Scene study, the preparation of a scene from a play or other acting medium, is an extremely common and effective part of an actor’s training. You may encounter it in high school (or summer theatre camp if you are so lucky), but if you are a theatre major in college, you will certainly spend a lot of time on scene work. Your teacher may assign a scene to you, or you may be allowed to choose for yourself and your partner. Today we’re going to talk about the real nuts and bolts of putting your scene together.
We’ll start with the scene itself. If you are choosing the material, keep these things in mind.
Have you explored the StageAgent scenes database? StageAgent provides hundreds of great scenes to choose from in its library of scenes from plays. Search filters such as length, style, # of male/female characters and time period make it super easy to find the perfect scene in a pinch. Once you find a scene you like, make sure to explore the associated show guide and character breakdowns.
Does this scene suit the skills both partners possess? Some actors are chameleons, John Malkovich comes to mind. Some actors are really good and one or two things, like John Wayne. Is this scene suited to your abilities? It’s great if you can push your perceived limits, in fact that’s a big part of becoming an actor. But if you’re built for slapstick comedy and you’re looking at a Greek Tragedy like Agamemnon—that might be a bridge too far.
Do you like the scene? Ultimately, it’s not really necessary that you do, but it certainly helps. This extends to the subject matter; can you handle whatever the scene is about? Great drama is laced with great loss, perhaps violence, and difficult themes, and sometimes a very personal response from the actor comes out. This is acting class, not therapy. We never want to confuse the two!
Build a rehearsal schedule, and stick to it. This is ALWAYS the hardest part. Most of us are busy humans, you could be working around any number of obstacles: jobs, classes, relationships, holidays, the list is practically endless. You might think however, that this is the digital age—what about Facetime? Skype? (seriously, is anyone still using Skype?) In a pinch, I guess it’s fine, but it’s a poor replacement for in-person rehearsal. You simply can’t create the same atmosphere through a screen. I’m a big believer in creating the real-life circumstance as often as possible. For example, try to have access to the room you will actually perform in, and rehearse there. If you’ve blocked the scene and rehearsed it in your dorm room, transferring to the performance space is going to take some time. Build that into your schedule. Side note: there’s an adage in life that absolutely applies to theatre: “It always takes as much time as you have.” I’ve done full-scale musicals in ten days; I’ve done them in 2 months. You will use every bit of time you have, and probably still barely make it across the finish line.
Respect your partner. It’s their scene too. You may have selected your partner or had them provided to you. You may be an infinitely more gifted actor; you may be a novice in comparison. Be a source of support, give them what they need, because you need the same from them. If you are new to your partner, it can help a ton to get to know them. Spend some time together, see what makes them tick. Creativity is contagious.
That said, occasionally a pairing just doesn’t fit, for whatever reason. But it’s your job to work beyond your differences—notice I didn’t say through them. The time you spend together should be focused on delivering the best scene possible, not resolving your political differences. Think of it as Thanksgiving with your family—we’ve all got that one relative with whom you just don’t talk politics or religion!
Know your scene (and the play!) This falls largely under the category of “Duh…” but you simply can’t do good work without an expert grasp of the material. Know your lines and your partner’s lines. Read the play! What happened up to the point of the scene you are doing? That’s imperative. While the events that come after shouldn’t necessarily color your performance, occasionally a motivation is revealed that can be crucial to a character’s makeup.
You might occasionally read some tricks and tips for memorization, personally, I’ve never found any of them to be very valuable. The only one I have for you is this. Know what you are talking about. Really understand the material. That’s what makes the lines stick, otherwise you’re just trying to memorize a lot of words. I also find that I want the blocking before I commit to memorization. Action can absolutely influence when, why and how you deliver a line. Another side note: one of the hardest songs I’ve ever performed is, ironically, “Try to Remember” from The Fantasticks. The lyrics are very easy to confuse, and the traditional staging is very static, so there aren’t many cues to help you! If you’re having trouble remembering a line, marry to an action, it will help.
Be prepared. It’s live, something unplanned is bound to happen. Someone will forget a line, drop a glass, a cell phone will ring (you KNOW a cell phone is going to ring). Keep your mind on the work, if you can continue (pick up the prop, cover the line flub with an ad lib) then keep rolling. If there’s an interruption that must be acknowledged before you can continue, keep your composure and hold till the distraction has passed. Don’t go all Patti LuPone on us (google it kids). It’s good practice for real life.
Scene study is a large part of your education, it can be incredibly fulfilling and yet daunting. It’s a chance to push yourself in directions you didn’t think you could go. It’s a practice, just like playing the piano or hitting a free throw. Go bravely, and go often.