Common Acting Notes
Actors receive countless notes in auditions and on set and, while all of them are intended to strengthen your performance, many of them are hard to interpret into playable action immediately. Some directors or coaches might point out the problem, but aren’t able to name how to solve it. Or, they just don't have the time to break it all down and need you to fix it on the fly. And the onus is on us, as the actor, to translate the note, and implement it at rapid fire.
So let's demystify some of the most common director notes, and translate them into playable actions.
What does it Mean: The director is watching your performance, and isn't finding it believable. The performance doesn't feel grounded and we feel like the character choices being explored are externally put on or forced, rather than centered from your impulses as an actor.
Where to Start: Let go of ‘playing’ at something. If you’ve added a physicality, a vocal choice, or an accent, just drop that, for now. Start with where you are. Start simply. Say the text and mean it. Trust that who you are is enough. When it's time to start upping energy, let it come from raising the stakes, and your need to change your scene partner. Let the bold choices come from reactions to your scene partner, not the ‘actor wants to show off a bold vocal/physical choice’ factor.
IT'S ALL ONE NOTE
What does it Mean: You are playing all the same tactic. Your pace never changes. Your vocal choices land all on the same pitch and rhythm. As a result, we get tired of listening/watching and we check out. Often times, when an actor is committed to only one choice (or isn't aware of other choices), it limits their ability to have any variety in their performance. It starts to feel like playing a 'tone' rather than living moment to moment.
Where to Start: Steer clear of playing 'tones' or making generalities about the scene. Make a list of tactics you can use (even if they don't feel like they make sense in the scene). Come up with as many as you can think of... to Bait, to Persuade, to Shame, to Attack, to Flirt, to Beg, to Tease... Try each line with a new tactic. No choice is off the table or 'wrong.' Re-invest in your scene partner. Put your focus on them. See whether one tactic is working on them and, if at any time it's not working, make yourself change tactics. (Remember: if one tactic doesn't work, why would we keep using the thing that isn't working?) Choose to care and risk more. Surprise yourself. Instead of holding back, or limiting your pallet of options to a tone or quality, introduce the possibility that you don't know what you'll need to do next in order to get what you want. No choice is bad, so long as it helps you get what you want.
PICK UP THE PACE
What does it Mean: It's slow. There are calculated pauses in between lines and you are taking too long to make your points. Words are falling out so deliberately, we aren’t able to see how thoughts connect. We need to get to the meat of the scene sooner. The scene needs to get activated and more engaged.
Where to Start: Imagine your scene partner is going to leave. Create an invisible timer. They’ve given you 30 seconds of their time, and they are literally going to leave and shut the door on the conversation forever. You just put a pressure cooker on. Go for it... you’ve got no time to lose. Use every space of text as an opportunity to speak, even if it's not your line. Fill each moment with impulse: what could you say if only your scene partner might shut up and listen already? Revisit your text, determine what moments in your scene partner's dialogue trigger within you the impulse to speak. Don't wait for your cue line, be fully engaged and fully reactive the moment their actions and words land on you.
TAKE MORE TIME
What does it Mean: We see you jumping line to line, as the text asks you to, but without any reasoning or thought leading into those lines. The text appears to be memorized and knowing and we are looking to build tension or thought or specificity into these moments between these characters.
Where to Start: Forget everything you've planned to do. Put your focus on your scene partner and search them for the answers. Maybe you expect the other person to continue their thought before you have to respond. Maybe you have something else that you want to say but decide against it. Maybe you simply remember the director's note to 'take your time.' Regardless of how you find it, that elapsed time is being filled with real human though and the camera can't tell the difference between an actor in real human thought and a character. So give yourself permission to sit in those moments until you have the thought that leads you into the next text.
BE ANGRIER (or insert other nondescript emotion here)
What does it Mean: We aren’t seeing you be affected. When your scene partner says or does something, you aren’t letting it in; it's not hurting you. You don't seem to care or aren't invested enough. We don't care about your character.
Where to Start: Let go of the need to BE anything. Let go of the scene and end result. Instead, lean in. Lead with being fascinated by your scene partner. Choose to care about them. Make their acceptance/help/support essential to you. Want the impossible. Let down the mask. Let down the collected exterior. Let EVERYTHING in and allow yourself to react and respond fully. Remove the filter. If you've been holding back, if you've been trying to play it unaffected or cool, let that go. Let them see what you really think. Dare and risk to be vulnerable and honest. Hinge on their every word. Get dedicated to the expectation of how you want them to react. Don't give up. Failure is not an option. (Bonus Point: when someone says "Raise the Stakes," this is what they're referring to. Double down on your scene partner and you'll have even more to lose.)
THROW IT AWAY/MAKE IT CONVERSATIONAL
What Does it Mean: We’ve made some strong choices, but we want a fresh take. Or maybe the director can still see the "work." Some of the beats might feel precious, or perhaps like we are making mountains out of mole hills. We’ve got something usable, but now we want to start from an altogether new place.
Where to Start: Trust you are enough. Keep it simple. Allow yourself to say the words, matter-of-factly and trust all your previous work will be infused into the text without having to manufacture anything. You've done the work, now play. Let go of the outcome. Don’t feel like you have to be so careful. Make a choice and let go of it the moment it leaves your lips. Maybe even toy with the idea, that you don’t care. Let it feel off the cuff. Let go of using anything you've pre-planned for the scene. Be impulsive. Irreverent. Be willing to not know what might happen next. Allow it to be effortless. Less contrived. Just say the damn words.
GET ON VOICE
What does it Mean: We might not be able to hear or understand you. Your voice is quiet, shakey, or in a whisper. Your voice is breathy and under-supported. You might be putting on a voice that isn’t how you actually speak in the world.
Where to Start: Breathe low and deeply. Focus on supporting your voice with deep breaths. Try inhaling through the nose, and exhaling on a ‘hmm’. Play with this on several different pitches. Feel how your voice resonates on the hum. Extend the sound and see how long you can resonate before taking a new breath. After some deep breathing, inhale through the nose, and exhale on one line of text. Notice the difference in resonance, and the power of sound when your breath is supported. Another way, pick up the phone, call a friend. Chat. Say hello. Odds are the voice you are using to speak to them is more on-voice than the artificial voice you think serves the character. Just say the words, as you would normally speak.
What Does it Mean: We are losing the punchlines. It's too slow. You are caring so much about getting it right that we’ve lost some of the energy and impulse of the scenes. Your expectations are too narrow, not stark enough to set yourself up for a good bit. Most importantly: You are not having fun.
Where to Start: Let yourself off the hook for being funny. Funny is an audience response. And you can't control that. So just try to tune that out. Next? Shake it out. Stretch out your body, go for a walk -- get yourself OUT of your head and into your body. Your head can’t fix this, but your body has locked away all the answers and impulse. So get ready to listen. Once your body is relaxed/warmed up/and ready to go, get ready to play. Do a speed through. Try running the scene in gibberish. Get ready to just let the impulse take you, and be fearless about letting it go where it will end up. Up the ante with your stakes. Make it even more crucial that you need something, even if before it was only a mild inconvenience. Take it seriously AND be willing to frolic into uncharted territory. Be committed to two things: getting what you want & having fun.
WHO ARE YOU TALKING TO
What does it Mean: After watching your take, we can’t determine your relationship to your scene partner. It’s vague and unconvincing. It feels like you could be talking to a perfect stranger and nothing is at stake. Or you simply don’t seem to care at all what your scene partner thinks of you.
Where to Start: There are a few solves here. One answer is buried in the script. You might have overlooked some details and, as a result, you’ve missed a key element that factors into your dynamic with your scene partner. Revisit the script and make sure you aren’t missing anything.
The other solve rests deep into your own imagination and personalization. We can’t take for granted that we know what ‘father’ or ‘teacher’ or ‘sister’ or ‘wife’ really means. A person can be your wife, but they might also be your safety net. A person might be your father, but they also might be the ball and chain that’s always limited your dreams and pushed you to be realistic. A person could be your teacher, but they might also be your abuser. While we can find a lot buried within the text, we can find even more buried in between the lines. Your job is to make those spaces between the words, those interactions, hold specificity and meaning. When the script fails to go into detail, you must be the inventor of that relationships entire backlog of events. Look at the way your character interacts with this other character: what about their dialogue reveals relationship. Do they trust them? Do they need them? Do they believe them to be a good person? Do they hate what they stand for? Make a bold choice, and get specific about who this person is to you, in this moment. Because, the reality is, that these are ever-shifting dynamics. From beat to beat and moment to moment, someone could be your hero one second, and the most disgusting excuse for a husband the next. Let your relationship evolve and shift as the scene does, and get clear on WHERE they stand in your eyes moment to moment.
IMAGES ARE RUSHED
What does it Mean: Your text contains a variety of lists, images, places, people, and events, and all of them feel the same. Indistinctive and vague. You take for granted the ease of the text because you, the actor, know what is coming next, even though the character does not. Naming each image is coming far too easily, and nothing is at stake or being discovered. You move from one image to the next because the text tells you to, not because of any intuitive impulse has lead you to those thoughts occurring in real time.
Where to Start: Revisit the script. Make a list or highlight in different colors each image, person, event, or relationship you mention. (There should be a lot). Dig deeper. Are any of them connected to one another? Are any of them building or mounting energy to reach a pinnacle? Can any of them be realizations, thoughts that are occurring for the first time to this character? Then, for each image, do full exploration. That might be journaling about the word "studio" or it might be daydreaming about "school" or it might be physically exploring through an improvisation with another actor. Use improv to explore that relationship to your "mother", or what you were like back in "Montana." Don't take a single image for granted. Don't just get clear on who and what each image is, but get crystal clear on your point of view about them. When the image is clear to you, just saying the word telegraphs to your scene partner your exact point of view about what that image means to you. And there is no hiding it. If you name your favorite color, or name a food you hate, or name the town you grew up in, or a sport your parents forced you to play: notice how rich each image is to you? You could go ON at length about any one of these subjects. And that is how our characters should be able to describe each image. Once you've gotten clear, and discovered your full reaction to each with a clear point of view, you can re-focus on your pace, and feel free to speed up or slow down or build or discover within your text as the image leads you to the next.
WORK ON YOUR TRANSITIONS
What does it Mean: We don't understand the logic behind each beat of your scene. If feels like the text exists because you, the actor, have memorized them from the page, and you've not physically experienced how each thought connects and builds to the next. You've also likely not found any external motivation (i.e. are not responding in the moment to your scene partner's reactions) and instead are speaking out of obligation to the writer's text. This might sound like all the same pace and rhythm of speech, and feel like there's a lack of specificity overall.
Where to Start: Do your homework. Ask questions, and get real inquisitive about what is going on for this character. What is fueling and influencing each moment? If you are into script analysis, take a deeper dive into your beat shifts. When your beat changes, its because you have either won that objective, lost that objective, or discovered new information. If your transitions are rough, it might be because you haven't decided which it is. Or it might be because you are failing to acknowledge a loss, or celebrate a win, or discover the new moment during that exchange of text. Also remember, that we can script analyze until our face turns blue but, at the end of the day, the solution is always in our scene partner. Take them in fully, and be constantly aware of whether they are on your side or not. Of whether they are helping our hurting your cause. Let them be what motivates the beat shift. And watch those transitions flow!
It's our job to make sense of direction. Good, bad, or ugly, the directions we receive are intended to help us. It's our responsibility to have our brains tuned into playable action, so that we avoid getting locked into playing mood, or disengaging from what is really happening between us and our scene partner. Get familiar with your own bad habits, and refine your process to minimize the chance for disconnected thoughts, or vague delivery. Dig deep, do the work, and keep focusing on your scene partner.
Clare Lopez is an Actress and Director of Education and Outreach at Book From Tape Acting Studios in Orlando, FL. She is deeply passionate about supporting fellow actors in their craft, and loves using storytelling to educate, elevate, and empower others. Email Clare