Adventures on the wrong side of the camera – Part 5 (Performance – subtext)

5 years, 11 months ago 1
Posted in: blog

Previous parts here:

1) Basic ways a director can help an actor.

2) How actors will analyse your script (and why you need to know this).

3) Actors and script analysis (continued).

4) Auditions (and how writers/directors can help).


First Performance.

Okay, the grand premiere – after a few weeks of writing about being a director attending acting workshops, here’s some video evidence…

This is taken from a session on subtext and how it can be used to play against what is suggested by the text – in this case, taking us off in almost a completely different direction than expected.

An initial reading of the dialogue used for this scene suggests a very easily playable approach – Character A is dominant, confident and has the upper hand.  They’re a bit of a bastard and largely untroubled by what they’ve done (whatever ‘that’ is – decide for yourselves).

We played this through a few times before being thrown a curve-ball (as I believe Americans and the two British people who play baseball like to call it).  Instead of taking the obvious reading, we were given an action and a subtext that would be much harder to play but could potentially give life to the scene in a different way.

The subtext – Character A actually feels incredibly guilty about what they’ve done.  They’re not keen on facing up to this so…

The action – Character A is trying to appear bored, to disguise their guilt and get rid of character B.

Right, here’s the scene – judge it as you will, and then have a read of my own analysis/pointers afterwards.

This is just a scene taken in isolation – it might be that in the context of a longer piece this reading stretches the characterisation too much.  On the other hand it might be a perfect way of injecting some new interest and avoiding something that would otherwise have been flat and one-dimensional.

There’s a lot of things I don’t like here – my face does weird things, some of the lines seem to be fighting against the delivery and so on and so forth.  I definitely found it easier to play the (unfilmed) ‘bastard’ version of Character A.  The lines easily let me dominate Character B, it was strangely enjoyable to be hellishly vindictive, and easy to maintain concentration.


I was aware that the ‘guilty’ version of Character A filled him out with more shades and tones – not necessarily making him more interesting (everyone loves a bastard on screen), but giving the audience more to participate in and piece together as regards back-story, potential plot development etc.  One key thing – regardless of weakness in performance – the idea that Character A is guilty does seem to come across.  I’m learning that it’s a fine line between making sure that something is readable on screen (giving enough hints for the audience to pick up) and turning something into pantomime.  If the performance doesn’t play on the subtext hard enough, then there’s a good chance anything you wanted the audience to pick up on will never come through.  Equally, play on it too much and you’re in the territory of very hammy acting.

The ‘guilty’ approach was definitely harder to play – we had less time to prepare this, the script didn’t obviously lend itself to this reading, and fundamentally (for me) it’s a harder mindset to take on.   Crucially, the experience made me aware of some things about myself that will hopefully help with my directing:

1)   There are comfort zones for actors – patterns and performances that they can easily turn on and take through lots of different scenes.  They might be absolutely brilliant at this…

2)   There are, equally, ‘discomfort zones’ – things that an actor can’t do quite as well, shades that they’re not as good (or just comfortable) at bringing out.

3)   Even highly trained actors are likely to have this.

4)   It’s difficult to play a reading that seems to go against what the script suggests.

5)   When asked to do so, an actor may understandably feel compromised/forced/nervous/distrustful.  After all, it’s their face and their performance that are being recorded for permanence – if they don’t feel something is right, they’re still the one who’ll be judged.

And from these lessons learned, some advice:

a)    Do everything you can to maintain the trust your actors are giving you.  Their reputation is in your hands.

b)   If you’re asking your actors to approach the script in a radically different way you must be prepared for some discussion and negotiation.  Demanding they see things your way isn’t going to be useful – even if they accept, they’re going to have to find some truth in this new approach.

c)    If you’ve got the time, play it both ways.  This isn’t some kind of creative weakness on your part – it’s giving yourself options.  It might be that Approach A, followed by Approach B leads to some entirely new and exciting Approach C that neither you nor the actors had previously seen.

d)   Don’t let yourself be dissuaded from at least trying something new – even if it does seem to fly in the face of conventional wisdom and your actors are doubtful.  At the very least you’ll see what worked with the standard approach, and at best you’ll come out with something a lot more exciting.

Comments VERY welcome!


One Response

  1. Dan Gale says:

    Very interesting. It’s an area I’ve never dared look at. Same with music: I’d never tell a musician what to do as its totally mysterious to me but I’d know what I liked if I heard it. Your points all make sense. Especially as sometimes you haven’t got control of casting and have to make do with what you’re given and that person can’t act to save their life…which is where knowing ‘how it should be done’ is far more valuable than the default setting of knowing ‘how it shouldn’t.
    Also remember Ridley Scott’s three rules of saving something in post: crop it, flop it or drop it. And add ‘revoice it with an actor who can act.’ :)

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