Adventures on the wrong side of the camera – Part 3 (More script analysis for actors)

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More Script Analysis for Actors – Context, Action and Subtext

(Earlier article HERE).

Right, the quick update – I’ve been attending acting workshops at ITV West, with the notion that an insight into the process from an actor’s perspective will help make me a better director.

Understanding how your actors are likely to approach your script is of massive importance for you as a director or as a writer.  If you know what an actor is looking for, you’ll be better at guiding them through the text.

Last time we looked at script analysis for actors concentrating on what a character says about themselves and what others say about them.  We looked at ways this can be played straight or subverted – and how all sorts of interesting tensions can come to the surface.

This time we’re looking at script analysis for actors with reference to context, action and subtext.


Quick definitions:

1). Context – where are we?

2). Action – what are the characters doing (physically)?

3). Subtext – what is lurking beneath what the characters are saying?



In my first article in this series (HERE) I said that it’s vitally important to know where you’ve just come from when you start a scene.  What happened to me immediately before this?  That’s context on a micro-level – and it really gives colour and depth to a performance.

On a macro level an actor will ask, ‘what is the context of this whole piece?’.  Some quick and easy questions might be:

– When does this film take place -A period piece? Modern day? Futuristic?.

– What sort of world is this – One in which everyone knows their place and good manners are of paramount importance? A once grand society, ripping itself apart? A nuclear wasteland with a handful of human survivors?

– What is my character’s position in this world – A man of power? The lowest of the low? A despised wheeler-dealer with a finger in every pie?


These questions give you a framework to build on.  Discussions about a characters wants/needs can be referred to that context, so that they exist as part of a whole world within your film – rather than as disjointed elements.



What do the characters actually do in this scene?  Avoid looking at what they’re trying to do with the words they say, and just concentrate on the actual physical cues in the script.

In some scripts these actions might be given more detail than others, and very often during rehearsals something new develops and the action in the final scene differs quite widely from what was originally on the page.  Either way, it’s important to understand what the writer was originally conveying through their description of the action, as it will often introduce interesting tensions and conflicts.


Simple example:

A Western.  Gringo is out for revenge.  He arrives at the saloon:

Gringo creeps into the saloon.


Gringo strolls into the saloon.


One word changed, but there’s a massive difference now in what’s going on.  Does Gringo creep because he’s scared?  Does he want them to think he’s scared?  Does he want to be unheard? Is he not sure if he’s got the right man??


Is Gringo insanely confident? Does he want people to think that he’s confident? Is he unaware that he’s walking into danger? Is he naïve?

An actor will take a cue like this and relate it to all the other ideas they’re building up about a character.  Then they’ll figure out what’s right (or interesting) and use that as a basis for injecting a bit of life into the piece.  Even if – after rehearsals – the action doesn’t take the initial form that was in the script (Gringo hovers around outside for a moment or two, then bursts through the door) the discussion that was born from an analysis of the action will have been useful.

And remember – all characters are doing something physically.  If a character is sat down throughout your whole scene you might ask: ‘why aren’t they standing up?’.  Why don’t they get up during this scene?  Are they arrogant? Rude? Shy? Or, like Westley in The Princess Bride, are they still recovering from being dead an hour before?



What is going on underneath what is being said and done?  An understanding of the subtext in a scene can help an actor give a far richer, more layered performance.  For me, it’s always helpful to start by asking:

– What does this character really want to say, but can’t (and why)?

– What is a character trying to hide/protect in this scene?


Let’s take an argument scene – they’re pretty common and a good argument is never just an argument.

Based on your understanding of the context, what’s on the page (dialogue and action) and other decisions about the characters, what is really going on behind the words?  Is your character in love and trying to hide the fact because they’re scared of getting a broken heart?  Are they going on the offensive because they know they’re wrong and don’t want anyone to find out?  Are they trying to re-assert their dominance after an earlier embarrassment?

3 readings (of an imaginary scene!) each with subtext that would give texture to the performances.  You shouldn’t even have to look far to get this sort of thing, as good writing gives plenty of room for analysis of subtext – that’s part of the job for a writer.

It’s nothing new either – people have always been analysing what’s going on behind the words – and this analysis itself can be used for dramatic/comedic effect:



Ha! “Against my will I am sent to bid you come in to dinner” – there’s a double meaning in that.  “I took no more pains for those thanks than you took pains to thank me” – that’s as much as to say, “Any pains that I take for you is as easy as thanks.”


The Benedick/Beatrice relationship from ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ is a model for the relationships in every romantic comedy you can think of – couple hate each other (but love each other really) and after some mishaps everything comes right in the end.  Their dialogue is always full of subtext, and helps actors bring their relationship to life in a way that is engaging, exciting and entertaining for an audience.


Summing Up

If you’re a director or a writer it’s your job to make sure that you’re aware of what an actor is looking for, so that you can help them get the most from the text.  It doesn’t have to be difficult – it just requires an understanding of:

–       Where we are.

–       What the characters are doing.

–       What the characters are saying.

–       What the characters are not saying.

Once you know this, you’re ready to start twisting and turning things and getting the best from the script.

Hope that’s useful!



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