I'm an actor but am popping into your screenwriters lounge because Kyle Little, here on Stage 32 asked a question of how, basically, to create an â€˜actors screenplayâ€™.Â So I wrote this outpouring of what, for me, constitutes a bad or difficult screenplay to read as an actor.Â I have mentored screenplay writers that have gone on to be commissioned and this is an issue Iâ€™ve dealt with time and again so, Iâ€™m now making my views public. It will also, I hope, make some actors aware of why some scripts â€˜trip them upâ€™ and stop them being their spontaneous best. Also there's a hint of how directors can be too infected by over specific stage directions as well. As actors, we learn to spot them.Â That aside, if you want to know how actors, in my experience, read screenplays and what is a common annoyance feel free to read my rant . .It's basically this, experienced actors don't like to be physically dictated to in the stage direction moments. Here's an example,Â Â ". . . She turns and grabs the door handle that slips out of her grasp a few times before she manages to open it" . . .Â Â
Seems okay but, for a start I might not need to turn, depending on the blocking, so that's redundant, and if I manage to open the door first time, in my characters panic-state on set, I don't want to feel guilty for not following the stage directions that closely, "did the director notice, have I got this wrong,?" All sorts of stuff comes into play to tease me with failure but trust me, I will show panic and I know delaying the opening of the door might be a good nail biting addition. Â
Therefore I don't mind reading,Â "She's in a panic. . ." , (reassuring statement), but hopefully the dialogue or story will dictate that to me anyway, so all I really need to know is:Â 'I head for the door and open it'Â with a note suggesting the 'panic' makes the door opening more problematic. egÂ " . . . the shock weakens her grip on the handle delaying her further. . . "Â Â In short, please have confidence the actor will show, organically the writers intention through their own spontaneously found physicality. Give them emotional context and some room to deliver the intention their way.
Don't get me wrong, sometimes it's really important to be specific about the action, e.g.
" . . . She takes a seat and tips her left arm to look at her watch, spilling the contents of the coffee cup into her lap. . . "Â This was a comedy scene that then leads to another moment where the boss points out she's wet herself.Â She HAS to sit down to localise the spill and she MUST have the coffee cup in her left hand to get the watch viewing and spill to work.Â That's all fine and necessary. THINK then, when it's NOT necessary, the same amount of attention is placed on reading the specific stage directions because actors can only assume there's a point to be made by them. Often this is not actually the case and the reading of such specifics becomes laboriously distracting.
Basically, as an actor, I'm far more interested in the 'emotion' of the character during action than being told how to DO the action.Â Another example, " . . . Her shoulders drop she, bows her head and turns away to hide her tears. . ."Â Â That would make me so wooden and superficial.Â What I need isÂ ". . . disappointed and hurt she makes every effort to hide her tears. . . ."
Yes, that mention of disappointment might make my shoulders drop but at least, whatever I do in the moment, I'll be coming from a place of internal emotional motivation rather than just following a list of actions I should perform as the writer sees it and trying to figure the emotional context on them. Would seasoned actors even do that?Â No, of course not but we still take in whatâ€™s been said as we read and it colours our judgement. We then have to edit out the distractions ourselves and hope the director's happy with that. It just adds doubt to our natural choices.Â Â Think of a lady on a white horse. . . . Now forget her. . . not so easy huh.
That's the other problem with action specific scripts, some directorsÂ 'look' for those specific actions and try to get them out of the actor, believing that's the only type of reaction that will work because they've fallen in love with the idea of it, when in reality, the actor has actually done a great job performing the intention of the writer through their own personal interpretation of the character and emotional state anyway. Several takes of the scripted version and the superficial result is on the cutting room floor along with a crest fallen director. Don't colour the pallet, that's an actors job.
Keeping character choices consistant gets difficult when the writers version is dictating your every move and influencing the director too. Luckily, some directors get the gist of these directions but then let the actor do things their way as that is always going to be the most natural and 'real'.
Specifics can be drawn out on set of course.Â If the camera is set on the actors right then it might be wise for the actor to use their left hand to offer some flowers, for example, so the camera can see them better. The actor opposite, receiving them, would do better to take them with their right, so everyone is 'open' in the shot.Â That's okay too.Â We all work for the DoP.Â Yes, screen trained or experienced actors know the rules here. If the actors donâ€™tÂ . . .yet . . .the director should instruct them : you have to find your light, you have to work within the depth of field, you have to be in the frame and not move, you have to be a bit bigger when in a distance shot than in a close up etc. Â
We all know the problems on set will be worked out and the actors can, and should, manoeuvre accordingly to help make it work. However, if the actions are too specific in the script they are even more distracting when on set. Some can't be 'felt' by the actor in that particular physical way to denote the emotion expected and some physical moves written can't be executed that way given the limitations of the shot.
I've had a director tell me to blink my eyes as I look into the camera. That instruction tells you nothing. In this case if the script had said " She looks back at the camera with a nonchalant strength." ORÂ the director told me , "You're all powerful, you don't need this, look back at the camera and let me see that in your eyes.. . ."Â either instruction makes me naturally blink my eyes as I turn my head, all the while feeling aloof and commanding.Â Â Even if I didn't blink, the power and the feeling of being dispassionate in my reaction would still be shown somehow. Perhaps the thought,Â "you must be an idiot or joking" that I might 'think' to help the motivation, could induce a slight tilt of the head instead.
Honestly, the director has to choose the actors that give a performance they trust and then honour what they offer if itâ€™s a healthy and equally effective alternative. Some actors tell me they were taught not to be slaves to the script. In dialogue, I can't see this would work and I certainly wouldn't go against the words of the writer, the dialogue is the king of character information for me but I do understand why stage directions can get in the way of spontaneous performances if they dictate your moves.
This over specific writing mistake usually comes from a 'writer director' because they visualise every detail OR a 'newbie' script writer because they don't know actors are fuelled moment by moment on 'emotional' intention and motivation. They are trained to let that come through them 'spontaneously' from their gut. The last thing they need is to be told how-it-should-look when they do that. Wherever it's originated from, script or director, that only leads to a possibility of superficiality or misinformation about a character that hampers the actor to make it their own.
Of course, if a character has a twitch that has to be made evident because itâ€™s noticed, referred to or causes the character a physical problem, itâ€™s okay to suggest the â€˜twitchâ€™ is there and maybe responsible for the dropping of a key down a drain for example, but donâ€™t remind us, or put it in, every time the character does any action. Trust the actor to know how to use the twitch to effect in their way. The director is there to make sure itâ€™s evident and balanced in the film too.
Directors note -Â if your actors need a step-by-step guide, you run the risk of inexperienced actors 'demonstrating' rather than 'living' the performance. Experienced ones will know how to practice the move until it becomes a part of their characters make up, and make it their own i.e. until that needed move, regardless of how uncomfortable to start, feels natural, and totally wrong doing it any other way. Â
At an audition for instance, I was told how big my hysterical reaction was to be, by the director, who demonstrated, very loudly, as he saw it!Â Â I was courageous enough to mimic that performance in the audition with conviction and then worked out the rest of my character based on that outburst, eventually bringing it to the set, as I got the role. There was no need for him to suggest or demonstrate anything further, I had got a measure of where he wanted the character to go by that one direction. The rest came spontaneously from my gut because I had done the work and figured how the character got to a place where that hysterical extreme was natural.
Back to our coffee cup spill. A good actor knows the joke comes from everything being so natural and fluid the viewer doesn't see it coming, they don't see the mechanics or the prep, or what must have been written in the script, the actor just does it naturally.Â That goes for every stage direction and delivery of dialogue too and it takes self-confidence in the actors instrument to pull it off well.Â Please don't trip us up by expecting a tilt of the head, instead tell us the character feels empathy or unsure. Don't make us 'thump the table' if that's not crucial, i.e. the table has to be marked or broken in the next scene, instead perhaps let us know our rage is so accute we could 'take our anger out on the furniture.'
Some directors tell you not to take any notice of the stage directions and that's probably because what happens on set, the limitations of shot choices and the resources available, will change everything OR they don't want the actors hampered by the writers image of events and are trying to get the actors to work more spontaneously.Â Others use the stage directions as a guide but, in any event, what nobody needs is the step by step physical movementÂ list an actor will make, because the writing fails to show the more important â€˜internal emotional context' of how the character is feeling.
A good director knows how to get confidence rolling by enticing the emotional context with good communication and letting the actor loose to do their thing.
Actors thrive on being impressionable and easily influenced so they can respond quickly and orgnically but please donâ€™t dictate or impose your will of expectation onto us too specifically. Our artistry needs to â€˜breatheâ€™ too and for anyone reading the script I would suggest taking out the unneeded physical specifics and replacing those with emotional guides instead would help feed the imagination and get the reader more involved personally too.