Somewhere out there, somewhere magical, where everything is just so, there lies the sweet spot regarding the issue of actor behavior in a scene. My definition of this sweet spot: “Physical action enough to lend logic to the premise of the story, its location, the specifics of the characters and the scene, without veering unnecessarily towards excessive wandering, tinkering, dusting, wandering, clothes-changing, makeup-applying, wandering, trash-disposing, stuffed-animal cuddling, drink-making mania.”
Behavior should serve to give a patina of observable logic to something that should already be true (but is in fact often false). So unfortunately I’m too often witness to scenes where the communication is unclear, or wrongly evaluated, or inappropriate to the style of the piece, but boy oh boy oh boy….. Look at that set! Look at the stuff! Look at the actors move over there. And then over there. And then back again. And then sit, but then to rise again. Look at the actor walking backwards!
You could have a set designed to the nth degree, with furniture and glassware and rugs and doors and baubles galore, but if the communication sucks between the actors, no set will save us from the misery. Conversely, if the communication between the actors is honest, vivid, passionate, and clearly conveys the story to the audience, then very few will much care about the set and where you walked during the scene.
Too often I am seeing actors wandering around their sets without a purpose other than to get an “A” in behavior. The emphasis here is without a purpose. Are you moving because there is a task to execute? Is the task logical to the premise, setting, and events of this scene? Or are you moving because you’re panicked that you haven’t moved in a while? If the script says you need to get the other character a drink, then have at it – go pour a drink, bring it back. But lately I feel a simple task like that becomes… walk to the bar, muse over which glass to use, polish it with your sleeve, look at your sleeve, have a moment (‘I made the choice that my first girlfriend gave me this shirt’), pause to choose which bottle of booze, open it meticulously, pour, sniff, pour again, wipe up a drop that spilled, start walking back, reverse course, pick up napkin, bring napkin with glass across stage…
So behavior can be your friend or your enemy – if it’s impeding the flow of the script, it’s the latter. That’s why when I come in to help out on a scene in the rehearsal process, or even during a critique, I’ll often just have the actors sit in chairs several feet apart and read the damned scene without all the behavior. When I direct a show, we’ll spend 2-3 weeks sitting in chairs reading it aloud before I block a single move. If the story doesn’t come alive in chairs, it ain’t gonna happen anywhere else. Romeo and Juliet should be passionate, funny, wild and tragic in two chairs, or else all the vine-climbing in the world will just be a waste of time.
Now this may all seem to be sacrilegious, as “Behavior” comes early on Milton’s famous Checklist For Takeoff, and anyone who ever was directed by him knows that you often had so many tasks to execute that you didn’t have time to think about acting, which was often quite beneficial to the proceedings at hand. But the behavior was linked to a logic, and it assisted the event without becoming the event. And yes, behavior can be linked to imagination – I’ve written before about a scene some students once performed from The Hobbit, where they were fantastically imaginative about the set and characters and how everyone interacted. You want to set Romeo and Juliet in a surreal underwater universe? Go for it. Behave away – in accordance with the logic of that underwater concept. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is some crazy bi-polar deal – the aimless wandering without a purpose, and its evil twin: excessive OCD-like behavior that ends up distracting from the scene, its event and the flow of the language.
So fear not, this isn’t some revisionist anti-behavior departure from the norm, and we still bow our heads before Mr. Kazan and his dictum that the job of the actor is to turn “psychology into behavior.” I would just advise nailing the communication before you obsess about behavior. It’s a matter of sequencing. Early rehearsals – set up a couple chairs 15 feet apart (so you can’t mumble) and let the script fly for a while, really get at it. You’ll find there’s plenty of work to do there.
And then there’s this little inconvenient fact: It is very unlikely that behavior will be a part of your getting the job. Getting jobs will involve sitting in a chair, or standing on a mark, talking to a reader or talking to a camera, and summoning the event of the scene, its evaluation, the style of the piece, and doing it clearly and consistently over many auditions. Behavior will not be a part of getting the job, and yet in proper measure is part of fulfilling the job.
Life’s a bitch.