Applause Books and Limelight Editions have published five books by Bruce Miller on the acting craft. His most recent is Acting on the Script, which focuses on taking apart a script to find and execute the choices that help actors tell the story of the play and of their characters clearly and compellingly. Bruce addresses aspiring actors directly in his preface:
Since you are reading the words on this page, it is no great leap of logic to assume that you are an actor, or are trying to becoming one. And with an even smaller leap I might assume that you picked up this book because you are looking for answers—for some meaningful “how to’s” that will help you become the best actor you can be. So let me ask you a question right at the outset. What do you think it takes to become a first-rate actor? Take a moment to think about it. You may even want to jot your thoughts down. Doing so makes them more tangible and, in my opinion, more useful. In the course of reading this book you will be asked to do a lot of thinking. And one of the goals of this book is to make your thinking as useful as possible for you as an actor. Thinking is really what this book is all about—learning to think as an actor must. So—when you’re finished thinking, continue reading.
Talent may have been the first answer that came to mind, particularly if you’re just beginning your acting training. But talent can’t be learned; you either have it or you don’t. Talent is a gift—so if you’ve got it, say thank you and read on. Now, on the other hand, if you said craft, you identified something that can be learned and will help you use your talent more effectively. In addition to being an art form, acting is very much a craft, because it calls for skills that can be learned and mastered. Many if not most artists in the field have studied acting as a craft, even if they haven’t done so formally. And if you think you don’t have talent, or don’t have as much as you’d like, craft will help you appear as if you do.
So let’s refine our question: What are the skills that can be learned and mastered that can make you a good actor? If you’re familiar with Stanislavski, you may want to say finding emotional truth, or sense memory, or playing actions. If you’re familiar with the Method, you may say personal investment or emotional accessibility. Those of you familiar with the work of Sanford Meisner may say the ability to listen and react truthfully in the moment. Those of you familiar with Grotowski, Laban, or Michael Chekhov may say being able to access and use your body effectively. Others still might reference the vocal work of Linklater, Fitzmaurice, or Cicely Berry. Still others might say it’s all about relaxation. And if you’ve already had some training, you probably know that acting requires that you be skilled in all these areas. And that is why universities, conservatories, and acting studios everywhere feature workshops, courses, and, on the graduate level, even degrees in all these areas. And ultimately you will want to develop as many of these skills as you possibly can.
But there is another area of study you will need to be skilled in as well, and it is as important that you master this subject as any of the other skills listed—perhaps even more so. And yet it is a subject that you will find listed very sparely on curriculum menus. I certainly never had a course in it in graduate school, and most undergraduate programs offer it as a general course serving all theatre majors no matter what their particular focus. In the program where I teach, for instance, it has only been added as a separate course for BFA actors very recently. (Actually, I have been teaching the course for years, but we have finally begun calling it what it is.) What I’m talking about is script analysis and synthesis for actors. And we finally gave it its own title because, as one of the most important skills to be mastered, it deserves one.
Don’t get me wrong. Many programs offer a course or two in script analysis. But the way a lighting or set designer must learn to take apart a play and put it back together is different from what an actor must learn to do. And though writing and directing share some analytical requirements with acting, only actors are fully responsible for making the whole story work at every moment they are on stage. A general course in play analysis cannot give you all the skills you need to carry this enormous responsibility. Nor will it give you adequate time and opportunity to develop those skills so you can make them a part of your actor’s tool kit and be able to use them reliably and independently.
As a result, for many if not most actors, learning to analyze and synthesize a play becomes a byproduct of our preparation in scene study classes or part of our on-the-job training. Script analysis remains a supporting player, when it should have a leading role in the training process. This is a disturbingly wrong-headed treatment of one of our most important tools, and it leaves the actor in a similar position to that of the young college student forced to learn to read and write up to level after years of sneaking by in his or her primary education. An inability to understand and use a script effectively can turn acting into a hit-or-miss affair, where choices come out of trial and error rather than through a dependable application of craft.
Our primary job as actors is to tell the story of a play clearly, compellingly, and believably. In order to do that, we have to know what the story is and how to present it effectively. We have to know what the best choices are and how to make them. This is a skill that must be developed systematically, through practice and repetition. It must be a focus of attention, not the byproduct of other work. It is the foundation of all that we do when we work from a script. So why is it not taught with the same commitment as voice work or movement?
I can’t tell you how often I have seen even professional actors in class or auditions present work that makes no sense in the context of the play—choices that are simply not based on what the script is telling them they must show or do. On stage, those choices obscure the meaning of the play—and the actors come across as deficient along with the story. Unfortunately, they hardly ever realize that this is what is keeping them and their work from fully succeeding.
This book, like its partner, Actor’s Alchemy, will examine the relationship between the script and what an actor ultimately does on the stage or on screen. It is my belief that when actors learn to use their scripts with the appropriate analytical insights, they are better able to find and execute choices that will make the story they are telling clear and compelling, and make the work they do more believable as well. As you will see in the pages that follow, I am as concerned with the doing and feeling aspects of acting as the next acting teacher, but it is my belief that all your doings and feelings must be connected to what the playwright has set out. Therefore, the ability to analyze a script and make it the source for all the work you put on stage should be an essential part of your process.
In the chapters that follow, you will learn how to use a script in a logical, effective, and commonsense way. First you’ll discover an approach to the script that will serve you as an actor. Then you’ll begin to apply your new analytical tools in a short play. Finally, you’ll be able to strengthen those skills with a series of etudes (practice scenes) to work through in a scene study class. By the end of the book, you will have a process for reading and understanding a script as an actor must, and the skill set to determine the choices you must make if you are going to efficiently serve the material, your production, and the character you are playing. Included within these pages you will find:
- A review of the basic tools of acting craft and how they are interconnected with analysis and synthesis
- An overview of your responsibility as a storyteller to make effective choices based on script work
- A set of guidelines for making effective choices
- A road map for making choices based on conflict and objective playing
- A process for finding the clues in a script
- A process for finding character through analysis and subsequent choices
- A system for effective scoring of a scene
- A complete analysis and scoring of a play by Joe Pintauro
- Eight original scenes written especially to help you become proficient at analysis and synthesis
- Useful commentary on all scenes to guide you through the process of analysis and synthesis
- Context to help you connect your analysis and synthesis choices to the other aspects of acting necessary for successful work
- The repetition you will encounter as you progress through the book is intentional. When you have read and worked to the end, you may wish to consult individual chapters, and the quick refreshers you find there will help to ground you in the process as you focus on particular points or challenges. What is more, you are aiming for mastery—for the point where you no longer have to think about your process— and mastery requires plenty of practice and repetition. By exposing you to basic principles again and again, I hope to etch them into your memory so that they will be there when you need them.