Let’s have some fun: I want to pass on to you a simple technical tool for preparing a scene that I learned at grad school – if you add this to your work I bet it will:
- make your acting sound better
- make your acting feel better
- make you more intimidating if you need to be
- make your comic lines land better
- make directors love you more.
It has to do with emphasizing words. First, let’s see a case study – a polar extreme. Anyone who’s seen Captain Kirk (the William Shatner variety) going off on one will smile with recognition. Full disclosure: I think Shatner is a powerful and effective screen actor, but watch this:
Now, we all want our acting to be interesting. We also want to sound like a real human being. So does the screenwriter. They want us to get across to our audience big ideas and emotions.
NOW, STOP WHERE YOU ARE AND DO THE FOLLOWING: Find the last sentence in the paragraph above beginning with ‘They want us…’ Read it out loud and emphasize the following words: “they”, “get across”, “audience”, “big”, “ideas”, and “emotions”.
In your gut, how’d that feel? Like you were ‘Acting’? Big? Phony? You probably sounded like you were presenting the news or like a good number of actors who think they need to fill each word with emotion so that the audience will think they’re actually feeling it.
Now read the practice sentence again, and this time, carry your energy through the line without emphasizing the words (and relax, you don’t have to sing it on one note) but then release all that energy on the word “big”.
Compare that feeling… feel different? Feel more real? Okay, your energy probably carried through after the work “big”, but just imagining you saying it that way excited me!
FUNDAMENTAL RULE OF WORDS:
If you emphasize every word in a sentence, the effect that you’re having is that no words are being emphasized. If all words are important, then no words are important. And you will bore your audience after several seconds, because they know you’re not talking like an Earth person, you’re putting on an act. And it’s repulsive, because nobody wants to be talked at, they want to be talked to. (Just for grins, re-read that least sentence and put all your energy onto the final word “to”. Again, how does that feel?). Back to Star Trek, is it any wonder that the character Mr. Spock became more popular in the series than Captain Kirk? That’s because Leonard Nimoy usually followed the technique that you’re about to learn.
CONCEPT: THE KEY WORD
It always helps for us actors to remember the big picture. In Robert McKee’s book, ‘DIALOGUE: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage and Screen’, he breaks down what’s going on between characters:
“A scene finds its natural rhythm of action/reaction in the give-and-take of meaning. Until a character has a sense of what was just said, of what just happened, he waits in limbo.”
And that sense comes through when we give and receive specific words. McKee says that these words:
“…seal meaning and cue a reaction from the other side of the scene. Mistiming it can break scenic rhythm and ruin performances.”
Put simply, there’s usually one word in each phrase that is key to the meaning of that phrase. It’s the core of the idea that you want to get across, and it causes a reaction in your scene partner so that they will feel the need to respond.
The next time you have an audition (or you can experiment on any scene), sit down with a pencil and underline the key word of each line – and not just your own lines: underline the key words of your scene partner. You’ll see why in a moment.
Most good writers place the key word at the end of the line. For the viewer, this creates subconscious tension and suspense as the audience follows the character as she expresses herself.
- For comic lines: the release of that built-up psychological tension creates the laugh in a comic line – and here again, the key word is usually placed at the end of a line. So, ride the words up to that key word and then, momentarily visualize the baffling, ridiculous nature of life as you ‘key’ that last word. It all must work very quickly for it to land, and this works even more brilliantly if you have an anchoring image for that key word.
- Need to be intimidating? As you approach the key word, consider looking away from your scene partner while suppressing your energy, and, when you come to the key word, drill them with your eyes and release your energy through that word. Your acting will be startlingly powerful if you make that adjustment. Parents: take note.
SCREEN ACTING IS REACTING:
Now look at your scene partner’s lines. If their key word is in the middle of their line, allow their key word to affect you. In that nanosecond, as your character is being motivated to express your next line, you will release a facial reaction that the director will want to see – they always love cutting to us before the end of our partner’s line, because that gives the scene momentum.
THIS MAY FEEL WRONG TO BEGIN WITH…
Lay aside any suspicion you have that this will make your work boring – that it just doesn’t feel like acting. That perceived feeling of a lower energy level might be exactly where you need to be headed in your quest to be more believable. Listen to yourself in your next phone conversation: how many times do you key one word in a sentence – and it’s usually at the end. Putting your energy into that key word (or words) makes your communication more effective.
Let’s remember our job: we are channels for the writer and director. They think in terms of an understandable constant flow of creative energy that seduces an audience and draws them in. Finding the key words and keying them will not only intensify the energy of the scene, it will allow the audience to follow the sense of the scene, and it will make us sound more natural.
Break a leg!