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Making Strong Acting Choices; Advice from Master Instructor, John Walcutt

Ever laugh or cry or sigh “ahhh,” because of a commercial, TV show or a movie? Entertainment moves us to consider and feel experiences apart from our own. For actors, moving an audience to giggles or tears begins with matching the scripted part to the performance. By making strong acting choices, the actors draw the audience in to be engaged and focused on the story at hand.  3-2-1- Master Instructor, John Walcutt, shares his thoughts on how to making strong acting choices will lead to your strongest performance yet.

3-2-1- Acting Studios Master Instructor John Walcutt

There might sound like there’s one right way to interpret a script or to act a particular part. Not so! Some plays, movies and stories get retold a dozen times in a decade because actors (and audiences) enjoy a new spin on known characters like King Lear or James Bond, Queen Elizabeth or Spiderman. For an actor, spinning a role in any direction means making choices.

One way to start making choices is to approach the script with different base emotions to see (and feel) how different energy or emotions change the meaning of the scripted words and actions. Stumbling over made-up technical terms in Out of Gas, an episode of Joss Whedon’s science fiction TV show Firefly, actor Alan Tudyk got frustrated. Alan let his anger out in the scene with co-star Nathan Fillion. Suddenly the scene had new energy!

making strong acting choices

Nathan Fillion & Alan Tudyk in Firefly: Out of Gas

That was the take the director liked best and that’s the take that aired. Alan’s character wasn’t written to be royally cheesed off necessarily, but Alan’s irritation was genuine and specific. Alan took the energy of his real feelings and made a choice about his character and the scene. Alan was frustrated, so his character “Wash” was frustrated. And it worked.

There are many “schools of thought” on how to create effective performances. You may have heard of “The Method” and “Method Acting” or “The System” and names like Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, Constantin Stanislavski. These acting coaches and actors-turned-teachers advocated techniques like tapping remembered experience, emotional recall, sense memory, and even acting-out plot or character events the actors themselves might never otherwise consider doing in their own lives. Their shared goal is to help actors get specific about the characters they play. And their shared assumption is that if the actor “doesn’t get it,” their audience won’, either.

Remember Alan Tudyk, botching his lines that meant literally nothing because they were simply made-up?  Alan felt disconnected from his lines and the scene. It was vague, and vague is boring. By making a strong, specific choice, Alan gave his character an emotional stake in the nonsense he was saying and gave his scene partner Nathan something to react to.

3-2-1- Acting Studio’s TV2 course builds an excellent environment for making strong choices, that helps young actors learn how to develop characters, define objectives, and add context to scenes for themselves and their audiences. To practice some of what John describes above, on your own or with a scene partner, try repeating a line like “What time is dinner?” or any other single sentence using as many different meanings as you can. Bark it, moan or whisper, you’ll find you’re making choices about who you are, where you are, who you’re talking to, and why – all elements of our next discussion of how strong performances come from making strong choices and defining character objectives.

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John Walcutt headshot

Firefly image credit

Video Transcription

What we’re going to talk about tonight is an extension of what we started to talk about last week which is making choices. Right? I think I told you, my agent will always ask me when I tell her, “Oh, there’s this great kid in my class. There’s this great kid in my class.” The first thing she’ll always ask me is, “Have you learned to make choices yet?”

We touched on this last week and that’s what we’re going to work on tonight. Anybody can pick up a script and read it  and basically when you do kid acting when you go to Nickelodeon, when you go to Disney, when you go to those places, that’s pretty much what they expect you to do and they’ll coach you a little bit to be funnier, to be broader but once you start reading for other stuff, the stuff the we’ve been talking about, the shows where you going to get a lot of money and as you start to, you know, get more into grown up acting, you’re going to be expected to be able to make choices and what that means is, what we started talking about last week where you could look at material and go, “Hmm, what if I did this? What if I looked at it from this point of view? What if I decided that she is guilty? What if I decided, she’s lying?” When you make choices, your work gets interesting.

The great acting teacher, Stella Adler who taught all, all the great New York actors said, “Talent is in the choices.” and that’s what she meant. Good people make good choices, okay? So when you start to think about how do you make choices, here’s what I want you to think about.

First of all, when you look at a scene, of course you’re going to read it over read it and most of you, I’d say 100% of you right now, the first thing you’ll do is start to memorize the lines. That’s why I’m not handing out this scene yet because as soon as I give it to you, I know 99% of you will start going … and even if I tell you to put it down you’re going to be going …

You know that. I see it happening every single time. The lines are only ten percent of a scene, right? We talked about that. The other 90%  is what’s underneath, that’s where you have to make choices so here’s how I want you to think about. Once you read through a scene and you start to get an idea of what it’s about, understand it. The first thing I want you to ask yourself is, “Who am I? Who am I in this scene.? and if you just say… if you make a choice like, “Okay, I’m a girl.” Well that might be an interesting choice for me but for most of you, it’s not going to be an interesting choice. It has to be more specific. I’m a girl who has issues with her dad. I’m a girl who wants to drop out of school because I can’t stand my teachers. I’m, I’m competitive. I’m angry. I’m, I’ve low self esteem. I’m happy-go-lucky, cheerful optimist.

You make the most interesting choices you can. We call them Hot Choices so that, so that the scene starts to pop. So never say, “I’m just a girl.” Never say, “I’m just her friend.” Always make it as interesting and developed and complex  as you can. So first thing you ask yourself, “Who am I?” Second thing you ask yourself, “What do I want?” What do I want in this scene, what is my objective?” And always make it about getting something from the other person, as simple as possible and it can change from line to line. Objectives change so I want to make you smile. I want to make you cry, I want to scare you, I want wake you up, I want you to say,”I love you.” I want you to laugh. Those are all choices and they determine how you’re going to say your lines

If I say, “Michelle, your hair looks great today.” That means one thing. If I say, “Michelle, your hair looks great today.” That means another thing, just based on what I want so who are you? What do you want?

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