February 20, 2019

How to Avoid Giving Actors Line Readings

Don't give your actors line-readings, give them "action-readings."

You can have all the technical know-how you want, but if you don't know how to direct actors then "it don't mean jack, bud." And the first step in learning to direct actors is learning to trust them. When you don't trust them, you're essentially eliminating a collaborator from doing their job on a project.

The most tell-tale sign that you don't trust an actor to perform up to their abilities is giving them a line reading. You know it, they know it, and everything goes out the window. So don't do it. If you've done your part in auditioning and hired a good actor, then they shouldn't need line readings. A line reading is worse, however, because it's nothing more than a quick fix, and you're not getting to the root of the problem.

"When actors throw around the term 'the craft,' what they really mean is the crafting of circumstances that put the actor in the position to act out an emotion when it is called for in a scene."

Instead, directors should make sure actors understand the circumstances that their character has gone through in order to get to the emotional point represented in your scene. You should be asking your actor questions about how they've reached that point in their journey.  If their character is angry, what are the psychological steps that drove them to this place of fury?  

When actors throw around the term "craft," what they really mean is the crafting of circumstances that put the actor in the position to act out an emotion when it is called for in a scene. Anger, especially, is a great example of this because it often comes in the form of a release—a discharge of pent-up feelings that have been generating throughout the action of the film. For the actor, the next step lies in finding the gestures and forms of release that are unique to this particular character’s brand of anger. As always, it has to arise from the character’s personality. How do you foster this growth in your actors?

That's where "actions" come in. Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams, authors of Actions: The Actors' Thesaurus, describe their book as "primarily for actors", but it can be hugely beneficial for directors as well. If your actor is struggling to deliver the performance you want, it'll help you guide them, simply by knowing what you want their character to be "doing" in the scene. By "doing" I don't mean, what they're physically doing in the frame, but "how they are attempting to achieve their objective in the scene." As a director, you have to give your actors homework.

"The action word is a succinct and specific transitive verb which describes what one their character should actually be doing to another character. "

"Actioning heightens the actor's spontaneity, discouraging him or her from monotonously replicating a tone," they insist. If the actor plays a real and specific action on each sentence, it immediately enforces a specificity which can give the actor room to play and lead moments more naturally from one to the next.

As you hopefully know, each actor should have an objective or a desire in the scene that they're playing at trying to get. Actioning offers us an immediate way in doing so.  Ask your actors to go through their script and, for each thought their character has, have them assign a transitive verb that describes what they're doing to their scene partner to achieve their objective in the scene. As the authors say, "One thought. One sentence. One breath. One action."

The action word is a succinct and specific transitive verb which describes what their character should actually be doing to another character. A transitive verb is something that one can actively do to someone else. It is always the present tense and transitional. So an example of all this would be if a character's line is "Would you like a coffee?" the actors objective behind the line, or the transitive verb, would be "to seduce." It could also be, to welcome, dominate, befriend, admire, fear, disgrace, manipulate...the point is that now that line has a clear objective, and they're playing that objective and that action rather than simply saying a line.

The process for the actor is simple. Start by clarifying what the character wants, their objective, and then choose a transitive verb for each sentence which helps the character achieve that objective. If your actor is struggling to do this, then you can do this process for each character yourself. Give your actors an action-reading, not a line reading. Spark their imagination and their impulses and let them figure out the rest.

The book Actions: The Actors' Thesaurus, is essentially a giant list of these transitive verbs and branches of actions that correspond with them. Having them right there in front of you as a director could be enormously helpful when it comes time for rehearsal, or if you don't have time for rehearsal, then while you're on set in the moment trying to work something out with your actor.

I highly recommend every director purchase a copy for themselves, especially those who may not have much experience working with actors.     

Your Comment

2 Comments

As an alternative, my solution is to 100% not hire actors who are so completely full of themselves that they object to a line-reading. If you're an actor who's offended by your director giving a line reading, you have really, really, chosen the wrong career. Auditioning actors are eager. Use that time to tell them that line-readings will be done. can't think of a bigger waste of time than trying to sugar-coat a line-reading. Granted, I have never worked with any top-tier A-list actors, so my trite comment may not apply to you or your situation. :)

February 20, 2019 at 3:46PM

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You can get away with this in commercials.
But I have seen pros leave the set at lunch for people saying less than what you have suggested.

If you ever get lucky enough, to climb the hill into A-List movies, this attitude could be your immediate downfall when you’re “A-list Actor” (Who also may be one of the Producers of the film or T.V.) doesn’t even come out of his trailer because of you.

And, the studio watches the budget balloon.
Yikes!

Or, the actor smiles politely, finishes the day, and then makes the phone call.
Silent & deadly.

It’s a team game, Bro.

Personally, I’d spend more time fighting for control of the edit.
That’s where the film is made.

February 20, 2019 at 5:52PM, Edited February 20, 5:53PM

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B Sharp
Writer/Actor
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