamation mark is telling you something different from a period. How the language is written tells you so much about the character. If it’s written in slang, that is very different from dialogue written in proper English. The choice of words tells you something about this person. Study the writing. Does the character always end what he or she says with a negative statement? Are there lines the character repeats?

One common mistake is when a writer writes two sentences and the actor combines them into one. When you do that, you’re losing a color or a beat in that section. Script analysis makes your work specific.

Be thorough and specific.

Michelle Danner, Executive Artistic Director, Edgemar Center for the Arts, Santa Monica, California
It’s never interesting in acting to be vague, so you have to go through the script with a fine-tooth comb. That means you need to be a thorough technician, looking for clues and at the same time listening to your instincts as to what’s underneath each word. You must have the patience to take the time and go line by line, breaking it down. That kind of clarity will give you confidence to flow with the character’s tempo and make every moment crystal clear.

To analyze a script means that when you don’t understand what’s being said, you study it and give it a subtext. Every line has a point of view. For example, if you’re talking about someone, you have to know how you feel about that person and what the history of that relationship is about. You also have to have a point of view about the place that you’re in, what the event is, what’s going on in the scene, and even the objects that you’re dealing with. It’s important to understand that relationships, events, objects, and places are constantly being redefined in the course of the play.

At the beginning of the script-analysis process, it’s okay to let yourself intellectualize. But after that first stage, it’s important that you emotionalize all of the above concepts. If not, you won’t deliver a performance that’s raw and on edge, but instead one that remains in your head.

Doing script analysis means you’re not afraid to ask many questions. When you think you’ve asked a lot, ask more.

Check out Backstage’s theater audition listings!

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