I’ve said this in a variety of ways in other posts, but it bears repeating again and again.
The most dramatic moments possible.
One person’s life only contains a few stories dramatic enough to make a play out of them. Stories where there is so much at stake for me, where what I want is so difficult to get that it seems that I’ll never achieve it, and where the experience changes who I am in some important and fundamental way.
These three elements are the foundation of most traditional drama. Not only does it require dramatic import of this magnitude to make the evening interesting enough that we’ll leave the couch and go the theater, but it feeds the thing that makes theater meaningful in the first place. That is, it teaches us something about the human experience that we can learn in no other way.
Without that, I’d rather stay home and wash the dogs.
Not everyone’s coming-of-age story is dramatically interesting. Not every love affair is a boy meets girls/boy loses girl/boy gets girl story that keeps us riveted and hoping for happily ever after. Since most of us resist learning Life’s Big Lessons, most disputes we have in our lifetime will not leave us changed people.
To find your own dramatic stories (if you are in the first half of your life, you might need to look for the dramatic story of someone you are very close to), look for the experiences that have irrevocably changed who you are and how you view the world or your own situation. If you really changed on some deep level, it is likely that there was considerable struggle, both internal and external, that led to that change. And if there was struggle, it undoubtedly meant there was a lot at stake for you in it.
If you can find such a story in your life or in a close relative or friend’s life, then you are closer to understanding what makes for more dramatic choices as an actor.
Despite these dramatic essentials, however, most actors I work with will underplay what is going on in a scene. “Most” for the simple reason that most actors are “under-actors”, not “over-actors”. Under-actors can make molehills out of mountains with very little effort. Sort of like boiling a chicken until all of the flavor is out of the meat and into the broth, and then serving the breast for dinner and tossing the soup.
(Over-actors make the Appalachians into Mt. Everest. That’s not good, either, but it’s a different problem.)
Why do we do this?
Perhaps because we don’t like to feel our feelings. Downplaying them is the easiest way to avoid them. If we do it regularly in real life (“Oh, that’s all right.” “Bothered? I’m not bothered. Really.” “It doesn’t matter.”), then we’re apt to do it on stage as well.
Darn! We’re back to the old feeling our feelings problem!
Yup, it’ll keep coming up until you overcome it. Our Ego, which is the thing busily avoiding our feelings, will find every trick in the book to avoid them. We have to catch it in the act and remove its disguise.
So when you look at your character’s emotions, ask yourself if you’ve chosen a really strong emotion or not. If you look at her needs, ask if the need is overwhelming. Depending on who your character is, there may or may not be an earthshaking change in her by the end of the play, but if there is, you can work backwards to get to the emotions and the needs in the same way that you did when looking at the most dramatic story of your own life.
If you haven’t chosen the most dramatic reasons available to you given the context of the play as written by the playwright, then you are shortchanging both your own acting and the audience. So keep going back to the drawing board until you are sure you can’t improve the dramatic elements any more.
I’ll talk more about this when I write some posts on Storytelling and “What Would Lucy Do?”