Beginning at Step Four of the Basic Acting Unit

Beginning at Step Four of the Basic Acting Unit_550
Photo Credit: Bruce Guenter 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.
Sometimes it can be helpful to focus for a moment on what just happened to your character before moving forward to the first thing s/he wants. It reminds you that you are coming from somewhere in a very specific sense and what just happened would naturally colour what the character wants and what s/he does to realize that intention.
In a sense you must start with Step 4 of the Basic Acting Unit (BAU) when you are starting a scene.
And starting correctly is everything. You don’t have time to start out confused about what you’re doing and catch up later.
Why? Because there is no intention without a prior event. Of course, Step 4, the ‘reaction’ only pertains to a preceding event with a person. If the event involves a car or a building or being late for work, it is not a ‘reaction’ that you’re dealing with, but a physical circumstance. Other than that you are still dealing with “step 4 or the equivalent”, because what it causes is your first intention for the scene, which leads to the first realisation, etc…….
Since every scene starts in the middle of the character’s life (unless it starts from before birth – haven’t seen that yet, but I’m sure I will) the actor has to account for the “first action” he or she is going to take in the scene. Once started, it’s less of a problem because events and responses will continue throughout the scene. But how do you get the original intention with which you enter the scene? It is only from the “preceding event” that takes place immediately before the scene that the logic of the scene can be revealed. And starting correctly is everything. You don’t have time to start out confused about what you’re doing and catch up later.
So if you are entering the scene to “warn the other person that there is a fire next door” and get them to “get out as quickly as possible”, it would be worthwhile to get in touch with where the fire is, how big it is, what it would be like to have just run from the fire and how that makes you feel, before running in to warn the other person in the scene. Otherwise you would have only a general or generic notion of why you’re there, and you will likely find yourself “acting out” how you feel since you had given yourself no basis for the initial feeling of fear and panic.
It has to be there before you enter, and it should propel you into the scene.
In this context, how can you enter without some sort of emotional preparation based on the preceding circumstance, even if you are so brilliant that all you need is the suggestion of what happened to get your emotional response. You certainly need at least that. It wouldn’t make sense to think that you could stroll into the scene, obviously, and when you make contact in the scene suddenly get in touch with the fact that you’re coming from the fire. It has to be there before you enter, and it should propel you into the scene.
This is true with every scene. How can you enter truthfully from “nothing”?
In “Crimes of the Heart”, one sister enters with the idea of getting the other sister to help her prepare the birthday cake to celebrate the third sister’s surprise party. What she finds when she comes in is the second sister with her head in the oven attempting suicide. The scene would of course make no sense if the first sister ignored the fact that her little sister was attempting to kill herself, and went on preparing for the party! But on the other hand, the scene doesn’t work if the sister doesn’t come in all happy and excited about her preparations, only to immediately find herself in a totally different situation, forced to change on a dime. That’s the essence of the scene, and without full preparation for what she DOES expect, the impact of what she actually finds is diminished.
Adapted from writings by Mark Paladini and Robert Epstein
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