Five Phrases That Trigger An Actor’s Performance

Photo by Lars P.

Here are some code words in the actor’s vocabulary:

Raise the stakes.

This also means, “Commit to your intention more strongly.” Make the scene more important. Care more. Make a bigger deal out of it. Sometimes an actor’s energy is just a little down. All you have to say is “Raise the stakes,” and they get it. You don’t need to give them a lecture on where the character has been in the previous scene or the emotional point of view. Just say, “Raise the stakes” and they’ll say “Oh, okay,” and the scene will be exactly what you needed. If they don’t understand how much you’re asking them to raise the stakes, you can give it to them in numbers: “I’d say that was a five, and I’d like it to be an eight or nine.” Though that may sound nebulous, it’s a way for an actor to understand to what degree you want them to adjust his performance. On the next take, you may say, “Okay, you moved it up to a six. But I still think you can go stronger. I’d like to see it be an eight or nine.” And now they know what you want.

Find peaks and valleys./Find more colors.

Use this when the scene is sounding all the same. Vocal inflection is flat. Don’t ever, ever give an actor a line reading. Don’t tell them where you want the emphasis. Just tell them, “Find more peaks and valleys” or “Find more colors,” and they’ll do it and probably surprise you with stuff you hadn’t even foreseen. After all, you’ve hired wonderful actors who are excellent at what they do. Let them do it. Don’t dictate to them every little nuance. Tell them what you’re looking for, but not how to do it. Tell them the shape of what you’re looking for and guide them and steer them if necessary, but please respect their craft.

Who has the power?/Who’s winning?

The third code phrase, “Who has the power?” or “Who’s winning?”, challenges the actor to not only play his intention stronger but make sure that the character gets results. This phrase will often make actors pay closer attention to their scene partners and then notice a shift in the scene when their character gains or loses the power. You can even use the analogy of boxing. Ask the actor to notice who is getting in the jabs and who is winning the round.

What’s the new information?/What do you find out?

These phrases remind actors that their character makes a discovery in the scene. And you don’t want to tell them what that discovery is. You do want them to listen and be in the moment (freshly aware) when that new information is revealed and see how it affects the scene. When the actors notice the shift and reacts accordingly, it makes the scene more dynamic.

What if your character has this secret . . . ?

Finally, “What if your character has this secret . . . ?” is a way for you to add some color to an actor’s performance. Of course, you have to suggest something that fits with the character you already know. It shouldn’t be a story point because the secret will never influence the outcome of the story, but it will shade the scene in an interesting way.

Excerpted from Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing by Bethany Rooney and Mary Lou Belli © 2011 Elsevier Inc.  All rights Reserved.

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