Basketball players play basketball games. Musicians play songs. Actors work on scenes.
Scenes are the primary building blocks of television and film. And it is through scenes that actors build their skills, techniques and chops. Actors work on scenes for classes, performances, table reads, casting opportunities, representation opportunities and to keep themselves sharp as artists. So how do you choose an awesome scene to work on?
Let’s start with some FAQs about Story and Scripts.
Q: How long should my scene be?
A: There is a great benefit to working on short scenes, medium-length scenes and longer scenes. In general, I think that beginning actors and actors who aren’t going to spend a lot of time with a particular scene are best served by working on shorter scenes. **It’s better to dig deeper on a short piece of work than it is to practice mediocrity on a longer scene.** Specificity and detail-oriented work is the key to mastery in most crafts and professions. Acting is no exception. So be real about the time, energy and effort you’re going to put into a scene.
If you’re choosing a scene to show a casting director, agent or manager, follow their guidelines on what they want to see, and if none are provided, trust that a one or two-minute scene is all it takes for them to understand your casting and abilities. If they want to see more, they can always ask.
Q: Should I work on a comedic or dramatic scene?
A: I’m a big advocate for improving yourself in all areas so that you are a well-rounded actor. Think of it this way…you’re probably not looking to “get a job.” Most professional actors are looking to “get a lot of jobs.” Some even call that “having a career.” In order to string together several jobs, you will probably need to string together several different skill sets.
Baseline acting ability is looking/feeling/sounding like a truthful human being under imaginary circumstances. Good acting = truthful human behavior. Off that baseline, there are many genres with many different technical requirements. Chuck Lorre, Shonda Rhimes, Aaron Sorkin, Yorgos Lanthimos, Lena Waithe, Greta Gerwig, Ryan Murphy, Cary Joji Fukunaga and Kenneth Lonergan are all writing very different “truths” of the human experience. All are valid. All require a specific skill set from the actors.
Some writers write scripts that are near-exactly how humans talk, interact and behave. Some writers write scripts that are how humans would talk, interact and behave in an idealized world. Some writers write scripts that are almost entirely non-verbal and incredibly visual. Some writers write scripts that are deep dives into verbal communication and psychological revelations. Why not embrace them all and see what resonates with you? Work on dark humor, multi-cams, psychological deep dives, visual storytelling, poetic writing and single-syllable grunting. It all has a place. It all has an audience who needs these stories told.
Q: What makes a scene satisfying to watch?
A: Let’s take on the audience’s perspective for this one. Audiences really like a beginning, middle and end. They like a scene to end in a different place than it began.
ASSESS: Audiences like to watch characters assess a situation, figure out what’s going on. “What do you mean my kid didn’t go to school today? I dropped him off this morning…”
DEBATE: Audiences like to watch characters in tough circumstances, debating what they’re going to do. “Should I go down into the dark basement to investigate that weird noise even though there seems to be a rash of basement murders on the news? Or do I go get my neighbor?”
CHOOSE: Audiences like to watch characters make solid choices. “You know what? I quit this stupid job. And I’m going to burn this building to the ground on my way out.”
ACTION: And audiences like to watch characters take action. “Here I go…I’m going to ask you to the prom…”
Other scene elements sure to delight even the toughest critics?
- Characters making discoveries, getting surprised, changing direction, experiencing life-changing moments that are irreversible, humorous moments, true heartfelt vulnerability and opposites at work.
Q: When I’m trying to give a casting director, producer, director, agent or manager a sample of my work, What should I avoid when picking a scene?
- A scene with no stakes that looks like two people chatting.
- A scene with no stakes that looks like two people arguing but they don’t really care if they win the argument or not.
- A scene that is supposed to be funny but it’s not.
- A scene with such complicated circumstances that I don’t understand what’s happening.
- A scene with sexuality that seems gratuitous and just a way for you to show off your body.
- A scene that is obviously and awkwardly miscast.
- A scene about an accent, a mood or a uniform — anything an actor is “reaching for” and is not truthfully connected to.
- A very famous or well-known scene that makes everyone think about that movie/tv show/actor who originally played the part.
- A scene that features too much screaming, yelling, obscenities or crying.
- A scene that really needs the buildup or the context of a larger story to have an impact or “pay off.”
- A scene that is way too long.
- A scene that doesn’t follow the guidelines you’ve been asked to follow.
- A scene that is not thoughtfully prepared.
Q: What is your number one piece of advice for choosing a scene?
A: Choose something that lights you up. Choose something you care about. choose something you are in alignment with. And work on it like it matters because it does.