Reading The Actor’s Score – An approach to the script

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Photo Credit: Toshiyuki Imai via cc
We are delighted to republish Prof. John Palmer’s ‘Theatre Briefs’ series, Actor Hub hope you find them as useful as we have.
This series of short essays about acting is reprinted with the kind permission of Professor John P Palmer of London, Ontario, Canada. He wrote these ‘Theatre Briefs’ for use by students and fellow actors during classes and rehearsals. Where he has relied on material from others, they are cited.
(Ratso laughs with Joe, almost spilling the soup. Joe reaches to steady it.)
These simple actions, described by the author in simple declarative sentences, are the notes and chords the actor is asked to play in the scene. It’s why the script or screenplay is often called THE ACTOR’S SCORE. The actor is not obliged to follow this score note-to-note, of course, but s/he should always respect the author’s parenthetical instructions. They are there for a reason, a reason that can often help the actor find the hidden intentions in the script. Let’s look at the next parenthetical.
(Ratso speaks hesitantly.)
The adverb “hesitantly” specifically modifies the verb “speaks.” Speak is a common and not very interesting verb. What does that adverb mean to you as an actor? The dictionary describes “hesitate” in three ways as 1.a. To be slow to act, speak, or decide. b. To pause in uncertainty; waver. 2. To be reluctant. 3. To speak haltingly; falter…. These are clues given to the actor. Does Ratso speak hesitantly because he is sick, or because he is slow to act? If we choose to think of it in the second way, the reading of the next line takes on a certain significance.
4Ratso:“By the way, thanks for all the crap. . . (Then) Hey, Joe:, don’t get sore about this or anything. You promise?”
What is Ratso’s intention which is spoken in a falteringly. Is it “I want to apologise”? Apologise for an earlier intention “I want to criticise you.”? You’ll notice that both Joe and Ratso joke about the precious medicine and warm clothing calling it “crap” or “shee-it.”. Therefore, it is possible that the realisation of the intention to apologise begins “in a joking fashion”? That adverbial modification colours the actor’s reading.
In the midst of the line, the author inserts the parenthetical (Then), which, in the actor’s score, is like indicating a PAUSE for the orchestra.
That pause usually means that there is a change in indication. It might be:
(4a) I want to APOLOGIZE in a joking fashion
followed by (second part)
(4b) I want to APOLOGIZE seriously.
Perhaps only the first part of the line is read in a halting fashion? It is the actor’s choice to decide which is right for the moment.
Now Joe has an interesting response to that. A chord, a single note:
One word. What is it intention? How is it realised? If we think of it as the BAU (Intention, Realisation, Response and Reaction) then we will see that Ratso’s intention was to apologise, which he realised by speaking in a joking and then serious fashion. What then is Joe’s response to this? Is he embarrassed, is he profoundly touched, does he pretend to dismiss it? As always. There is no one way to play the moment; there are many. His intention might be “ I want to agree” or ‘‘Dismiss” or ‘Accept” or “‘Change the subject.” Actor’s choice.
Now Ratso speaks:
5Ratso:“Well, I don’t think I can walk. (Embarrassed) I mean, I been falling down a lot and, uh…”
A change in colour again. Ratso is no longer apologising in a joking or serious fashion, he is now confessing. The new intention therefore might be “ I want to confess” or perhaps “I want to open my heart to you.” Depending on the actor’s choice, the realisation (the way you speak and move) will be affected accordingly.
Ratso pauses without finishing
5Joe:“And what?”
Joe’s intention might be: “I want to discover the truth,” which is realised verbally by speaking the two-word sentence, #5.
6Ratso:“I’m scared”
At this point in the score Ratso’s intention— “to confess my condition” – continues for a number of lines, with Joe urging his friend on.
6Joe:“What of?”
7Ratso:“What’ll happen. What they do to — I mean, I don’t know — what they do with someone that can’t — shit, you know what I mean”
8Ratso:“The cops, the medicares, who knows? I gotta lie down.”
By line #8, Ratso has completed his task, which is to confess to his friend his fear and trepidation, not only the fear of sickness, but of what sickness means. Doctors, hospitals, operations. Death.
We are focused again on the major obstacle to Ratso’s Super-Objective (“I want to escape to Florida”), which is the subtext that has coloured everything he has said or done in the scene up until now.
This opening of emotion creates a serious of physical actions, which the screenwriter describes vividly with a series of carefully chosen verbs and adverbs:
(Ratso is trembling so violently that the soup slops over. Joe takes it, lifts Ratso and carries him to the bed. Scowling, alarmed, Joe places the medicines on the bed beside Ratso and picks up his hat)
Trembling. Slops. Carries. Picks up.
Strong, actable verbs and adverbs that the actor can or cannot choose to play.
But before he discards them, they should be studied for their intention. It has become fashionable in recent years to cross out or ignore these parenthethicals because, as some claim, they tend to limit the actor’s creativity. I am not of that school.
These carefully chosen notes and chords are often the key to action. An attentive study of the score, note by note, chord by chord, rarely closes the door to the actor. Quite the contrary. They open his/her imagination to endless possibilities for dramatic action.
Note from Prof. Palmer
I attach quite a bit of weight to the parentheticals if I know they were put there by the playwright; if I suspect they were added by the publisher who had someone watch a performance to provide stage directions, I still attach some weight because, after all, it is a useful bit of information.
I enjoyed messing about with scores and instrumentation when I conducted the Blyth Festival Orchestra. Some of it was necessary because we didn’t have the instruments called for in the scores. Other times it was to accentuate something that suited the orchestra’s relative strengths or my own tastes.
Based on work by Norman B Schwartz
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