Whether depicting the relationship between a parent and child, friends, lovers, enemies, or simply acquaintances, two-person scenes allow actors to infuse characters and their stories with intentionality, emotional depth, and nuance. Here are some iconic two-person scenes from plays and films for actors to practice.
“The Lighthouse” Courtesy A24
Duet scenes are beneficial because they allow actors to:
Focus on act/react: Two-person scenes encourage actors to focus on their reactions to one another rather than only think about how they want to sell their next lines. The conversational nature of a two-person scene means that actors naturally feel more present than when doing group work, which can lead to more authentic performances.
Develop more complex characters: Because they explore the relationship between two characters, two-person scenes necessitate that each actor knows their own character’s motivations, backstory, and emotional state. This creates a more robust dynamic between the two characters while also helping actors learn how to better understand their own characters for other roles.
Take a break from group work: Whether it’s finagling their position onstage, remembering just where to interject with their lines, or the challenge of interacting with a large group of people, group work can take a lot out of actors. While two-person scenes are intimate and often intense, they still offer a respite from group interactions.
“500 Days of Summer” Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures
These two-person scenes cover the gamut from emotionally intense period drama to adorable love story to cops-and-robbers narrative, making them excellent to use for practice.
“Doubt” - Scene 8
This intense play explores the ways people struggle with faith, power, morality, and doubt. In this pivotal scene, Sister Aloysius confronts the mother of a boy she suspects is being abused by a priest she works with. Sister Aloysius’ transition from delicately tiptoeing around the subject to outright accusing Father Flynn, and Mrs. Muller’s polite yet staunch refusal to believe the accusations are devastating—particularly the latter’s assertion that, “Well, I would prefer not to see it that way if you don’t mind.” Part of Mrs. Muller’s refusal to believe that Father Flynn is abusing Donald is because he’s helped her son integrate into an all-white school, which she sees as a path to a better future. This part of the scene ends when Mrs. Muller leaves and Father Flynn enters the room in a “controlled rage.” (If you want to keep the scene going and add an even more challenging element, the actor portraying Mrs. Muller can change to portraying Father Flynn.) Check out how powerful the scene can be here, as the inimitable Viola Davis and Meryl Streep perform a version of it in the 2008 film adaptation.
“10 Things I Hate About You” - Kat’s drunk scene
This scene has it all: puppy love, comedy, challenging sexist stereotypes, Shakespearean intertextuality, and physicality. To get the most out of this two-person scene for practice, start out with some body language exercises and then do your best pantomime of the physical actions: Kat swinging and falling, Patrick shaking her, Kat dancing, the near-kiss. Tapping into your character’s physicality will help you understand how to get in touch with your body when you perform other characters. Here’s Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles adorably showing how it’s done.
“Heat” - The diner scene
This confrontational scene between Neil and Hanna thrives on subtext. Though the two come from vastly different worlds—Neil is a professional thief, while Hanna is a robbery-homicide detective hunting Neil and his crew—this scene sizzles with the tension and similarities between the two. As one action line reads, “The adversarial intensity is eye-to-eye.” Summon your best Al Pacino (Hanna) and Robert De Niro (Neil) as you portray the duo’s gruff understanding of one another and the knowledge that one of them inevitably must lose. Bonus points if you can emphasize the pair’s Janus coin relationship when Neil says, “There is a flip side to that coin.”
“The Merchant of Venice” - Act 1, Scene 2
In this scene, Portia and Nerissa discuss the unfairness of Portia’s father’s will, which dictates that she must marry an unknown suitor who chooses the right chest, instead of a partner of her own choice. Portia’s caustic wit emerges from her sadness as she describes her three suitors, each of whom represent the worst stereotypes from their country of origin. This scene presents an excellent opportunity for two-person practice due to Portia’s introduction as a witty force to be reckoned with. The actor portraying Narissa can lean into the supportive role, comedic element, and foreshadowing in mentioning Bassiano at the end of the scene.
“Fences” - Act 2, Scene 4
This is one of the most intense scenes in the emotional, punch-packing August Wilson play about family, race relations, civil rights, and responsibility. For two-person acting practice, begin the scene as Cory enters the yard and is blocked from going inside the house by his father, Troy. This quickly escalates into a full-on fight in which Cory lays some hard truths on his father and Troy kicks him out the familial home, stating that his possessions will now “be on the other side of that fence.” At the end of the scene, Troy begins to fight with Death itself. Cory’s truth-telling and Troy’s inability to handle the way he recreates past trauma make this emotionally wrought and intensely physical scene a great one to let actors dig deep and connect through the rhetoric of disconnection. Denzel Washington and Jovan Adepo show just how powerful this scene can be in the 2016 film adaptation.
“500 Days of Summer” - Bench scene
In this scene, former lovers Summer and Tom have their final confrontation, and Tom begins to understand that he has created a version of her in his head that doesn’t match with the real-life woman. Summer explains that she feels sure about her husband, and Tom morosely says that he no longer believes in true love. Summer reassures him that he’ll find it, just not with her. The audience realizes that Tom created unrealistic (and unfair) expectations that didn’t take Summer’s actual feelings into account. This scene is rife with opportunity for exploring tenuous, evolving relationship dynamics.