What Do Arbitrary Choices Look Like?

In class two weeks ago, the actors were busily making arbitrary choices about their characters.

It’s fascinating to watch.  Despite talking about how unproductive this approach is, people instinctively use it.  It’s almost an uncontrollable impulse.  (I’m not criticizing my students for doing this.  We all do it.  Learning how to act is, in part, learning when we’re being arbitrary so that we can stop.  When I point out to my students what they’re doing, they quickly recognize what I’m talking about and why it matters.  Which is why they are such wonderful students!)

Arbitrary choices are the ones we decide on before trying them to see if they work.  “This is what I should do here.”  They don’t spring organically out of what actors call “the work”, but are intellectual choices we impose on our performances.  It’s the “decider” in us looking for certainty.  “There!  Thank goodness, another problem put to bed!”

Deciding upon them in advance can prove fatal.  We become so attached to them that we will give them up only if they prove to be disastrous.  The moment we make the decision, we have closed ourselves off to ANY OTHER possibility, no matter how good it is.  Our subconscious even stops working on the problem.  It’s done!  Solved!

Happy couple embracing and laughingOne actress, following the first read-through of a brand new scene, responded to my question about her gut reaction to the character by saying, “I didn’t really notice, I was busy trying to figure out where I should be laughing.”

Laughter is not something you should plan for unless the dialogue makes it clear that you have to laugh.  Then you have no choice.  Otherwise, laugh if, as the character, you genuinely find something to be funny.  Don’t if you don’t.

I asked her about the times when she did laugh during the scene.  Were they the “right” times?

        Her:  “Well, they were pretty much real laughs.”

        Me:  “No wonder they worked so well!”

Lesson:  Real emotions are very effective on stage.  Laughing was entirely appropriate to her character, so those real laughs worked.  Artificially imposed laughs rarely are believable.

Another actress, who performed a lengthy monologue, opted to sit at one point in the middle of the speech and then sprang up almost immediately, standing or walking for the remainder of it.  We talked about it afterwards.

        Me:  You sat down at one point . . .

        Her:  Yes, and it was a mistake.

        Me:  I’m not so sure it was.  It actually seemed to suit the moment very well.  It was the springing back up that
out of place.

I suggested that there was good dramatic support for sitting for a portion of the monologue, but that there were a variety of options in terms of timing the sit and stand.  At which point, she said, “I know!  I should sit on THIS line.”

Maybe.  Maybe not.

It is perfectly okay to say, “Let me try doing this here.”  That’s a very different thing than saying, “I should do this.” Once you’ve tried it, you can determine its effectiveness.  You can then try other alternatives and compare the results.  In her particular situation, there were a variety of choices worth exploring.  The line she selected was the most obvious choice – predictable, even – but that doesn’t automatically make it the best.

When you make intellectual decisions outside of the framework of actually running the scene, you are making arbitrary choices that have nothing to do with the emotional life of your character.  It is an external you are strapping onto your character, whether she likes it or not.

If you find that choice through trying various options during a run-through of the scene, great.  But if you choose it based on your intellectual assessment of the play, it will never work well, no matter how “right” the choice is.  Like line readings, such choices have a foundation of quicksand that will give way at some point.

To read Isn’t the Obvious Choice Sometimes the Right Choice?, go here.


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