Extract: Introduction


Acting is much like a puzzle: once all the pieces are in place, they fit easily. Leave even one piece out and the puzzle is incomplete. Force one into place and the puzzle no longer reveals a clear picture. So it is with acting. In order to be free to be creative, impulsive and daring, an actor must look at the information in the script. An artist mines the text first and then creates art.

An actor must first understand how to unravel the play before making any assumptions about a character. It is too easy to impose limits and decide that a character would never behave in a certain way before fully reading the play. It is too easy to look at the character not from the perspective of the facts in the script but from a similarity to one’s own life or to other characters that one has seen or played and so re-create oneself within the play rather than build the character.

To be a great artist one must love the art and be willing to do many hours of hard work. Anyone can learn to act, but few are real artists. To be among the few who create art, know that it takes patience and perseverance, not because it is such an uncertain and competitive field but because art comes from great personal toil.

I have called this book The Anatomy of a Choice because it is a guide to finding the different pieces of a character and a map to assembling those pieces together. Working through a play provides the opportunity to make a long series of conscious choices about how to approach a role. These choices need to be in place before going into rehearsal, even though the process of rehearsing with a director and fellow actors will alter many of them. This book will help make those initial choices.

In this guide to breaking down a script, I have quoted liberally from many great acting teachers—particularly Constantin Stanislavski. Directing and teaching during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he developed a psychological style of acting that transformed the theatre. He is the father of modern acting, and much of what I write about in these pages comes from him. Many of the quotes that are not his come from teachers who were either directly or indirectly Stanislavski’s disciples. These are the great acting teachers of modern theatre. I have supplied a list of many of the best books written about acting in the bibliography at the end of the book.

I have also included journal entries from some of my own students, sharing observations that they made as they struggled with some of the more difficult and exciting techniques that belong to text analysis.

This book lays out how to pull the clues necessary from the text to make the most active choices from which to act. Along the way an individual mapping process develops for the actor. When an actor doesn’t know how the process works, he or she creates the character by chance or worse simply endures the rehearsals until the real fun begins: performance. An actor must develop a personal language that clarifies the understanding of creating a role. The artist must be able to able to name his or her process. Strive to be an artist.

Breaking down a creative process is a wonderful challenge, daunting at the best of times and imperfect at the worst. Think of this as an outline. There are few absolutes to mining a text and those are these: take the time to find all of the clues, continue to read the script and reevaluate those choices, and believe that the character must want something so badly that he or she is willing to kill to get it. This book is a way to find the actor’s journey, to discover what feeds an artist, what comes easily, what requires more diligence and what makes one’s approach to a role unique.

Acting is a collaborative art form. Some of my students accuse me of making it into a contact sport. In many ways it is. Without the other person or people on stage, there is no one to connect to. A good actor always knows to whom he or she is talking and what he or she wants. An artist wants something from the other person on stage even when that other person is another part of themselves, the gods or the audience.

Acting is joyous. Make sure all of the equipment is in place and in good working order. Make sure the preparation for this incredible feat is complete, and then build the character piece by piece until everything comes together and the audience gets to witness the art.

Anatomy of a Choice