This weekend, I was re-reading Shurtleff in order to talk about some of his guideposts in “People-triggers”. As I was reading, a single point became excruciatingly clear as Shurtleff highlighted it over and over: 99 out of every hundred actors never move beyond a one-dimensional reading of the script, and 50 out of every hundred never even understand the single dimension correctly.

Michael Shurtleff

Playwright and Casting Director Michael Shurtleff

Usually in any given script, the negatives are obvious and the positives are between-the-lines. Drama is written and friction and confrontation, so the most overt elements of a script are the fights and impulses to separate. The characters are deadlocked and hate each other, and that’s all there is to it.  When most all actors fail to realize is if that were the complete and total picture, the characters would simply turn off and walk away, and the scene wouldn’t actually happen.

Here’s a quoted conversation that Shurtleff portrays between himself, and the actor playing Frankie from Birdbath. Note how the actor takes only the obvious, negative elements of the dialog as his guidance:

MICHAEL SHURTLEFF: Why did you ask [Velma to come back to your apartment]?

FRANKIE: I felt sorry for her.

MS: So you’re just doing a good deed?

F: Yeah.

MS: There’s nothing in it for you?

F: Maybe I’ll feel better because I helped out this poor kid.

MS: So you’re Florence Nightengale? Always beware of choices that make you into an angelic, helpful nurse. Of course, we do things for other people, but there’s got to be something in it for us, too…Why her? Why particularly Velma?

F: She happens to be there cleaning up the tables when I close up the restaurant for the night.

MS: The choice of “happens to be there” is never a good one. It’s circumstantial, it’s not a strong choice, it never helps the actor. You’ve got to find a reason why you chose that person. You did ask her to come home with you, so you did choose her.

You see how this bonehead picked up only on the negatives which are obvious from the dialog? I don’t really like her. She’s convenient. She happened to be there. I’m not interested in anything about her. I’m just doing her a favor. Yes, those thoughts are technically justified by the dialog, but do not nearly begin to describe what’s actually going on in the scene between them. Very rarely in life so we spend time with people we couldn’t care less about. Even if we have a frictional family, if there’s not something that’s making you spend the time with them, you would simply refuse to see them.

Birdbath, at Trap Door Theatre

Birdbath, at Trap Door Theatre

Further, humor is usually not present in the words of dramatic dialog (I mean humor of disposition, not jokes). Actors usually think that humor on stage begins and ends with the jokes in comedies that the audience is supposed to laugh at. Therefore, because humor is not explicit in the dialog, actors typically believe the scene is to be portrayed humorlessly. Shurtleff sees this as more of a trait with American actor than English actors:

When I worked on the Broadway casting of Loot, it was an appalling spectacle to watch how most American actors were totally unable to catch the tone. Actors rarely consider the tone of a play; they seem to regard all plays as naturalistic, all plays to have been written by Eugene O’Neill.


So why should tone, the manner of behavior necessary in order to play the right game at the right time in the right place, be so hard for actors to discern?

Because they don’t look for it. Because it’s a concept that seems not to have passed through their pretty little heads. Because they regard it as something the English would do, and not a straightforward American trait. Americans would do well to get over the mystique of being straightforward; it leads to a lack of dimension and awareness of how human beings really behave. Actors are led up a creek by the insistence that all is what it seems to be and that we don’t play games because we’re straightforward and games are deceitful. Games are not deceitful; they are the ways we deal with different situations.

Actors don’t realize the vast, vast majority of their competition gives stupid and obvious readings at auditions, usually because they’re too busy being stupid and obvious themselves (and I mean that lovingly). The typical pre-discussion reading of a script is straightforward, humorless, argumentative, and devoid of any love towards or conflicted feelings about the other character.

Actors are taught to be fighting for an objective, but that’s just the beginning. Relationships are not just fights. The conflict is not just your disagreement with the other character. It is also the dissonance between the warmth you feel for that person and your frustration with them.  You are conflicted about them. There’s always an element pulling you towards someone and an element creating friction with that same person. That is the common mistake that leads to atrocious readings and suicidal casting directors.

Shurtleff also gives us the way to avoid this trap. I consider his guidepost on “Opposites” to be at once the most important, neglected and poorly understood of his writings. The guidepost posits that if one thing about your character is true, then the opposite is equally true.

Lord Capulet and Juliet

Lord Capulet and Juliet

Actors misunderstand this because they think it will dilute their strong objective choices. In Romeo and Juliet, Lord Capulet has a scene where he browbeats his daughter for refusing to marry her arranged husband. Every actor who ever plays this scene just screams at Juliet and walks off in a huff. That is “strong” after all. But it also stinks. A good actor asks, “What is the opposite of this anger and yelling?” He realizes that the opposite is true as well: that Lord Capulet loves his daughter, loves his family, and wants his little girl to have a well chosen husband. Capulet chose the husband very carefully for Juliet.

In a way, that makes the anger deeper and more infuriating. I love her as an excellent father, and she is ungrateful! Now if you love her, and you need her to obey and be forever obedient, what do you do? How do you start it versus how do you end it? Does one emotion take over another as you get worked up? What do you do besides scream at her? Does your love for her show up anywhere in the middle of this? How can you be less predictable with this confrontation?

And, let us not forget, where’s the humor? Even in loud, messy fights, there’s irony somewhere. The one convincing portrayal I ever saw of that Lord Capulet/Juliet scene, the actor paused deliberately in the middle, and laughed incredulously at the situation. He mixed in the opposite of all that anger and tirade, and it was riveting. And you felt like he was mad-beyond-yelling and you didn’t know what he would do next.

Never forget, the opposite is always true. Once you think you’ve got it figured out, realize you’re wrong, and that the opposite is true as well. That is how you stay interesting.

Now what do you think? Please share your comments and experiences, especially if you can relate this “straightforward” phenomenon to a field other than acting.

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