"Use your weaknesses. Aspire to the strength."
As an actor, have you ever wondered why a scene that you're working on seems flat? And what to do about it? Read on, because the American School of Acting might have a remedy.
My students (aged 11-16) are in their final weeks of rehearsing scenes before we turn them into short films, and they’re doing terrific work - better work than a lot of grownups I’ve seen in the West End.
But then we hit a wall.
Louder, Faster, Funnier?
Like good Stanislavsky students, we’ve identified our objectives and actions (‘what we want’ and 'what we do to get what we want’), and we’ve been hammering away at them, but I noticed that we hadn’t quite made the leap towards creating truly dramatic scenes that really pull the audience in.
Now, a bad director would say, “Make it louder, faster, funnier!” And I’ve had some directors say that to me. But those productions often ended up with actors who get bored saying their lines louder, faster and funnier. They are the actors who used to frustrate me, who laugh to each other in the dressing room: “Today's one of those days where I felt like I went to sleep during that scene and then woke up!” Imagine how your audience felt.
Shurtleff provides the solution
So for my actors, I recalled a workshop years ago delivered by the American audition guru Michael Shurtleff, whose message was: “Every person has dreams. It’s what makes life bearable. They’re not rational, they’re sometimes not even recognizable, but we all have dreams. So find your character’s dream and then fight for it with every ounce of energy.” In other words, it’s not enough for us 'method actors' to ask what my character wants. I need to ask “What am I fighting for?” And that kind of soul-searching that Shurtleff inspired in me is what I’ve tried to use for the last twenty-five years.
So we took our time brainstorming our characters’ place in life, and what they were feeling. And then we pondered what their dreams would be, dreams big enough to fight for, and crucially, dreams that the other character could help us to achieve. This confirmed to us what Mr. Shurtleff also said: “Every scene is a love scene.”
What fireworks! At last they found the key that unlocked their emotions, and they connected honestly to their scene partners like never before.
Tapping an inexhaustible power
The other payoff of this 'dreamquest' is that you, as the actor, will never be bored again - no matter how long the run. You’re now on a path with your character where the depths of identification and feeling are inexhaustible.
Proof? When I performed my solo drama ‘My Name is Bill: An Afternoon with an Alcoholic,” I gave my character the dream of being a national celebrity, loved and applauded by all, and he was going to die trying to achieve that dream. The irony is that he failed in the end and created Alcoholics Anonymous, ensuring that no one would ever know who he was! But during that 60-minute struggle, I was fighting impossible odds to make his dream come true. I was fighting with the audience and fighting with myself. This made the acting immediate, gripping and fresh every night. For 36 performances. And I still never got to the bottom of that character’s darkness.
Ask yourself some tough questions
So my suggestion for actors, in any part you play, is to ask yourself, as Olivier did: “What is my character’s weakness?” which leads to the question: “What is my character’s dream?" (and the deeper and needier the dream, the better). If you can relate this weakness to some personal weakness you have (don't worry, the audience will never know), and then “aspire to the strength,” then you can fight the other person like mad to get what you hunger for. Voila: drama!
I promise you loads of joy on this ‘dual-carriageway’ of discovery, as you learn more about yourself as a human being, while helping the audience, who also have dreams, to learn more about what it means to be human as they watch your story unfold.
Bryan Bounds, professional US actor, voiceover artist, writer, director and producer, is the principal teacher at the American School of Acting, giving classical actor training to young artists in Yorkshire.