Updated: May 17
As an actor, I almost never mark on a script. As a coach, I'm fully against it. I understand there are visual cues that come from highlighting a script or marking beats or scribblings notes in the margins and I cannot argue the benefit of having multiple stimuli for your brain to attach to for easier recall and association. BUT. I simply don’t think it needs to be a part of the process.
These scripts are black ink on white paper. They are a convenient way for the writer to get all of the clues written down to share with you, the person who's going to bring this story to life. (But these thoughts are not meant to live on the page, or else they would be a book and not a script.) The whole game is to get this black ink OFF of the white paper and into YOUR BODY where it can live there and make a home for itself. The more you dabble on the page, the more it gets locked into the page. You are now recalling the scrolling PDF in your brain and thinking about the scene by page numbers and notes in the margins, rather than being in your body and present in the environment.
My concern with locking all of your thoughts into the page is that it combines the work with the play. The work is understanding this scene; connecting to this story so that you may then share it with others. The play is where the magic of the scene happens: trusting that the work you have done is now living in your body so that every thought and impulse you have will still serve the scene and deliver the text. Neither may exist solely on their own... you cannot only do the work because then your performance will be mechanical. And you also cannot jump straight to play because you don't yet understand the scene. Work and play have to co-exist but, if that work is locked into the printed page, the scene becomes intellectual and the brain struggles to keep control during the performance. If the work is discovered in the body, then the body and brain are working in tandem to figure out this puzzle, which then allows the body to take the reigns during performance.
As Anne Bogart and Tina Landau say in The Viewpoints Book, "Action, not psychology, induces emotion and feeling." I have actors come into the studio all the time saying "I have to cry today" and they look like a deer in headlights when they say it. To which I reply, "No, you don't." No one plans to cry. In fact, as people, we actively try not to cry. As actors, we are doing ourselves a disservice by showing up and planning to cry. That is the brain taking over... planning what should be and how we will get there.
When a person cries in real life, their body is in a heightened state. The breath kicks in, their pulse races, their skin becomes clammy, it may be hard to swallow, pain forms at the back of their throat, the area behind their sternum starts to ache, their gaze lowers, and energy swells up the spine through the back of the neck. Even then, the tears may not flow until a new thought pushes them over the edge. When actors focus on trying to cry in a performance, the brain actively fights against it because that is a trauma and the brain wants us to live to see another day. But when an actor already has their body in a heightened state (through pushups, resistance exercises, etc), all the brain needs is 1 thought to surprise it into releasing those tears.
If that thought that pushes you over the edge is pre-planned and written on a page, that is one more roadblock to truly surprising yourself. The brain may have been fooled by that thought the first time, but it won't be fooled again. Instead, work on your feet. Find that heightened physicality and environment. Trust your physical impulses. The brain will automatically add story to what you're doing and, if your body is prepared, the impulse that ripples through your body will in turn surprise your brain, and that is when you will be truly connected to those emotions.
Here’s what I do find helpful: PRINT THE PAGE. This is 100% required. The page needs to be tactile, bendable, tearable, droppable, slappable, foldable, and covered in food stains before you’ve fully explored it.
And here’s when marking a script is crucial: when you’re working on a theatrical piece or a monologue that you want to be able to put aside for a while and come back to it, with notes, and pick up right where you left off. It can serve as a journal for you to keep track of your latest thought processes so that you never lose that clarity. Otherwise, I find it only gets in the way for quick turnaround film auditions.
The way I learned beats, I was in acting school and in rehearsals for stage productions. Marking beats and actions were for scene partners to be able to write down what they discovered during rehearsals so they could remember them the next time they visited the scene a few days later. In Film and TV, the rehearsal and filming are happening simultaneously. The director is coming up between takes and offering suggestions. You and your scene partners are changing beats and intentions with almost every take. There simply isn’t time to write down these beats on the set and my fear is writing them down beforehand only locks you into something that may shift the moment you’re done with your first take.
Connect emotionally on your feet. Find your environment. Know what your character needs. Put it in your body. And listen. And then get out of your own way.
Jordan Woods-Robinson is an Actor and Head Honcho at Book From Tape Acting Studios in Orlando, FL. He challenges his actors to harness impulse as a tool, to trust their guts, to work on their feet, to break rules, and, overall, to make bold choices that make a lasting impression through tape. Email Jordan