What Is Scene Study and Why Does It Matter?

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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 more. These classes are greatly enhanced when actors also do scene study, allowing them to dive deep into scripts, characters, and emotions—and thus better breathe life into their performances.

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What is scene study in acting?

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  • Performance: Scene study is when actors perform a scene taken from a TV show, film, or play in front of an audience of peers or their acting coach.
  • Analysis: Scene study entails extensive script and character analysis that often demands hours of preparation. 
  • Praxis: Scene study allows actors to take their knowledge of foundational acting theory and technique and apply it to the practice of performance.

Scene study exercises

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While scene study often means performing a scene as directed time and again, other scene study exercises might include:

  • Role switching: Act out a scene with your partner(s) one time, and then switch parts and act it out again. Consider how the performance changed, what you discovered about playing the other part, and any knowledge gaps that should be addressed. 
  • Silent performance: Act out a scene using only body language such as gestures, movements, and facial expressions. Think about the ways that you imbue your character with the physicality of their emotions and what that might mean for your next verbal take on the scene.
  • Emotional (dis)regulation: Practice a scene multiple times, but vary the emotion you put into it. If using Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be,” you might try performing it one time while leaning heavily into his jealousy and rage about Ophelia, a second time focusing more on his grief about his family, and a third time tapping mainly into his existential dread. This exercise helps show how much a character’s motivations and emotions inform a performance.

How scene study helps actors

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Since scene study involves applying acting technique to specific scene performances, it’s best used by actors who already know foundational acting techniques. From there, scene study allows actors to improve their ability to:

  • Craft characters: When doing a scene study, actors must engage in rigorous script analysis to determine their characters’ emotions, motivations, and history. To return to Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech as an example, an actor must understand the existential pain and threat of insanity experienced by the troubled Prince of Denmark. Without this knowledge, the scene study performance would lack its intended devastating emotional impact. 
  • Try different things: Scene study allows actors to try out different genres and roles in a low-pressure environment. (It’s best to figure out that being the lead in a horror film isn’t your cup of tea before signing on to a feature film.) Actors can also use scene study to play around with different types of acting techniques to see which resonates best with them.
  • Refine skills: Scene study also helps actors refine their timing, performance skills, and ability to interact with other actors. 
  • Take direction: Finally, scene study helps actors learn how to take direction and improve communication with coaches and directors.

How to get the most out of a scene study

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  • Be patient: Actors often hear that scene study is unrealistic, since in the real world, they may not spend weeks or months on a single scene. However, that take neglects the principle of “making smaller circles,” as explored in Joshua Waitzkin’s “The Art of Learning.” Waitzkin argues that 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. If you’re not slowing things down, then your habits are in the driver’s seat and it will be very difficult for there to be real improvements in your skill.
  • Respect the process: You can think of a scene study class in the same way: 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 for the better.
  • Take risks: 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 many things to offer, but not the opportunity to learn to wrestle with the complexity and richness that make our favorite films and shows so endlessly enthralling. Look for a scene study class that allows you to try out how it feels to work with different roles, genres, directors, and other actors. Take risks and stretch your creative limits—you may just be surprised by where your study of the craft takes you.
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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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