What follows here is referred to by the students in class as “The Checklist”. It has evolved over my years of teaching as a series of tools any actor can use to help approach their work on a scene. A very successful actress who has been a student of mine for a long time insists she uses this checklist on every gig she gets. It is not strictly necessary to dwell upon the entire checklist every time you work–any one of the tools may be the one that unlocks a scene for you.
–Milton Katselas, Acting Class, Take a Seat
1. What is the event?
What’s going on in this scene? Not the theme. Just what’s going on. Have I experienced anything like that? Yeah. And how did I behave? Some ideas there. Okay.
Am I on fire? Are the choices hot enough, alive? This scene is loaded. The stakes are high. Am I ready for that, or do I need to assume the position? Okay.
What am I doing physically in this scene? I can’t allow myself just to sit here and say lines. What else can I do to be more alive? Push-ups? Clean the room? Put on makeup? Okay.
4. Physical/Emotional State
Am I drunk? Enough? Do I feel sexy? Am I drugged, in pain? Or am I supposed to be feeling great? Just had good food, feeling exhilarated? Am I really nailing this? And is the state consistent throughout the scene? Is it cold the entire time? Or do I warm up during the scene? How do my emotions vary in the scene? I’ve got to figure that out specifically. Okay.
5. What happened before the scene?
Did I just finish the New York Marathon? Did I just get fired? Is it raining outside? So am I wet? Out of breath from the stairs? And how does that change now that the scene has begun? Am I tracking that clearly and logically? Okay.
6. Creative Hiding
Can I play part of the scene into the tablecloth? Weep into it? Play with my hat as I woo her? Or play the sunset instead of her eyes? Can I be freer through fiddling with the scarf? Okay.
7. Be a person
Am I like an actor on a stage or am I like a person? My character is a person. Is my behavior coming from the real life of the character? Am I just trying to be emotional, or am I a person trying to control their emotions, as on the six-o’clock news? Okay.
8. Inner and Outer Life “The Cover”
Play the clown for her and pretend the pain inside is nothing? Or play the pain more and less charm? Get more personal and specific with inner turmoil? I know I’ll lose her– feel that? Or play more the social, easy behavior and attitude and let the inner pop out later, surprise myself and them? I need to ensure I’m not “playing the cover” without anything cooking underneath. Okay.
9. Who’s the author?
Who wrote this? Woody Allen? Bertolt Brecht? Tennesse Williams? What is this author after? What is his or her specific point of view on life? What is her style? What is his sense of humor? What other works are there by the author? Have I read them for clues? Okay.
I’ll pretend I’m going to marry Ophelia, and we’ll improvise my proposal and see where that takes us. Shakespeare’s language is tough– let me say it in my own words for a while, then get back to the Bard. Let’s improvise the first night of our honeymoon, see what that does for the scene. Or just be silent for a while, let hte scene be within us. Loose and easy, don’t push for the scene. Okay.
Am I using humor? People use humor all the time to deal with hardship– am I doing that? Is it too much to suddenly act lIke Noel Coward, as Brando did at the end of Last Tango in Paris? Cover that pain with a put-on, humorous. English accent? Joking with her? Yeah, that can work. All the great performances have humor, they have charm, they have irony. Okay.
So I believe in my choices? Am I having fun? Am I confident in what I’m doing? I know it will be there, I will make it be there. I’ve got my choices. I understand this guy. Let’s go. Okay.
13. Being Personal
Am I personally involved in this scene? Am I telling the right story? Being personal doesn’t mean I decide the character is from my hometown. This needs to cost me something: My emotional involvement.
How sick is this character? How compulsive? Am I giving in to the violence? I have some seed of this in my life. Use it. Expand on it. Remember, he will do anything to possess her. Okay.
The character wants to be king, don’t deny it. Do I want it enough? I know what it means to want something. Go for it. Remember, at any cost, he wants to seduce her, so am I doing all I can to get her? Caution is not my friend. Okay.
Is this my Hamlet, personal and specific? Do I have the father? Is he real to me? The image of my mother in bed with my uncle– do I have that? It’s late at night. Do I have the specific feeling of late at night; not tired, but hyper? The choice of Hamlet’s angry explosion, do I have that nailed? Really? Okay.
17. Use of Objects
Am I using physical objects to connect myself with this environment? Maybe some of my own personal objects will make me more comfortable. Or how about one that has more emotional value for me? Yeah, let me use one of those. Any inner objects I can think of that will help me connect with moments in the scene? Okay.
18. Arbitrary Choices
Kazan says, “Character is revealed through contradiction.” What inner struggle is my character going through that might be revealed through an arbitrary choice? Some kind of illogical choice that actually fits the truth of this guy? Okay.
19. Moment to Moment: Belief
Can this scene be tracked? Am I responding to things moment to moment? Am I really listening, taking the time to respond as a person would? Am I discovering each moment as it happens? The more I experience, the more I’ll believe, and the more I believe, the more I’ll experience. Okay.
20. Moment to Moment: Alternatives.
The script says my character leaves his wife. But have I explored the opposite? That he stays? Maybe he tries to stay, but at the last second he can’t. Real people go through tough decision making before choosing the way to go. So as an actor, I need to go through that process, even though the final action has been determined by the author. I have to participate in the process. That needs to be part of my performance. Okay.