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  • Sonya Cooke

You Know Too Much: Unlearning as an Actor

You know too much. The moment you pick up a script, you should immediately realize that you already know more than your character, who has no idea how the dialogue will play out or what consequences may come. It’s called “playing the end,” when actors unknowingly make choices that coalesce around the final outcome of the scene. The word to stress is unknowingly,which is curious because there is nothing shocking about the idea, “You know more than your character.” Of course you do… you are acting with a script. And yet, this “playing the end” syndrome impacts actors of all levels of training and experience. When I tell my graduate actors that they know too much, they look at me cross-eyed, typically surprised that they unwittingly fell prey to this affliction. Yet, when you start your process with the clear understanding that you know too much already, you can craft choices that hem in the awareness of the character.

Relating this to our own abilities and awareness brings the point into clarity: When I walk through my day, I can only see through two tiny holes at the front of my head. My sight is li.mi.ted. I can only see so far, because my sight is determined by time and space. Right now, it is evening, and I am in my sunroom typing away. I cannot see what may come at 11pm if the baby wakes up, or at 9:30 when I know my husband will finish teaching. I cannot anticipate what grief or joy may come tomorrow, thank goodness. My blindness is my strength. It allows me to be in the moment, naïve as I am. It also allows me to be specific: my experience flows directly from the hum of the baby monitor, the whispers of voices from the living room as my husband teaches his class, and the internal pressure to commit my thoughts to words. My emotional life, behavior, physicality, and action all obey my circumstances and intent.

If we apply what we equip ourselves with in life, then the antidote lies in the use of Sequence Circumstances and Objectives. The actor crafting the character starts off with the puppeteer’s perspective, high up and capable of an omniscient view. The key to removing the 20/20 bias is to sync into the peepholes of the character and limitwhat they see. How do you do that? By first specifying Present Circumstances. What is happening right now to you (as the character)? Fill your experience with details and you will less likely see the shifts and game-changers in the scene coming down the pike.

Try this: determine what is news in the scene. What does the character discover or learn, and be as specific as possible. Discoveries don’t have to be a big deal, either. They could be tiny happenings that help to punctuate one present moment from the other. That being said, make sure to identify the big happenings in the scene, and when they are all clear to you, do this: set your attention on the opposite or, at least, on something entirely different. For example: if you know, as the actor, that your boyfriend in the scene is going to break up with you, set your attention on the romantic evening you have ahead of you. In other words, focus on the Future or Potential Circumstances that are likely to happen. The further they are from the actual events of the scene, the greater the discovery, disappointment, or surprise. Do this even with the smaller details in the script. In the same scene, your boyfriend comes home after school; you will sit down together to have some take-out you just had delivered to your door. This is going to be a nice meal together. Sink into this moment, anticipate the conversation to come. Then, all of a sudden, he gets a call, and he takes it, interrupting your private time together. We haven’t yet arrived at the big change that happens in the scene, but we are using our technique to carve out as many detailed moments as we can. Don’t anticipate that your boyfriend will be distracted by the phone call. Doing so would temper the emotional journey of the scene and dampen your ride through it.

Lastly, employ specific Objectives in your scenework. In this moment, you need to get the cork out of the wine bottle, next you need the utensils, and after that if you don’t take a bite of something immediately your boyfriend is going to lose a finger. The more you determine Line Objectives or Episode Objectives, the more effortless your immersion in the present moment. Giving yourself a multitude of choices shouldn’t weigh you down either, as you should only experience one at a time, casting off the former as soon as you reach the latter, and so on. I never insist that my actors come up with Scene Objectives, as they can often predetermine what is going to happen in the scene, and therefore predispose the actor to know too much. For instance, if you decided that in this scene you need to save your relationship, then you may anticipate his breaking up with you three-quarters in. Scene Objectives are only useful when they don’t expose the actor to too much sight.

The key is delay, delay, delay. Only realize things at the last minute. We all know what that feels like in life, so we must submit our characters to the same angst. Put off knowing the knowings in the script. Become blind first before gaining vision again. Do that by making specific and limiting choices about what you experience and what you want moment-by-moment. By doing so, your performance will be more believable, as nothing is more human than not knowing what waits around the corner.

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