Drummers practice rudiments. Pianists practice scales. Ballet dancers practice their exercises. Dramatic storytellers need lessons and rudiments, too. We're here to provide a few.
Playwrights speak to actors through their scripts. Knowing how playwrights do that can help actors understand the story and their characters more thoroughly.
Tools playwrights use, of course, include word choices, stage directions, and punctuation.
Take the script of the musical Chicago. After a very brief introduction by the Master of Ceremonies, Velma steps out to sing the opening number, “All That Jazz.” Within the first few bars of the song, lyricist Fred Ebb has chosen some very specific words to give us the setting. She sings, “Come on, Babe, why don’t we paint the town? And all that jazz.”
Who in 2021 understands the very 1920s phrase “paint the town”? It means to go drinking and dancing, of course, all while Prohibition was in place. And jazz, as used in 1920s Chicago, had a broader, racier meaning than just a type of music that many today think of as old and staid.
In the next verse, Velma says, “I’m gonna rouge my knees and roll my stockings down.” Who would put rouge on their knees, and why? Nobody did that in the 1970s when Chicago was written much less in 2021. And who wears stockings anymore to even know what rolling them down could mean? A 1920s woman revealing and accentuating her knees with color was considered to have loose morals, and it was very much a 1920s fad.
At this point, the setting for Chicago is nearly 100 years in the past. The words, especially as paired with John Kander’s music, help us to get there and know what kind of characters are inhabiting this story.
Just after the Master of Ceremony speaks at the top of the play, the script has a spate of stage directions:
(He walks off. A solo trumpet plays, the BANDLEADER counts off the overture. The Scrim rises. We see an onstage ORCHESTRA on a platform suspended from a second level. They are seated above a Center Drum. The LIGHTS come up. The Doors of the Center Drum open, an elevator comes up and VELMA KELLY enters. She walks forward to the audience. The Drum Doors close.)
Most of that was written, of course, by the stage manager of the original Broadway production. How can you tell which parts of stage directions come from the playwright? Look for the essential movements. “He walks off. VELMA KELLY enters.” The playwright might also have included, “She walks forward to the audience,” to help us understand the presentational style they intended for this musical.
You can also look for stage directions that indicate emotion. Check out the notes in parentheses before these lines:
ROXIE. (Nervously.) Yeah, I’m ready.
BILLY. (Gentle for the first time.) Hey, don’t be scared, Roxie. It’ll be all right. I’ve been around a long time, and believe me, you got nothin’ to worry about.
Original stage managers often insert notes about line readings for their own reference so when they rehearse replacement cast members, they can quickly give them the sense of the scene as the director has set it. But, those two parenthetical stage directions may just as well have come from the playwrights because “nervously” and “gentle for the first time” note a change of attitude for both characters, so they could have been indicators inserted by the playwrights to help actors understand that the shift in the scene.
Punctuation also communicates. Look at this line of Billy’s:
BILLY. That’s all! Then I say— “But we can’t do that, gentlemen. You may take her life as the State demands, but it won’t bring Casely back.” That’s always news to them. And then I go into my final statement, winding up ... “We can’t give her happiness. But we can give her another chance.” And that’s all for you.
In that one line, the writers use an exclamation point, a dash, quotation marks, periods, commas, and an ellipsis (three consecutive dots). Each one indicates a pause, but each is a different kind of pause. Each also indicates inflection. For example, a dash often indicates a more absolute stop or a change of direction while an ellipsis usually indicates a gentler pause, a softer segue.
Applying punctuation to the reading of a script is like singing the rests and articulation marks in a piece of music. It gives your actors a sense of the rhythm for this character’s speech. And there’s almost always a reason for any pause, whether comma, period, dash, or question mark.
Listening to the playwright often takes a little detective work, but it can be very useful to really hearing what she or he intended.
Script citations: Chicago, published by Samuel French, Inc., 1976. Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the Play "Chicago" by Maurine Dallas Watkins
Working on a monologue or a solo song? Add this to your consideration as you prepare it.
Where was your character just before he started speaking or singing? What has she told us she wants? With his very first words, what is he trying to achieve? What does he want in the very next minute? Who is she speaking to in this song or monologue? It could be herself, if it’s like “In My Own Little Corner” in Cinderella. Know that.
You need to know your character’s “moment before” as you prepare your monologue or work out your solo, especially if you’re doing it for an audition and not as part of a full production. The directors and college admissions committee members will all know where your character was before you utter his or her first words. Be sure you know, too, emotionally as well as intellectually.
The brightness of the words “Morning glow, morning glow/Starts to glimmer when you know” take on a new dimension when you know that Pippin sings “Morning Glow” just after killing his father. What ripples through him as he sings about a metaphorical brand new day starting with him as king?
Elphaba’s world has just been turned upside down when she starts singing “Did that just really happen” in “The Wizard and I” in Wicked. All of a sudden what’s made her different all her life is not a curse but a blessing. Let your Elphaba explore all the emotions that are driving her as she starts that song.
While this helps for auditions, it also helps in performances. The first time we see your character, he or she has a moment before. That character wasn’t just born as the lights came up. Carry that moment before into your very first actions and words. Then, every time your character has been out of the story and re-enters it, you have to know what she’s bringing with her into that scene. What has he been doing — and feeling — just before coming back through the door or flying through the window?
Your songs, your monologues, your acting as a whole will be richer when you let the moment before drive your emotional explorations for those beginning words.
Try this: sit in a chair or on the floor. Imagine something oozing toward you, something really nasty. Realize what it is. Move. Because you would, right? It's rational to move in that circumstance.
Try it again, but this time you don't realize what this oozing mess is. As it begins to become something identifiable — a toxic chemical, a mass of garbage, blood — let yourself imagine it very specifically. What color is it? What does it smell like? How well can you see it? Did you smell it first or see it first? What is it? As you understand the specifics of this oozing mess, react to them. Let your reaction move you, not the ooze. Once you've moved, let it go. Shake it off.
You may want to try the second part of this exercise a few different times to really let your emotions move you. It should be a reaction, not an action you originate. The difference can be very subtle. You can also try it with other emotions and altered circumstances: joy when you realize someone you love has entered the room, anticipation for a long-sought announcement, anger at someone's abuse of an animal. One of those may make this exercise clearer for you.
Any dramatic story — play, musical, movie, game — is driven by the emotions of its characters. Each character is driven by a desire to change something in their lives: create a relationship, right a wrong, seek power. When the desire (that's an emotion) for change becomes overwhelming, the character has to move, has to do something. That's where playwrights and screenwriters start. Since they create the blueprints for the work of an actor, that's where you should begin, too.
Beginning actors often start with the idea that the words in their scripts are scraps of information, that lines like "I will be queen" or "I want you to marry me" are bits of knowledge the audience needs to understand the story. That's not wrong, but there's more. The writer wrote those words because the character was emotionally driven to say those words at that moment. Words are actions, too. When you deliver the lines written with their underlying emotions, the audience will understand the story intellectually and — better — in their guts. And that's where we want to hit them with our stories.