Monday, April 28, 2014

Off the books

I have spent many hours of my life struggling over the pages of dialog sent my way by directors, casting directors and the like. My first (and last) theater role required I learn about forty pages of dialog in about a week. It was the first time in my career I had ever been expected to memorize that amount of material.
I spent every lunch time and evening till bed trying to get it all straight in my mind.
It was like going to Gold's Gym for the first time, then being expected to dead lift twice your body weight the first time at the bar.
I pulled it off just in time for the show.
But was I truly "off book"?
What does it mean to be "off book"?
Since then, I have had a lot of time on my hands to consider this. I've read a good many scripts since making this art my life. I've had the opportunity to walk into casting rooms believing myself to be "off book" then tripping over my own tongue, struggling to get across even the simplest concepts. In those moments, my performances were, dare I say, mediocre at best. Sometimes downright embarrassing.
My intentions were pure. I wanted to show the greatest amount of deference possible to the words of the writer. It is natural for one artist to show complete respect to the art of another.
But what does it really mean to respect them?
I have only recently come to realize what those who have gone ahead of me already know:
A scriptwriter does not write a script.
They write a story.
Their art is not words.
The words are simply the most expedient tool at hand to describe an idea to an audience.
An actor's job is to tell this story through action.
You are not showing respect to a writer by how well you memorize their words.
You do so by taking those words and finding the meaning behind them.
Why is the character saying these words?
What is the writer really saying?
Among the biggest mistakes an actor makes is simply playing the words. They spent so much time committing the words to memory, but never took a moment to consider what the words meant to them. As a result, you get an actor who has made no choices before entering the room. Their performance now resides in the realm of generality.
Generality is death for an actor.
Nobody laughs in general.
Nobody cries in general.
Take, for example, an argument.
I've been married for thirteen years now. Arguments are RARELY about what is being said. They are the product of emotions, imagined slights, genuine slights, etc. They are born of frustration, anger and love.
If you don't understand this interplay or what the writer is going after in the scene, then you are just yelling.
Show your writer respect by taking the time in your preparation to understand the scene and your character's role in it.
Make strong choices and the words will take care of themselves.
That is being truly "off book".
Drop the pages, pal...nice and easy...