If I get angry in a scene with you, is whatever you’re doing sufficient to make me start yelling at you? Yes, there’s probably something going on internally in me that is feeding that anger. But it is likely that you were the straw that broke the camel’s back, that either something you said, or the way you said it, or a combination of both, made the dam burst for me.
The first option is taken care of by the playwright. It is your job to add something to it by the way you say the line. Because leaving the responsibility for provoking me entirely in the lap of the playwright isn’t the best choice.
Let’s say a play is two hours long. If you’ve never tried to write a play, you may not realize how short a period of time this is. It may seem to you that there is a lot that happens in the play, and there probably is. But it is also likely that the play was much longer in its original version, and the playwright had to take a stern red pencil to it. The editing process removes all the extraneous stuff, all the wonderful but unfortunately unnecessary pieces, from the play. A good playwright will leave in only the essential moments, the essential words, that which most strongly moves the story forward.
Given that all that is left in the final script is “essential”, it is important that we, as actors, make sure that the audience gets every bit of it to the fullest extent possible. Remember, the audience is meeting these characters and this situation for the first time. They have no history with the characters, but have to learn the important facts of their lives and temperaments very quickly. They continue to receive new information about the characters throughout the play, and need to integrate it in to what they have already learned. This is a lot of work. The playwright and actors work in conjunction to make it as easy as possible for the audience to navigate this new world.
Remember how only 7% of the meaning of conversation is conveyed by the words? If the actor doesn’t put in the emotional subtext, the audience will never get everything out of the play they are meant to get.
This means focusing their attention to maximize what they receive. It means being very clear about what we deliver to them. A muddy performance doesn’t do anyone – the playwright, the audience, or you – any favors.
Clarity doesn’t mean simplicity. Elegance, yes, but we are aiming for complex, interesting characterizations, not simple ones. Making broad strokes at the obvious may make why I am crying or yelling abundantly clear, but it doesn’t necessarily make it believable.