ON ACTING: The Subjective Experience of Character Analysis
Actors often say, when analyzing any scene or script: “Well…my character is ‘blah, blah, blah….” I generally quickly interrupt them: “What character?” I ask. They look at me blankly. “The character on the page,” they say. It is now my turn to look blankly at them: “What character?” They stare; I continue: “You talk as if there were some character on the page.” I hold up their script page for them to look at. “Is there a picture of a person on the page, something that I am missing?” Their confusion continues, often exhibiting concern for my sanity. I continue: “All I see are black and white straight and squiggly lines on a black sheet of paper. I don’t see a character.” A bit of frustration slips into their voices. “The character,” they say patiently and often patronizingly, “the dialogue…the words on the page…” “Oh (I feign a moment of lucidity), you mean your personal interpretation of those straight and squiggly black lines which you have learned to recognize and interpret as words, ideas, implicit feelings underscoring those words, on that otherwise blank, white piece of paper…” They ponder.
This has been a long convoluted way to make a very important point: No script (series of black lines on a white page) will ever be interpreted the same way by the same two actors (or for that matter by the same two audience members). So actors should be warned at the very beginning of script analysis: Stop trying to find the one right (by that I mean definitive) interpretation of a script; it is futile. The actor’s reading of a script is a priori their subjective evaluation of what we call dialogue and stage directions and its interpretation and performance are necessarily unique to that actor.
What the actor is really saying when interpreting a script is: “…according to my knowledge of oral language, represented by that symbolic structure called letters/words on the page--and based on my experience with life and human behavior in general—that is, how people behave by when offering such a verbal discourse, I believe such patterning of black and white straight and squiggly lines of dialogue on a printed page indicates that ‘my character is’ and ‘my character is doing (feeling and saying) this or that’…”
Of course the hope in all drama and dramatic performance is that the actor’s personal interpretation of the black and white squiggly and straight lines will strike a universal chord in the audience (Aristotle called it: finding the universal in the particular) But ultimately all art is subjective; subject to the artist's interpretation.
Great artists embrace that interpretive freedom...and challenge. Lesser artists run away from it. And ask the director: "How do you want me to do this?" Or: "What is the right way to do this.?" The answer is: "Your choice." The director can guide you with suggestions (i.e., his/her own necessarily subjective interpretations) and give you general encouragement, but what the black squiggly lines ultimately MEAN...is up to you...and your knowledge and insights into human behavior; both yours and ultimately the audience's.