A line reading is a pre-determined way of saying a line. It’s when you plan the intonation you use and the sort of energy and emotion behind it. It’s a conscious, intellectual choice. It usually comes from a sense of how the line should sound, what feels right. And if you have good instincts, your choices in this regard can be very good ones.
Line readings are very much a product of the belief that there is a RIGHT way to do this. “Can we go back a couple of lines, I said that wrong.”
If you believe there is a RIGHT way to say a line, you will seek it out early and commit to saying the line that way for the rest of your life. As soon as you find a way that sounds RIGHT, you will stop looking for something better, something more interesting and true to the character. You may have chosen something good, or even something very good, but you will typically not reach great.
The reason you won’t reach great is because even if the line reading you’ve chosen is exactly “right”, line readings are, by definition, superficial. They are window dressing.
If you start with what you know is “right”, you lay it on the scene superficially, without undergirding it with emotional need and emotional reality. It will remain superficial: an excellent choice with no root structure. Believe me, the most inexperienced audience will know the difference in seconds.
If the choice is the ”right” choice, you will find it by digging into the character, into what he wants and how he tries to get it, into how he feels about everything that is said and done to him and why he feels that way. You’ll find it by opening yourself up to what is said and done to him and feeling some real emotion before you respond, naturally and in real-time. This is why I say you can disregard almost everything in the parentheses in a script; if it’s “right”, you’ll find it on your own, and it will have greater impact when you do.
But if you go for what are essentially externals (inflection, volume, facial reactions, etc.), you don’t really have to search for the emotions, because after all, you’ve got the “final product”, right? Nothing real has to happen onstage to product line readings. It’s all artificial.
Superficial actors don’t realize what they are giving up by working this way, so don’t be hard on them (or on yourself, if you’re one of “them”). It’s very common for untrained actors to do this, and I wish I could say that it is a practice confined to the amateur ranks. I’ve seen professional performances where this happens, most often in comedies. An audience may laugh in response to a line reading, but you will never move them, and they will forget the production in short order. It’s like Chinese food and pancakes: tastes great, but doesn’t stay with you.
Unfortunately, the people most at risk for making this practice a habit are among the most talented. Because they have an unerring sense of what is the “right” way to say a line, they can coast. They can give a very glib, smooth performance that seems to hit all the marks without working very hard. And the more they do it, the easier it becomes. They sound great at auditions and in the first few weeks of rehearsals, but their character never grows beyond that. Their development stalls out halfway through the rehearsal process. An audience will never really believe them, never really suspend their disbelief in the way that we want them to.
There are worse things. It’s a shame to pay the money for professional theater and encounter acting like this, but in amateur productions (depending on the quality of the latter), it can sometimes measurably improve the product.
It’s a function, really, of why you want to act. I haven’t used a golf analogy in a while, but here’s one that’s appropriate.
When a golfer shows up on my lesson tee, I need to find out what his goal is – not just for that lesson, but in general. What kind of golfer he wants to be will determine how and what I teach him.
People have different reasons for playing golf. Some do it just to have a reason to spend a few hours with close friends outdoors. Whether they play well or not doesn’t matter to them. Some people have a maximum score they can tolerate without getting angry at themselves. For some, it’s breaking 100 consistently. For others, it’s bogey golf – high 80s, low 90s.
There are also golfers who want to be the club champ, and are willing to work to get to that point.
Someone who dreams of winning his club championship is going to approach the game very differently from someone who just doesn’t want to embarrass himself when he plays in an occasional golf outing.
All of these reasons are perfectly valid. As long as the golfer is happy with his score, I don’t care if he’s a good golfer or not. And I won’t try to make him get better than he wants to be. My job is just to help him meet his goal, whatever it may be.
Same thing with acting. If you do it because it’s fun, it gets you out of the house, you get to spend time with other people, and you like performing, then by all means, you should do some acting. How good you are at it doesn’t matter in the least to me. As long as you are content with the quality of your own acting and directors keep casting you, feel free to use all the line readings you like.
But if you do want to do some great acting – line readings will never get you there. That’s all.