“Have you considered suicide?”
My acting teacher asks me this question with unsettling regularity. No, she’s not suggesting I give up. (At least I don’t think she is…) She is simply pushing me to make big choices.
Because I never went to a formal acting program, I would sometimes get confused about the idea of “making a choice.” What does it mean to make a choice? A choice about what? Furthermore – what does it mean to make a “bigger” choice?
Making choices starts with asking questions. The answer to the questions are more or less subjective, and therefore are choices you, the actor, get to make.
Actors can make choices about almost everything. Some of the most important choices an actor can make are:
For example: let’s say you’re doing a scene where you’re at a restaurant on a date. Your first line is, “Wow. I didn’t expect you to say that.”
Here are some questions you could ask:
- What did your date just say?
- How long have you been at the restaurant?
- How long have you been dating this person?
- How has your day been going up until this point?
- What do you want in the scene?
- Is it a fancy restaurant, or a McDonalds?
- What is the subtext of your line?
- What do you want when you say that line?
All of these choices will help you be specific about how you behave, how you talk, how you feel, and what you do in the scene.
The text will often provide you with clues about the *best* answers to these questions. Sometimes the clues will be obvious (i.e. you’ll likely find out what your date just said.) But sometimes the clues will be extremely subtle. (i.e. what do you want in the scene.)
And then there are times when the playwright gives you no clues at all, and the choice is entirely up to you. This is where making big choices really comes into play.
Ordinary vs. Extraordinary
Stories are never about an ordinary day. Think about fairy tales. It’s not “Often Upon a Time.” It’s “Once Upon a Time.” Once! As in: things were pretty boring until one day something really unusual happened.
Your job as an actor is to facilitate this truth about stories and make choices that help you bring to life the extraordinary aspects, or help to heighten the conflict that the storyteller has created.
Actors usually want everything to look easy and effortless. Therefore, they will make casual choices. For example: the answer to the question above “How has your day been going up until this point” could be, “Okay. Not bad.” But “Okay. Not bad” is boring. Depending on where the scene needs to go, why couldn’t the answer be, “Amazing. Best day of my life!” Or (more likely), “Terrible. My dog just died, I lost my job, and I don’t know how I’m going to pay for this meal.” And really good actors are able to make those choices and still have them look easy and effortless.
To reiterate: “Okay. Not bad” = small choice. “Terrible/Amazing. Worst/Best day of my life!” = big choice.
This follows with everything. Why stay at a 6 or 7 when you could go all the way to 11?
“Big Choices” are to acting as “Conflict” is to writing. In writing, stories move forward through conflict. In acting, they come to life through big choices. Comedy is funnier and drama is more affecting when you make big choices.
This takes me back to, “Have you considered suicide?”
Posing this question about a character to an actor pushes her to consider the state of life of that character. If a character has considered committing suicide, everything suddenly becomes a matter of life or death. That character has a big need for things to go well. She’s desperately looking for a way to get through today – a day that will not be ordinary.
Now, certainly this question isn’t useful for ALL characters in ALL stories. I’m pretty sure that nobody in a Neil Simon comedy is considering suicide. Then again, suppose you’re playing Felix in The Odd Couple. Your wife has just left you and you have nowhere to live. Maybe you are considering it.
So, the next time you’re playing a new character ask yourself, “has this person considered suicide?”
Other examples of small choices vs. big choices:
- “I’m breaking up with my girlfriend,” vs. “I’m leaving the love of my life.”
- “I found twenty bucks in my pocket,” vs. “I just won the lottery.”
- “I really don’t like my job,” vs. “I can’t go on like this for another day.”
- “I love cake,” vs. “I want to smear it all over my face I can’t get enough.”
- “I’m broke,” vs. “I’m considering begging for food on the corner.”