Script Analysis: Diamond Lines, Part 2

Archeological DigDiamond lines are lines that come with baggage.  They reveal a character’s history, something that has shaped who they are.  They ask you to go on an archeological dig.

The fact that the playwright throws them into the script tells you that they are critical to understanding the character and what she does in this play.  If she was the homecoming queen and the playwright doesn’t mention it, then being the queen wasn’t a defining moment for her or, at least, its ramifications (how she felt about it, how others reacted to it) don’t impact what happens to her in this play.

However, if the playwright does let this fact drop, it means it matters.  Was it a defining moment for her?  Is it is past glory that she clings to or one she wants to shed?  Has it affected how the men in her life view her, and is that a good thing or a problem for her?  How strong is her sense of self?  Does she need public approbation to feel good about herself?

Diamond lines usually jump out at me, but I also comb through the script to look for them.  Sometimes they are subtle, and you may not realize until halfway through rehearsals that there is really more buried in that line than you gave it credit for.  This is normal, but think what an advantage you have if you recognize what the line has to offer earlier in rehearsals!  Objectively looking at lines to see what they might mean is a way of finding them early.

So once you find your diamonds, what do you do with them?

Let’s start with what you SHOULDN’T do:  “Decide” they mean X, and then play X.

For example, let’s take Bea’s line about apologizing to no one.  You could take that to mean that she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about anything she does and play that, but it’s a bit simplistic.  For instance, it assumes that she behaves that way in all situations, and that’s unlikely.  She’s too likable a character for that to be true.

That approach also may assume she’s a little “in your face” about what she does:  “Take me as I am or don’t take me, I’m not changing for anyone”.  This, too, might have some validity, but it’s an extreme position, and while I believe in amping up your stakes by going as far as you can with something, that’s a very different thing than defining your characters by taking their personality traits to extremes.  People are very complicated beings, full of contradictions.

So one place to start is by taking what it seems to say about Bea – that she doesn’t apologize – and imagine circumstances under which she would.  What makes her feel bad?  How does she feel about other people (because we apologize to people we care about and not often to those who drive us nuts)?

Then, let’s put the line in context.  She is speaking very specifically about her relationship with Jorgy.  This line tells me that she knows it’s an unorthodox relationship, she knows what a stir it caused in town, and she has lived with that stir for most of her life without once responding to questions or misconceptions or insults that sprang up as a result.

That’s a very difficult thing to do.  It tells me that Bea is made of steel.  (But again – where are the weak points in her steely frame?)  It also tells me something about how she feels about Jorgy.  You only can keep silent in the face of personal attack if you know, with every fiber of your being, that you are doing the absolutely right thing.  Bea loves Jorgy so deeply that she is willing to sacrifice everything for it.

Did she make the right choice in doing this?  Not for you, as the actor, to say.  Only for you to examine the reason for the choice and the impact of that choice.  What did she sacrifice in order to be with Jorgy on such unusual terms?  How did it impact her marriage?  Her relationship with her daughter?  With friends?  Co-workers?

Mostly what I do with diamond lines is try to internalize what they really mean, and not necessarily in a way that I can communicate verbally to you.  It’s a matter of understanding how they make me feel.  If Bea’s choice would not have been mine, they I have to spend considerable time getting to a real place of understanding why she made that choice.

What would I be willing to stand for over time without budging an inch?  How much of a conscious choice was this and how much was simply who Bea is?  Were there moments when she almost responded to someone and didn’t, held back at the last minute?  What did that feel like?  If Bea had chosen to respond, what would she have said?  Would what she would have said changed over the years, as she matured?  After Jorgy’s wife died?  After her own husband died?

You need to simply sit with diamond lines and let them work their magic on you.  They always have layers to them.  How much of what drives them is genetic, and how much environmental?

Revisit diamond lines over and over again.  In the shower.  While driving.  Waiting in the checkout line.  Keep pushing deeper into them, both intellectually and emotionally.  Sift through your character’s history and heart, brushing away the dirt that covers your diamond.  Discover all of the diamond’s facets, not just what first meets the eye.

To read Script Analysis:  Diamond Lines, Part 1, go here.


Script Analysis: Diamond Lines, Part I

Diamond-2013-High-HD-WallpaperAs I look back at the last post on Other People’s Money (Part 5), I’m not sure that I made clear an important point about making decisions about your character.  (I typically write a series in a sitting, and can thus be sure that everything ties together.  Those five posts I wrote separately, as scattered time permitted, and so they may need some editing to be truly cohesive.)

You don’t have to know everything about your character.  You just have to know the Right Things.  The Important Things.

It’s kind of like going for the root cause.  Push away the symptoms – they’ll take care of themselves – and instead uncover the fundamental issues driving your character.  Along the way, you’ll find little things that matter and help flesh out your character.  But don’t get distracted by them and forget to find the diamonds.

What are the diamonds?  They are the lines – often single sentences – that your character utters or someone else says that tell you something major about your character and how to play him.

Here’s some examples from Other People’s Money:


  • I knew as soon as the old man told us about our expected visitor.
  • Twelve years ago he told me if I did the job it’d be my company to run when he steps down. . . .I don’t want the rug pulled out from under me so close to the finish line.
  • I kept this company alive.


  • You see – manners . . .  You could learn from that, Jorgy.
  • In a life filled with rumors and gossip and sideways glances, I apologized to no one.  Don’t expect it of me now.  You won’t get it.
  • Garfinkle:  Who are doing this for?  Bea:  Myself.  I don’t need the money.


  • He’s a “yard” chauffeur.  Bring him inside and you’ll spoil him.
  • God damned right. The best game in the world.
  • I’m a modern-day Robin Hood. I take from the rich and give to the middle-class.
  • I looove money. . . . Money is unconditional acceptance.
  • Katie, why are you so hard on me?


  • Jorgy:  What’d you say your first name was?  Garfinkle:  Lawrence.  Jorgy:  Larry, you made her day.
  • I call it running away.
  • Lawyers are like cab drivers stuck in traffic.  They don’t do anything, but their meter is always ticking.
  • I’m scared time has passed us by.
  • A business is more than the price of its stock. . . . It is, in every sense, the very fabric that binds our society together.
  • Bea: Jorgy, you only made one mistake in your life.  You lived two years too long.


  • Mother, I’m sorry if it was in poor taste.  That’s who I am.
  • He walks away with millions. You walk away with memories.
  • Anger.  About thirty-five years’ worth.
  • I love blatant sexists.  They’re my meat.  But I wouldn’t work for you if you begged me.  I like being associated with winners.
  • God save me . . . I love this!

I’m not going to tell you why these lines are “diamond” lines – first, you’ll have to read the play to see them in context, and it’s a worthwhile exercise.  I do hope that you can see why someone of them carry such weight, even out of context.

Second, you need to try to understand yourself why these lines matter.  If you do the work and can’t figure it out, email me and I’ll be glad to help you understand what is confusing you.

Next time, I’ll talk a little more about why they matter and what to do with them.


Script Analysis: Other People’s Money, Part 5

OPM2Now, I can make the opposite argument to the one I’ve been posing in the last four posts.  Let’s say that Jorgy and Bea’s relationship was physical from early on, and that they moved in together after Bea’s husband died.  Did they try to keep their affair quiet, or at some point did they stop caring what other people thought and carried on without apology?

They don’t strike me as people who would be that insensitive to their spouses, especially given the fact that they chose to not divorce.  So if they were sexually involved, it seems likely that they did their best to do it on the sly.

Even if they were very cautious about it, rumors were bound to start.  How Bea handled it is one of the defining things about her character.  “In a life filled with rumors and gossip and sideways glances,” she tells her daughter in the first act, “I apologized to no one.  Don’t expect it of me now.  You won’t get it.”

In fact, it doesn’t really matter which route you go in terms of their affair, this line still resonates effectively and says something important about Bea:  she does what she thinks is right and feels no need to explain herself or to pacify others.  This is also reflected in her second act scene with Garfinkle, when he asks her why she is offering him the $1 million trust fund that is her nest egg.  “That’s my affair.”

Alone, either line would say volumes about Bea.  Together, they pack an even more powerful punch.  When lines reflect the same character choices, pay attention.  The playwright is telling you something very important.

Let’s go back to the first four posts, where I argued that Bea and Jorgy aren’t living together.  I did this to explain why giving up the trust fund was such a sacrifice.  But is that the only way to ramp up the stakes for Bea?

Jorgy objects strenuously to “greenmail”, or paying Garfinkle to go away.  How would he feel if Bea gave away the money he invested to protect her?  Furious, undoubtedly, and it’s not unheard of for couples to split over something like this, which would be a matter of principle for each of them.  Why is she willing to risk his wrath?  Because she is afraid they’ll lose, that Jorgy has chosen a path that will be unsuccessful.  Even if they lose, Jorgy will be financially secure, and Bea may assume that he’ll forgive her and things will work out in the end, even if they go through a rough patch.  But no one looks forward to a rough patch with the one they adore, either.

And let’s face it:  $1 million is $1 million.  Even if Bea is confident that Jorgy will forgive and support her, it’s a lot of money to give away.  It’s financial independence, and as much as she loves him, I think she likes standing on her own two feet, too.

So why is she willing to give it up to ensure the plant remains theirs?  The answer is really embedded in the question.  She wants to keep the plant open – not for herself, and not for Jorgy, but for the 1,200 men who will be out of work if Garfinkle is successful in his bid to take over (and close down) the plant.

The script provides a nice clue to support this:  Bea sets up a retraining facility to help the displaced workers find other jobs.  It also offers a reason for her sorrow:  the men, used to working with their hands, are not qualified for anything other than McDonald’s or work as night watchmen.

So Bea’s “verb” in this scene is not really “to keep the plant open”, because that doesn’t have emotional impact, and stakes are always related to emotional impact.  Let’s rephrase it:  To save the jobs of the men working at the plant who have no other viable alternatives for employment.

Once you find the verb, you need to personalize it to make it have real impact.  So let’s create three men who are representative of the 1,200 men, all of whom Bea probably knows by name.  (Think that’s unrealistic?  Even if it is, it’s a good choice to make as an actor – that Bea knows each of them by name, how many kids they have, who has health problems, etc.)

One of the men is Frank, who has worked all his life at the plant and is five years from retirement.  He’s retire tomorrow if he could, to move to Florida to be near the grandkids, but he needs those extra five years.

Another is Joe, who has one kid in college and another who is a junior in high school.  He and his wife both work, but they are stretched thin when it comes to finding two nickels to rub together.  She’s had a series of health problems in the last three years, and that has impacted both her ability to work and added costs for her care.

The third is Mitch, who at 26 is a new homeowner with a baby on the way.  It’s been a difficult pregnancy, and his wife is restricted to bed much of the time.

Losing their jobs would create severe financial problems for each of them.  Bea can’t bear the thought of that, and is willing to give up her own security and peace at home in order to give it to the men.  This choice is supported by the fact that she sets up a job retraining facility at the end of the play.

So at the end of the day, I still can’t tell you, halfway through the run, exactly what choices Jorgy and Bea made about their relationship, but I don’t think it matters.  What matters is how I feel about him – he is my best friend, the love of my life, and the thing that has made life worth living.  The facts don’t really change any of the emotional choices I need to make in the play.

Script Analysis: Other People’s Money, Part 4

So Bea’s husband dies, and there is nothing to keep Bea and Jorgy apart any longer.  Do they move in together?

“Yes” would be the obvious, predictable answer.  So let’s examine the possibility of “No.”  (Did you notice how many times I used the word “perhaps” in the last post?  I’m not making any decisions; I am merely floating possibilities – and believe me, I am also considering all possibilities that are diametrically opposed to the ones I am presenting here.)

piggy_bankAt the moment, I am inclined to say, “No.”  I wonder if part of Kate’s anger is because she feels that Jorgy has taken advantage of Bea and also that Bea has let him.  Kate says, “He loses this company, he walks away with millions.  You walk away with memories.”  This says to me that Jorgy and Bea have not married; Kate does not feel that Jorgy has offered Bea any sort of financial protection, and certainly a marriage would provide that.  She clearly doesn’t know about the $1 million trust fund Jorgy has set up for Bea, which while a nice security blanket, is still but a fraction of the $30 million he reaps at the end of the play.

Even if they didn’t marry, living together would probably imply, to Kate, that Bea would be taken care of by Jorgy, if only in a bequest from his will.  Without that, and without assurances from Bea that she has seen the will or has a trust fund, Kate has every reason to believe that Jorgy has been shtupping her mother for decades and that Bea has nothing to show for it but “memories”.

Okay, so I’ve got a textual reason for believing that they aren’t living together; now let’s try to understand the motivation behind it.

Let’s say Bea’s husband died 3 to 5 years ago.  Kate’s feelings are still very raw on the subject, and while there are people who can hold such grudges for many years, let’s say that Kate’s are still pretty fresh.  So let’s say 3 years.

home-victorianJorgy and Bea were in love for 34 years before they were both single and could do something about it.  Yes, it’s romantic to want the happy ending for them, and they undoubtedly talked about it after the funeral.  But perhaps Bea didn’t want to give up her house, and neither did Jorgy.  He’s a man of strong opinions and probably not overly fond of change.  At 65, maybe he was accustomed to his house and didn’t want to leave it, and Bea didn’t want to live in Fay’s house.  Or maybe she just didn’t want to leave her own, which has so many memories for her.  They’d had 34 years to get accustomed to living apart; maybe they decided that beginning a physical relationship didn’t mean they had to share the same bed every night.

I’m not committed to this explanation, but I’m leaning toward it, and here’s why:

If I (Bea) have no safety net, then offering Garfinkle my million dollar trust fund becomes a greater sacrifice.  Remember when I talked about raising the stakes for your character?

If we are living together, then I might have reason to believe that Jorgy will take care of me even if I give away the money.  Without that, I may not be sure of what he will do.  I might THINK he will replace it, but I don’t know.  That bit of uncertainty increases my stakes.

But whether we are living together or not, Jorgy might see what I do as a betrayal and reject me entirely.  If that’s the case, then we could be living together.  If he rejects me on principle, then I am without a home (if I moved into his) as well as without him, and no nest egg for my retirement.

Of course, the trust fund would have been set up while my husband was still alive, Jorgy’s way of taking care of me when he had no other way to do so.  So he certainly might replace it after the sting of buying Garfinkle out passes.  But he is a man of inflexible principle – I might very well be uncertain of what his reaction would be, and so in offering Garfinkle the million dollars to save 1,000 jobs, I am risking not just the money and the security it offers, but my relationship with Jorgy as well.

Them’s high stakes!

Where does this leave me in terms of our living together?  Apparently it doesn’t matter, from a stakes point of view, whether we are living together or not, because the stakes are as high as they can be either way.  I am left with the textual reason related to Kate’s understanding of our relationship, which is pretty compelling, although it is more meaningful to her.  Nevertheless, I think it does impact one speech I make to her, so I think I’ll stick with the idea that we live apart, but spend most, if not all, of our nights together, sometimes in his house, sometimes in mine.  I can’t see me giving up my home – “home” is too important to me – but I can’t see Jorgy wanting to change old habits, either.

Did you notice that somewhere in this post, I stopped talking about Bea in the third person and began speaking of her in the first person?  As I think I mentioned in the posts about talking about your character in the first person, I am inclined to speak about her as “Bea” when I am being analytical – that’s an intellectual exercise for me, and I look at her from the outside.  Once I start to get close to the emotional life of the character, however, I automatically flip into first person speak.  It’s sort of like trying on a character’s feelings, so see how they sit with me, but more than that, it’s about taking ownership of those feelings.  Bea isn’t someone “out there” – she has to live inside of me if she is to breathe.

Script Analysis: Other People’s Money, Part 2

QuestionsSo what clues does the script provide to answer the question, “Are Jorgy and Bea living together?”

They’ve known each other for 37 years.  He was 31 when they met.  She is 5-6 years younger than he is, so she was mid-20s at their meeting.

Bea married at 19, so she was married the day she walked into the office and met “the most beautiful, scared young man I had ever seen”.  Jorgy tells a story about his deceased wife, and given the times, it is likely that he was also married when he met Bea.  It also seems clear that they remained in their marriages until their spouses died.  Jorgy’s wife died 13 years ago, at which time, says Bea’s daughter, Kate, “you almost moved in.”

Those are four very loaded words.  They hide more than they reveal, which is the mark of good writing.  The playwright provides no definitive answers to the nature of Jorgy and Bea’s relationship, which leaves it up to the actors to choose their own “answers”.  However, it is almost more important to ask questions than it is to “decide” anything.  Decisions can be so limiting, and people are rarely so one-dimensional as the characters decisions we are inclined to make.  Asking questions allows our subconscious to do clever things with the input.

So what questions should we be asking?

When Jorgy’s wife, Fay, died, who brought up the idea of Bea moving in, Jorgy or Bea?  What was that conversation like?  How soon did it happen after the funeral?

Bea talks about living a life full of “rumors and gossip and sideways glances”; how much of her relationship with Jorgy was guessed at, and how much was actually known by others in the town?  When Kate says Bea almost moved in with Jorgy, how does she know that?  Kate was out of college at the time and probably no longer living in Rhode Island; did Bea discuss it with her on the phone?  Did Kate’s father tell her about it?  Or did she just hear the rumors?

As for the rumors, how did they start?  What did Bea and Jorgy do that made the rumors start?  How did they fuel them over the years?  And why were they simply rumors, gossip, and sideways glances?  Because there is nothing in the dialogue that indicates that there was anything more than that – that Bea and Jorgy were enjoying a little afternoon delight in a hotel in a neighboring town, or going off on weekends together, or that Bea was spending the night at Jorgy’s after Fay died but before Bea’s husband did.

Which raises another question:  Bea and Jorgy love each other – they frankly acknowledge that.  But was that love ever consummated, and if it was, when?  In their early days together?  A decade later, when both were still married?  Perhaps not until after Fay died?  Or after Bea’s husband died?  Or perhaps never at all?

Next time, I’ll walk you through where these questions lead me.

Script Analysis: Other People’s Money, Part 1

opmI am currently rehearsing Other People’s Money, playing Bea Sullivan, the lawyer’s mother.  Bea is a small, but very good, role – it allows an actress to go to a number of different places.  Even when I was younger and coveting the role of the attorney, I appreciated that Bea has some very good moments.  I generally choose my parts pretty carefully, and one of the reasons I choose to do a role is when there are two or three lines I just need to say, or moments I want to be part of.  I’ll sign on to do two months of work and another of performance just for that sum total of 60 seconds.  Crazy, right?

Anyway, Bea is one of those roles.

In this instance, the size of the role is a real benefit for the blog, because it will allow me to comprehensively talk about a character without taking 20 posts to do it.  (I think.  If you’ve read much of this blog, you’ll know that I seem to have a lot more to say than I thought I did when I started it.)

I’m not going to try to put much structure to this, but to talk about things more or less as they occur to me, in the rather circular way in which my mind works when I work on a character.

If you aren’t familiar with the play, I suggest reading it.  It’s a well-constructed piece, with five interesting characters.  All could be played two-dimensionally, and you could get away with it.  And if you don’t have a lot of technique, that’s probably what you’d do with them; their layers aren’t particularly obvious.  Dig a little, however, and you’ll find characters rife with inner conflict and contradictions.

Besides, you’ll get more out of these posts if you do read it!

If you don’t know the play, here’s a quick synopsis.  Jorgy is chairman of a wire & cable business in Rhode Island – he’s run the place for decades.  A Wall Street investor, Garfinkle, thinks the stock is undervalued and starts buying it, with the ultimate goal of selling the parts and making a bundle, while shutting down the core wire & cable business, putting 1200 people out of work.  Other People’s Money is about what happens in this “war”.

Jorgy is in love with Bea, his assistant/secretary for 37 years.  When they met, they were both married, and they remained married until their spouses’ respective deaths.  Nevertheless, they were in love for most (all?) of those years, and others took note of the fact.  Bea’s daughter, now a successful attorney for Morgan, Stanley, is deeply resentful of their relationship.

One of the reasons that Other People’s Money is a good play is that it gives you sufficient information about the characters to tantalize you and make you want to know more without weighing the play down with clumsy exposition.  You know enough about them to make the play work, but the playwright, Jerry Sterner, doesn’t satisfy every curiosity – he leaves room for the audience to fill in the gaps as they like.  Different people will likely answer the questions the play raises differently – always the sign of good writing.

So at our first read-through, the actor playing Jorgy, my love interest, asked me this question:  “Are we living together?”

Interesting question, and one I hadn’t considered.  In the many times I’ve read the play over the years, I’ve assumed the answer was “yes”.  But, of course, I wasn’t doing the play and so didn’t need to really think about it.  I glibly answered, “Oh yes, I think so,” but as usually happens when I come out with a glib response to just about anything, I went home and thought about it.  Why did I respond that way, and was it justified?

What happened next is too long to finish in this post, so I’ll write another.  In the meantime, get a copy of the script and read . . .  (It was made into a movie, but how much of the movie contains the meat of the story about Bea, I don’t remember.  But I suspect the answer is, “Not much.”)

Not Business As Usual

21724617Plays are always about dramatic moments.  The most dramatic moments possible.

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.

molehillDespite 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?”

Exploring the Subtext

rainmaker 2Let’s say that I try the scene from The Rainmaker the way Nash wrote it.  I try it with the alternatives that I’ve suggested, and at the end of the day, apart from the step File takes toward Lizzie, which I think makes no sense at all, I end up using Nash’s choices.

Doesn’t that justify just using Nash’s choices from the beginning?  Should I waste time trying things that ultimately aren’t going to work, that are going to be tossed aside?

First off, I don’t know at the time that I am exploring my options in the scene that I’m going to end up using Nash’s choices.  It’s just as possible that I will use my own.  The only way that I can be confident that his choices are the right ones is if I explore and dispense with any other possibilities.  The confidence I gain is worth the effort.

Second, I get a good deal out of exploring the options that I ultimately don’t use.  It’s called exploring the subtext.

Because we are often unable or unwilling (often out of fear) to be honest with each other, creating the confusion and conflict of good drama, the unspoken thoughts and feelings which make up the subtext are important elements for an actor.  To create a really rich performance, you have to know what the subtext is and play it accurately.

You don’t do that by saying “File and Lizzie have been in love forever, but File keeps resisting it.”  You do it by immersing yourself in the longing you have for the other person, the desire to touch them.  Once you’ve pumped up that desire to its max, you can now layer resistance on to it and the electricity in the scene skyrockets.  Without the intimate understanding of what the love File and Lizzie have for each other really feels like, you can’t know what it is you are resisting.  The audience needs to see not just the resisting, they need to see the love, too.  If you don’t show the audience the love, then all they see is resistance, and they don’t know how to interpret it.  Do they hate each other?  Love each other?  Or are they indifferent?  If you aren’t actively resisting something, it’s apt to come out somewhere in the middle, and that looks a lot like indifference.

It’s the push me/pull you relationship of the love and the “I can’t give in to this” (File) or “I can’t let him know how much I care” (Lizzie) that is dramatically interesting.  Play one without the other, and you’re missing half of the symphony.

So however you choose to stage this scene, you need to explore both elements, text and subtext.  By experimenting with the levels (how much love, how much resistance), you discover the most interesting and powerful way to play the scene.

In other words, when there is clear subtext in a scene – when your feelings are not aligned with what you say – your performance will ALWAYS be best served if you take at least one rehearsal of the scene and play the subtext as clearly as possible (even if it appears to categorically contradict particular lines you speak).

Oh, and the negative “can’ts” up above?  It’s okay to start with them as long as you translate them into positive verbs, as in “I must resist loving Lizzie” and “I must hide my love from File”.

Stage Directions Aren’t Always Right — An Example

rainmakerThere may be no successful playwright who has written more stage directions than N. Richard Nash, the author of the wonderful romantic comedy, The Rainmaker.  (The 1956 movie starred Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster.)  The Rainmaker is chock full of emotional and physical choices, so much so that the usual measures of timing (minutes per page) can’t be used in determining the running time of the show!

Below is a portion of the scene between Lizzie, the old maid daughter of a rancher, and the Deputy Sheriff she has had her eye on for years.  Read the scene through, including the stage directions, and visualize the scene in your mind’s eye.  The directions are so extensive that I hope you can get a clear picture of how it can be played if you stick to everything in the script.

Now I’d like to show you how there are alternatives that ought to be at least considered, and by considered, I mean tried in an actual run-through of the scene.  Because you won’t know if something works or not until you try it.

I’m starting the scene at Noah’s exit, in the middle of page 67 (here’s The Rainmaker Excerpt).

File (Going to the door)  Well –

“Well” might mean, “Well, I guess I’ll be going”, but it doesn’t have to.  Perhaps it means “Well, I’m not sure what else to say.”  And even if it does indicate a departure, that’s a very good reason to not move to the door.  When a character says he’s leaving and he doesn’t leave – or he moves his upper body as if to leave, but his feet stay planted – that’s a loud and clear message that his heart is still in the room.  That’s both powerful and interesting to an audience.

Lizzie (Afraid he will leave)  if File chooses to stay where he is when he says “Well”, perhaps Lizzie isn’t afraid that he will leave after all.  And perhaps Nash is wrong when he says that Noah broke the spell between them.  Perhaps he didn’t break the spell at all, and something monumental is happening between these two.

Lizzie (Snatching for a subject that will keep him here)  If the spell still has them in its hold, then she doesn’t have to snatch.  But more importantly – the topic of his divorce is huge.  You don’t just snatch for such a sensitive topic because you want to keep someone in the room.  You offer him a slice of pie to do that.  No, the better (that is, the more dramatic choice) is for Lizzie to mention the divorce because she desperately wants to hear the details about it.  For her, the divorce is what has kept them apart.  Now is her chance to clear the air.

File:  No – I wasn’t – (Then, studying her, he changes his mind.) – but I will.

The implication is that he is still at the door, ready to leave, until he studies her and changes her mind.  Except that he doesn’t have to.  He can still be standing stock still when he says “No, I wasn’t.”  And he doesn’t necessarily change his mind, he simply decides to tell her.  And that’s a very different thing for an actor.

Lizzie (Helping him to get it said)  Kentucky?

Maybe Lizzie IS trying to help him.  Maybe she is just trying to connect with him, to indicate her understanding.  Or maybe she is covering her own nervousness about the topic but saying something, anything.  Or maybe she is puzzled by someone from so far away stealing File’s wife – how did he come to be so far west?

File (A step toward her)  Yes, she was.

Lizzie (Her hopes dashed)

If File is moving toward her, why are her hopes dashed?  When the man you love moves toward you, it’s a positive sign.  It offsets the “Yes, she was”, or at least should cause confusion.  The moment is probably stronger if he stands still and watches her while she becomes a nervous wreck.

As for Lizzie’s next lines, I almost think the start of the word “afraid” is too much.  It’s implicit in the line and is overkill if she actually says it.  If I had written the play, I would have had her stop at “That’s what I w—“, or maybe even drop the “w”.  And rather than “catches herself”, I might have said “smiles”, as in that bright smile that covers the tears.  But even if we leave the line as written, the smile still works.

Lizzie (Drearily).  Why drearily?  And on her next line, why “Agreeing – but without heart?”  What if Lizzie sincerely believes that women with black hair are the most beautiful, and her mousey brown is unattractive?

File sits when he describes the schoolteacher.  But is there any compelling reason to?  I’d have the actor try it standing, try it pacing, try it with movement that isn’t pacing, AND try it sitting.  I can’t begin to guess which choice better underlines what is going on for File emotionally until I see what impact the movement has on how he behaves and says his lines.

File (Raging)  What if the rage comes between “No I didn’t” and “Why should I?”, instead of before both sentences?

Lizzie (Astounded)   The only problem with this adjective is that the word tends to indicate something big, and the italics in her lines that follow underscore that intention.  But what if she is a combination of exasperated and astonished on “Why should you?” and then goes very quiet and intense on “Why didn’t you?”  Or the opposite:  a very quiet “Why should you?” as if she can’t believe he even asks that, it’s so absurd, followed by a loud, berating “Why didn’t you?”

Lizzie (Desperately)  What if she isn’t desperate on this, but instead challenges him with this line?

I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my point.  Nash’s choices certainly work, but so do mine.  Only by trying them can you determine which works better.  Or perhaps find a way of combining the two!

How I Use Stage Directions

This is just how I use them.  Since I am a big proponent of NOT using them, I think I should probably help you understand exactly what I mean by that.

When I direct, actors love to say to me, “But it says in the stage directions,” to which my typical response is “So?”  But the truth is that I do use them.  I’m just not a slave to them, that’s all.

The first time I read a script, I skip the stuff in parentheses altogether, unless I’m unclear as to what is going on or if the stage directions are very lengthy, in which case they usually represent physical action that isn’t reflected in the dialogue.  In this latter case, what happens is usually material to the plot, and I need to know what is happening.

But my first reading is to get my visceral reaction to the play and to my character.  What hits me between the eyes when I read it?  What is my experience like?  What is the tone of the piece?  In broad strokes, what seems to jump off the page about my character?  What seems important?  Do any images or sounds come up for me?

The second time I read the play, I read it very closely.  I breeze through the first reading, but I slow down the second time, making sure I get every word and its meaning, and this time I read the stage directions, just as carefully.  I know that they are an amalgam of the playwright and the original production, but I like to know what those who have gone before me thought.

The third time through, I highlight my lines.  The fourth time through, I blacken the stage directions with a Sharpie.  But not before reading them again.  Some I actually leave in.  Here’s my logic:20080912-black-marker

Sometimes what is in those parentheses are unnecessary.  A year ago, I did Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind.  Virtually every adverb instruction (nervously, indignantly, affectionately) was obvious from the writing, I felt.  And with a good writer, this is usually the case.  When that’s the case, I blacken them out.

When I come across an adverb that surprises me, I stop and consider it.  Clearly, I have had a different reaction to the line than the playwright expected.  So what about his choice?  Is it valid?  Is it more interesting than I what I felt?  Does it change the meaning?  Is it playable?

If, after giving it consideration, my reaction is, “Oh, I see!  Of course!”, then I’ll probably blacken it, too.  I’ve made a reasonable commitment to it in that moment, or at least I am confident that I will remember the playwright’s opinion when I rehearse the scene.  But if I’m not confident that I’ll remember, or I find it an interesting idea and want to try it, I’ll let it stand.  Anything I don’t blacken out is there because I want to revisit it, and so I’ll notice it again every time I read the script.  Once I’ve made a decision to use it or not to use it, I’ll blacken it.  (Note that I’m blackening it out whichever I choose.)

The same thing goes for physical movement.  If the business suggested is inherent in the dialogue –   “(lifting his glass)  Here’s to us, darling!” – I’ll strike the “lifting his glass.”  It’s just unnecessary and is cluttering the page, which makes it hard for me to find my lines.  If it’s a physical cross – “crosses to table” – I’ll strike it.  These kinds of movements are entirely flexible and may be different in each production.  “Sits down” may seem obvious, especially if I’ve been invited to sit down, but I want the freedom to sit down when I want to.  Perhaps I’ve been invited to sit, but have reasons of my own to delay sitting.  I’ll sit eventually, but I’ll discover in the course of rehearsals exactly the right moment to sit.

(Bear in mind, too, that actions in the script don’t necessarily happen at the exact moment indicated.  The convention of writing often requires that the movements be noted before or after a line, when in fact they happened in the middle of the line in the original production.  But many actors are determined to do it at the exact moment the words show up in the script!)

Physical action or business which isn’t clearly indicated in the dialogue (such as an ironic lifting of a glass in a silent toast, unaccompanied by the words, “Here’s to us, darling!”) is worth considering.  I may or may not use it, because I may or may not end up coming to the conclusion that it is in character or that it’s an ironic moment.  Or I may find something better to do.

But if it’s worth trying, and I think it is original enough that I might not think of it myself, I’ll leave it be, to remind myself to try it on for size.  If I think it’s an option that will readily occur to me during rehearsals, I’ll strike it.

Any action that is essential to the plotline but isn’t indicated in the dialogue gets to stay in my script.  Descriptions of fight sequences or other complicated physical bits get to stay.  I may or may not use what is suggested, but the stage directions help remind me of what’s important, and give me a base to work from.  A lot of the stage directions in a farce like the Farndale Avenue series stay in, because the script would be incomprehensible without it, there is no need to start from scratch on everything, and it is the cleverness of the authors in coming up with all those sight gags that makes the plays work.

But everything else is pretty much gone after the fourth reading.

salt shaker TooFarNorth textIf you can take the stage directions with a grain of salt, then there is no need to blacken them.  I do it both to clarify what is spoken and what isn’t, as well as to force myself to work a little harder, on the theory that if I have to dig, sometimes I’ll come up with gold.

Every once in a while, I’ll be deep into rehearsals and a scene isn’t working.  So I go back to my script to find how the original production solved it.  Only to find I blackened it out.

But not to worry!  Because most of the actors have left their stage directions untouched, I always have access to them if I need them!