Character vs. Scene
An interesting point was raised by Ron Van Lieu in class yesterday at The Actors Center. After offering some notes on a scene from “A Doll House,” the work started up again. After the second go around, Ron noted that the actress had taken his notes and veered straight into “character,” nearly forsaking the content of the “scene.” What she did was certainly entertaining, but it neglected something fundamental.
A little bulb went off in my head. Actors today are trained toward playing character, and we do, in fact, often neglect the scene. There’s little hiding from this.
This is especially true in film and television, where more attention is paid to character elements like wardrobe, stylings, mannerisms, look, haircuts, habits and catchy one-liners, than if a scene is any good in its entirety. Whether something is advanced in the emotional make-up of the character, or whether we learn something beyond simple story points has been rendered nearly irrelevant. It’s a race between plot and character, scene be damned.
The scene, as it were, is nearly dead, rendering our most basic criticism of them as to whether they’re too long or too short. “Too long” means we got the plot point and would like the narrative to move on, “too short” means there wasn’t enough time to get our needed dose of character.
I have an audition coming up, and as I sat in class I ran my lines in my head, searching for whether I’d done any work on the scene. I had not. Several choices about vocal pitch, clothing and a nervous twitchiness had been established, but there was little in my preparation that answered the question, “So, what is this about? What’s going on? What are the points A and B here?” I had no idea, and here I was, a professional actor, studying with a celebrated teacher, suddenly clueless about the basics of my own craft.
But I felt as though I’d been mercifully spared another round of an anguished audition later. I could go back and do my work, properly. If I do the job, the rest follows, and it’s the attention to scene that will separate a mediocre read from a good one. Whether anybody in the room knows what’s going on doesn’t matter. Something will be felt, the way good stitching holds a bad together even as we desire only to feel the smoothness of the leather.
And at any rate, nearly all the classes out there are still being advertised as “scene study,” are they not?