The Triumverate of No-Nos: Unbelievability

bme_group1“I don’t believe it” is what I say to actors when they aren’t properly connected to the material, their character, or the moment in which they find themselves.  Much like the models in the photo above.

It’s a catchall phrase I use to describe everything that doesn’t fall into any other category.  Yes, you aren’t believable when you anticipate what you’re going to get from your scene partner, but I’m talking about a different sort of believability.

When I use this phrase, it just means that the moment to which I refer isn’t anything I am mistaking for real life.  It is artificial on some level.

I typically use this phrase to refer to a single speech or line that isn’t working.  If an entire scene is unbelievable, that’s another matter.  Then it’s time to revisit the given circumstances, the verbs, the character’s motivation, or some other large scale problem.  No, in my parlance, “I don’t believe it” generally means that the actor has just withdrawn from the reality of the scene for a moment or two.

Usually he’s being superficial, relying on externals and line readings rather than connecting to what is going on inside of his character.

Even good actors are susceptible to this.  We dig our way into our characters and get to those real moments over time.  We are inclined to focus on the more difficult moments and let the easier ones slide, and sometimes we forget to go back and work on them.  It takes a lot of energy to stay focused and connected to the material without abatement, so it’s easy to take a moment to “rest” and coast for a line or two.

I regularly vet my own work for such moments, listening to myself in rehearsals.  “Does that really sound believable?  How can I make it even more natural?”  (A topic for another day.)

I use the phrase “I don’t believe it” when I direct, because I find it generally does the trick.  I’m simply giving the actor feedback on how it looks from the audience.  It is up to him to figure out why what he’s doing isn’t working.  My comment sends him back to the drawing board, and the modifications he makes usually pull him further into the material.  Maybe he makes it work in the first attempt, maybe he needs a few tries to get it to a stage where it IS believable, but a good, intelligent actor can figure it out on his own, once I’ve alerted him to the problem.

Surprisingly, even new actors respond very well to this approach.

The intention behind this comment is critical, however.  If you’re a director who wants to employ this technique, please pay close attention to what follows!

“I don’t believe it” isn’t a criticism – that is, it isn’t a negative.  I am not ridiculing what he’s doing in any way.  On the contrary – I deliver it as a really supportive, respectful comment.  It’s nothing personal; it’s factual.  It just means “you aren’t there yet, keep trying.”

When I say it to an actor, the implication is that he can certainly get to his destination, he just hasn’t arrived yet.  Sometimes an actor will respond, telling me what it is that he is trying to do, and I may say, “I think those are good choices.  They just aren’t coming through in what you’re doing, that’s all.”

If an actor continues to have trouble, I will try to tell him why it isn’t believable.  Depending on the actor, I may do this with the initial comment.  I’ve worked with actors for whom the simple identification of “this moment works, this one doesn’t” is sufficient.  But less trained actors may need to know why it isn’t working.  “I don’t believe it, because I don’t think you’ve really heard what she said.”  Etc.

It’s not just about saying the lines.  If it’s not believable, it doesn’t work.



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