Ol’ Boy Hamlet tells us:
“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”
Truth in acting is what we’re after, lest we reveal our Claudius by allowing our guilt to show through.
Guilt, in this case, is lack of preparation or commitment to a role. Guilt, in allowing stubborn ego or selfish notions interfere with the delivery of our character’s life. The biggest guilt, as an actor, is to recite lines.
“Recite Lines.” Cringe-worthy phrase, indeed.
As actors, we look to bring those words to life.
It’s about the words. We get a script, full of settings, actions, directions and dialogue. As actors, we look to bring those words to life. The ingredients are reaction, mood, behavior, back story and rhythm. Dissecting a script, getting to the meat of our character and bringing it to performance form the exhilaration our art provides. The words are our launching point.
The Director will give you the meaning of the scene, beats and marks, and what he or she expects from the line delivery. As collaborators, we can utilize direction to get us started on bringing the words to life.
I read an interview with Christopher Walken decades ago regarding his approach to dialogue. Walken said the first thing he does is have his assistance retype his lines in capital letters and remove all punctuation. This struck me as a good idea, as we don’t speak with punctuation.
Natural speech and dialogue is interspersed with pauses, silence, facial expression, body language and extraneous interruptions.
As our vocation of acting is one of continual growth, we discover more ways to make words reach their potential with each new role. Mentors and instructors will add to your bag of tricks. You can glean much wisdom through the written works of teachers like Uta Hagen, Constantin Stanislavski and other masters of theater.
When I watch actors like Al Pacino, Ellen Burstyn, Dianne Wiest, Robert Duvall, George C. Scott, Peter O’Toole, and countless others, I tune into their perfection of delivering dialogue. Hearing a great actor deliver great lines is music to my ears.
So, how does one bring words to life?
DESIRE: I look at the setting of the scene, my character’s mood, and what he is trying to achieve by saying what he is saying. Knowing my character’s “end game” is the first step. Is my character hiding something? What does he want?
TEMPO: At what speed does my character react to the cue? Again, our character’s mood and temperament, state of mind and situation-at-hand all affect the pace. The pace of delivery will be dictated by the intensity of reaction.
NATURALNESS: In real life, our brain creates our speech and lets it flow. Your lines must be delivered with the feel of natural occurrence.
So, the first thing we need to do with a script is ingest it. Read the words. Memorize the words. Secondly, we need to digest the words. Let them become part of our psyche. Finally, we must put our character’s actions into play solidly enough as to allow those words to flow freely when their moment arises.
My goal, as an actor, is having the words become second-nature to my character’s actions. I take each line apart word-by-word. I speak each line quickly, then slowly. I sing the line. I apply different tones to each line. Read it sadly, happily, sarcastically, smugly, manically, etc. I punctuate different words of each line with gestures, emphasis, various volume levels, etc.
And then, when I feel I’ve wrung the life out the words in rehearsal, I let them sit and rest inside of my heart and mind until the scene conjures them up with renewed life.
Go get ‘em! Break a leg!