Acting for Film; Part 5 - Managing the Transitions

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    Genius happens in the transitions. Going from one thing to another, particularly in an artistic design, almost defies the time/space relationship within which the performing arts claim their existence.   


    Understanding a script’s structure relies on the actor’s ability to answer three sentences:


    What does my character want?
    What’s preventing them from getting what they want?
    When does what they want change?


    We discussed the very active aspects of a script’s structure, resulting in the answers to the first two questions, (objectives and obstacles) in earlier entries. Each action is a building block within the structure of a script. The objective is the gas that drives the engine of your actions. The obstacle is the element which creates the conflict engendering a dynamic framework for the playing of your action.


    The third question introduces a challenge to the authentic rendering of your action. In our previous example of the “Knight in Shining Armor,” whose objective it is to save the damsel in distress from the evil dragon, there is a sense of force with the character’s objective (saving the damsel in distress) and a sense of variety created by the obstacle (the evil dragon). The variety created by the obstacle lies in the different strategies and tactics the character uses to overcome the obstacle.   But what happens once the dragon has been defeated and the damsel in distress is removed from the castle? In typical cases, this would be the end of act two of an industry standard screenplay. There’s still an entire act.


    If you’re not playing an objective against an obstacle, what are you doing? You’re making an adjustment; you’re in transition. The trick is to do this as efficiently and believably as possible.


    Once the hero safely removes the damsel in distress from the evil dragon’s castle he then moves on to another objective with accompanying obstacle. Perhaps, he “travels over hazardous territory to return the damsel to her homeland.”  There is a processing period in the action when he moves from one objective to the other. The actor must be aware of precisely when this occurs so that there is no lag in the sustained action. The actor’s ability to manage these transitions separates the good actors from the great actors. When they say that great acting can’t be taught, this is what they’re talking about.


    Playing an objective against an obstacle is at the very core of the craft of acting. It’s instinctual but to a certain extend it’s also measurable. It lasts for a sustained period of time and can be charted in the script. The transition from one objective to another happens so quickly and requires such deftness that there’s really no craft involved, only ability.


    In the process of completing his new objective, “travel over hazardous territory to return the damsel to her homeland,” the knight may fall in love with the damsel and his objective may change to “overcome my lowly station to win the love of the woman of my dreams.” But how does this happen in the internal workings of the character and in the structure of the script? Is there an event which creates this change? Does it happen over time? Does the knight’s growing love for the damsel serve as an obstacle at first? Does it begin as one of the elements of the “hazardous territory?” At what precise moment does it cease to be an obstacle and become his objective?


    The actor can only prepare themselves by identifying where the transitions takes place and then devote their industry, in trial and error, to find the most playable way to manage the transitions. Sometimes it just takes genius.


    The three questions that lead the actor to the overall structure of the action in a script set up the actor for the moment to moment playing of the action. There is a simple chain that must be followed in order for the action to be well crafted rather than random.   We’ll take a close look at this crucial building block to film acting in a later entry.

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