Sunday, May 27, 2012

Bringing Characters to Life: What That Can Mean

We know that good dramatic writing has something to do with life.

One ("Method") definition of acting as: living truthfully within the given circumstances of the text. Put simply, the actor "lives" the part. The writing must convey a sense that the characters are living human beings. If there's no signs the characters are alive, the actors will have a hard time bringing them to life.

But what does "living" mean here?

  • "Live" how?
  • Where is the "life" in the part?
  • How does it get there?

Briefly: the writer puts it there, and the actors and director find it and use it.

So how does one do this?

What Is "Life"?

When I refer to "life" I mean something at once simple and complex, obvious and subtle.

Being alive is a corporeal, bodily state, as well as the feeling of moving from one state to another. It's a kind of registration in and alteration of consciousness by the impact of physiological states--and vice-versa.

Hence things like:

  • waking up and falling asleep,
  • getting excited, growing bored,
  • being in suspense, anxious,
  • being or growing more or less calm,
  • having the hair on the back of your neck stand up,
  • running for your life,
  • meeting an old friend,
  • meeting an old enemy,
  • falling in love,
  • getting drunk or
  • sobering up,
  • being very hungry or
  • very full--
  • and the like.

This is not a rigorous philosophical definition: it's a rough-and-ready bin to use for practical purposes.

As a writer, you are obligated to give the characters a sense of life. If you're just arranging incidents or using words and actions to convey plot information, you're not really dealing with drama: you're creating puppets to mouth your story.

Little bits of life in a drama are like breadcrumbs for the actors to follow to find your character in the forest of words on the page.

  • Think how often writers have their characters stay up late at night, get drunk, fall in love and the like.

These bits of life make the character humanly-identifiable--hence actable. If you don't put some bits of life in your work, the actor has little to glom onto.

It's not hard to see the life of drama--when experts are at work. The experts are: the writer, director and actor. We can look at a couple of nice examples:

  • a scene in one of George Cukor's films (Travels with My Aunt), and
  • a short scene in All About Eve.

Why These Scenes?

Cukor. Director George Cukor was very expert. His movies include beloved classics, and he had a special knack for eliciting fine performances. Performers under Cukor's direction were nominated for Oscars more than 20 times.

The critical vocabulary for talking about acting is so impoverished that most can't say why Cukor is so good at this or in what his goodness consists. Looking at the issue of "life" in the dramatic text, we can.

One of Cukor's arsenal of tricks was the long take: letting the camera run for a minute or several to really showcase the actors' work.

  • In one sense, the long take shows the actor working in real time. Hence long takes really are bits of living, life laid out across a duration.
  • But in another sense, the long take shows the director's ability to control the actors--even when not using the way a shot's edges 'crop' a tiny moment, pull it out of the flow of life to blend it back into a flow of shots.
    • (The long take is the flipside of the 'shot': not the shot as bounded by edges but the shot as full of something--full of time and life.)

Mankiewicz. With fourteen Oscars nominations and six wins, including Best Picture, All About Eve is well-written, -directed--it got Oscars for those--and well-acted: it had five acting nominations and one win (for George Saunders in a supporting role).

  • Bette Davis was nominated for ten Oscars and won three. She knows her way around a soundstage. (The year of All About Eve, Davis lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.)
In each scene, we can ask:
  • What is the life of the scene? What are its moments? Its changes? Its arcs and curves? (For life has an aesthetic shape as well.)
  • Where are the markers of this life in the text--the dialogue? Where can we see that the actors and director together have interpreted the text to find signs of life they can develop?
  • Finally, what is the story of the scene, the information--as opposed to the life? We need to see this to see what a weaker writer would have put in a scene unsupported by human life.

Tired, Stoned Divulging.

It's late at night. A man and a young woman (a stranger) are drinking champagne in the man's sleeping car. They will smoke some cigarettes, reveal personal details about themselves, and eventually get into bed together (mostly clothed).

Already, you can sense the "life" the actors need to perform: it being late, getting drunk, getting high, the woman getting upset, the man comforting her, the two preparing to sleep--or something.

All this could be acted out with whatever dialogue. It's the life of the scene--or part of it. But the writers added another fun element, and the actors and the director have a helluva good time with it.

(The writers were Hugh Wheeler, who also wrote the books for a couple of Sondheim musicals, and Jay Presson Allen, who wrote Cabaret and Marnie, among other things: these folks know what they are doing. And Cukor worked on the script's development.)

Namely, the young woman brings out some cigarettes. The man thinks they're "American," but the woman says "I got these in Paris." When she takes a drag, it's a tell-tale deep drag. The man asks: "Are these herbal?" And the woman replies: "I don't think so."

Clearly, the two are smoking weed, but the man doesn't know it.

So the actor does some nice things to show that smoking this cigarette is not familiar.

  • He coughs.
  • The cigarette doesn't seem to taste right.
  • At one moment he seems dizzy from the cigarette.
Then the other actor joins in the fun.
  • The pair break out into giggling, even with no clear reason.
  • The dialogue is a bit repetitive, and so they act the hide-and-seek of topics as a function of the two being stoned.

In short, there are cues in the dialogue about the time of day, getting drunk and high, exposing one's private thoughts and feelings, and the director and actors invent details--the funny taste, the slight headache, the giggling--which create the physical life of the characters, and this helps to ground the scene, helps us to understand it humanly.

As information, the scene is slight. But the point is the contrast between the two lifestyles and moral codes.

  • The man's an Anglican. The woman is a kind of daffy rich hippie chick.
  • He's British, and She's American.
  • He's staid, and she's bohemian.

None of this is central to the plot. But the man's transformation is central. And so the man's coming to know a different world and getting stoned without knowing it: these are life experiences that slowly but surely add up to changing the protagonist.

All About Eve

This scene is about 35 minutes into a 2:20 movie. (Don't ask me which 'act' that is.)

The scene consists of actress-diva Margo Channing is awaken at 3 a.m. by a phone call.

At one level, the scene is largely about information: we learn something new, and so does Margo. But Mankiewicz is too good a writer not to have the information land with psychological impact. And Davis is too good an actress to do a scene which is not humanly interesting.

Zoom to 6 min & 4 seconds: Youtube's software won't do this for me.

The operator claims to be placing a call at her behest for midnight California time. Margo knows nothing about this. The other party turns out to be her boyfriend Bill (who's in Hollywood shooting a movie). During the call, Margo discovers:

  • That it's Bill's birthday,
  • that her assistant Eve scheduled the call (and neglected to mention same),
  • that Eve is also planning a welcome home/birthday party for Bill upon his return.
A lot of the work is done through dialogue.
  • Dialogue marks one of Margo's realizations: "Bill, it's your birthday."
  • Dialogue also tells us something about the way Margo says it, because Bill (a director) criticizes her performance.
  • And the dialogue also tells us Margo is not thinking straight: when Bill says "I love you," she replies "I'll check with Eve"--repeating an earlier line about party guests and showing the audience how intertwined the three characters have become, and how unconscious Margo is, in several ways.

The scene ends with Margo lighting a cigarette, and in the next scene she's still in bed--as if perhaps knocked for a loop and still recovering.

So what is the 'life'? Where is it marked in the text? How is it acted?

Very simply, the life of the scene is a woman waking up. She is waking up at two levels.

  • She is woken up, catches on, becomes aware of Eve's treachury, the way Eve's 'mistakes' end up benefitting Eve.
  • And by a clever strategem, the writer Mankiewicz chooses the life of a woman physically waking up.

The writer was the director, and he either told Bette Davis, or she figured out herself: you go from sleeping to wide awake, because the woman learns something unpleasant.

So what Davis acts is: first struggling to stay awake, wanting to sleep. The writer, director and actor here are all on the same page. They mark a clear contrast from being asleep, through struggling to stay awake, to not being able to fall asleep.


You may not choose to weave "life" into your scenes. But it is at least a guarantee you have more than one level in your script--on top of the intricate information you have woven in to reveal character through subtext and actions. And you will also befriend your actor if you can give her some life to embody--life that carries the meaning of the story, too, not just its outer husk.

--Edward R. O'Neill

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