By Coach Clay Banks
When you think about script analysis, what comes to mind? Maybe you picture a loan actor sitting in their bedroom pouring over a 90-100-page script with different colored pens in hand highlighting, underlining, and making notes on things like symbolism, subtext, and super objectives? Maybe that actor is you! Or maybe a bunch of students sitting in a classroom having a heated debate over writer’s intent in the context of post-post-modern society? Or, possibly the term itself just overwhelms you and you don’t know where to begin.
Whether you’ve received college credit in the subject or you know next to nothing about breaking down a script, here are Seven (7) things you should consider when breaking down a piece of copy for an audition. Now, remember, most auditions are cold reads. That being the case, you should develop a strong cold reading technique so that you can focus on these 7 principles instead of dedicating all your audition prep time to “memorizing” as much as you can before you’re called into the room.
1 – Never Criticize the Writer
This note is for those of you who may be really great at analysis. Depending on the level of material you’re working at, you may find scripts that your analytical brain wants to rip to shreds. For your safety… and for the sake of the callback, never criticize or insult the writing during an audition. The writer could be in the room! If you honestly feel the writing is subpar and you’re still willing to audition for the project, then prepare something nice to say about the script ahead of time, such as “I am excited to be working on this material right now.”
I often remind actors in my studio to consider the writer as the smartest person on the project. Remember, more often than not, writers have worked very hard and labored long hours over word choice, syntax, grammar and placement of punctuations. It’s out of this general respect for all the hard work committed by the writer that the actor should seek to honor writer’s intent.
If you feel judgmental about the quality of the writing you’re only building up obstacles that can prevent you from really analyzing the script and digging out all of the nuggets. Sometimes the simple act of believing that the writer is the smartest person on the project will open your eyes to things in the script that you hadn’t seen before and you’ll end up elevating the writing through your performance. Just as bringing the character to life is your performance art, the writer’s art… the words on the page. Honor them!
2 – Define the Who, What, Where
There are three things you must, must, MUST define before you audition any piece of material: Who, What, Where. If you can define these three pieces of information, you can deliver a solid read that will be filled with more information then not knowing them. Fill them with as much information as time allows.
- WHO am I? (Do not just use labels like Nancy, Mom, Doctor. Use Descriptive Adjectives: Smart, bitter, upper class…)
- WHO is the other person? (Again No labels. I.e. Dad, Girlfriend, Lawyer, etc.) Who are they to you!
- WHAT is the nature of your emotional relationship? (Familiar – Unfamiliar)
- WHAT is the situation in the scene – What’s it about? (Writer’s Intent)
- WHAT do I want/need from the other person? (Your Intention/Motive)
- WHAT compels you to move towards activation with passion? (Need/Motivation & Care!)
- WHERE does the situation take place? (Imagine your Environment – Non-Geographical. If your scene takes place in a crowded bar, this should affect your acting and produce a different result then if your scene was located in a library)
3 – Formatting Clues for Context (page number & casing)
When you’re only given 3 – 5 pages for sides, and you don’t have access to the whole script to analyze, sometimes you have done a little “Sherlocking” to dig out whatever context-clues you can for the entire story. Here are a couple of small details you can look for that might give you more information than you may think. As long as you know to look for them.
Note the Page Number: When you’re handed sides for an audition, take a look at the top right-hand corner of the copy. Unless they are dummy sides, you should see a page number. The page number is significant because it’s a huge clue that will help you know if the scene you’re working takes place at the beginning, middle, or end of the story. For example, for a 100-110 page script (a standard feature-length movie about 2 hours long), the first 25-30 pages generally makes up the beginning (Act 1). About the next 40 pages would constitute the middle of the script (Act 2), and, subsequently, the last 30 or so pages would make up the end of the characters journey (Act 3). If you study story and understand general patterns in character arch then a page number is one simple clue that can get you calibrated in your audition.
Be Case Sensitive: When analyzing the limited information sides provide for an audition, take note of the casing of a character’s name – CAPITAL and lower casing. The first time a character is introduced in a screenplay their name will be written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. This detail may help clue you in on the fact that this particular character listed in ALL CAPS is probably near the beginning of their journey. If the character’s name is not in all capital letters then the character has already been introduced. (This can also apply to any significant objects as well.)
So, how does this information help? Think about these examples: If the character you’re auditioning for is a lead and you have sides with your character’s name listed in ALL CAPS then you can safely deduce that this is not only the beginning of your character’s development, but it’s also likely the beginning of the entire story. On the other hand, if you look at your sides and see a page number that tells you the scene is located towards the end of the script pgs (i.e. 70-100) and the character you’re reading for is introduced in ALL CAPS then this gives you clues to your character’s role in the context of the whole story. In this case, your character being introduced for the first time at the end of the story, then you know this character will likely assist in the resolution of the plot.
When analyzing a script (especially sides) do not ignore any information. Everything is useful. If you pay attention to these clues, they may help you to realize something about your character that will make you stand out in an audition because you’ll have a more complete understanding than the other actors auditioning for the same part.
4 – Pack the Nouns
Step 1: Locate the significant noun.
A noun is a person, place or thing and a significant noun is just that, it’s significant to your character. Significant nouns can’t just be blown over in the script because they have a deep meaning or are of great significance to your character. The significant nouns can be nouns that the writer has obviously written into the script to be significant or they can be nouns that are less obvious, but, through character work, analysis, and construction of your character’s backstory you identify them as important and give them significance. You must pack ALL the significant nouns that your character encounters in the story with information that’s personal to you (as the character). In other words, you must pack the significant nouns in the lines that you speak, as well as the lines that are spoken to you; your delivery and responses depend on it.
Step 2: Attach the Emotion
Once you have identified the significant nouns you must decide how they make you feel. Ask yourself the question: how does this noun apply to you the character and the story. Always connect an emotion to your noun and then dedicate yourself to truly connecting to that emotion.
Step 3: Make eye contact, deal, feel and deliver
After you’ve “packed” the noun with personal heightened emotional value, you should find that your delivery of the line containing the noun will become explosive. This should happen naturally without fabricating, forcing or emoting your emotional point of view. It should come out of you, the actor, experiencing the new emotional weight and value this noun now has thanks to the process of analyzing the script and packing the noun. Remember you can’t unpack what you haven’t packed.
6 – Figure Out the Story/Genre
This may sound like a no-brainer. After all, it’s pretty obvious that the actor should attack comedy very differently than the actor approaches a drama. However, any information you can glean regarding, story and genre will help you better determine what the director is looking for. Some say not to worry about what the casting director is looking for, and I understand this sentiment. You should not play a guessing game and allow some preconceived notion of what you think the director is looking for weigh down your performance in a way that prevents you from showcasing you as the character. However, you need to use every bit of information you can to win. You better believe that if you’re going into an audition for a recurring character on an established, long-running TV show such as NCIS that you should understand the procedural genre. These dynamics of the rhythm of the dialogue, the pacing, the beats the moments, will play out differently in a procedural drama as opposed to a multi-cam sitcom.
This is where taking a second look at the commas, the periods and the ellipses (called aposiopesis) help you, the actor, find valuable nuggets in the script that help you in the audition. When it comes to analyzing the genre and the story with only three pages of script, a lot of information can also be mined out of the casting call notice, the plot synopsis, the breakdown, the director. It always will benefit you to do your research on the past content that the director and writer have created. You may be surprised once you revisit your sides after doing your research, just how much new insight may have.
7 – Determine the Moment Before
That may sound simple, but it’s not. Auditions performances lay flat more times than not. One way to ensure a powerful impact is by creating a moment before you deliver your first line. Too many actors jump to the script in hand the dig up their first line when the casting director says the words: “OK when you’re ready.” Don’t do that. That’s novice work. Take a moment, take your space, have your first acting moment be in the reader’s eyes if you can and the script calls for it. You can elevate yourself above the wannabes by clarifying “ The Moment Before. ”
What takes place in the story right before you start the scene? Sometimes you’ll find crossed out dialogue, stage direction, or pages attached that you won’t be performing. Read them anyway. All information is useful. If it’s not provided then think about what it could be based on the emotion, content, and dialogue of your current scene. Make strong choices that help set you up to deliver the scene in you’re hand. Ask yourself:
- What’s said (or might have been said) right before you speak?
- What are (or might have been) your physical and emotional states before you begin?
- What effect does your (possible) environment have on your current performance?
Allow your moment before to fuel and feed your opening lines. Then allow your momentum to grow as you discover the remaining moments within the sides. Moments can come into play anywhere. Just allow the moment before to be the first moment of the many that will follow.
8 – Imagine Your Scene Partner
You can not allow the dull reader in a casting session be the variable that dictates your performance in any audition. You must do yourself the favor of analyzing the script and really dig deep into the WHO of point number 2. Remember, it’s important that you not only define who you are, but you must also define who your scene partner(s) is (are). If you build them from the ground up you’ll be able to place a clear image of your scene partner onto any generic reader. You’ll have an interesting stimulus and responses prepared that will make you shine even if the reader is cold and feeding you nothing to play with.
So, do the work, imagine what they look like: what color are their eyes, their hair, the cut of their jaw, their frame, their height, their expression. How do they make you feel? What do you think about them? What’s your relationship? Now, remember a lot of this information can be found in the script or breakdown/plot synopsis you were given. However, if it’s not, you need to make a clear choice. Now, you have the freedom to choose whatever you want, but only as long as it does not contradict with writer’s intent. This is where script analysis meets the art of the actor. What I mean is, feel free to make strong choices that elicit a response or set-up interesting obstacles for yourself that will make your performance more interesting. But remember, you can’t venture out too far into left field to the point that the casting director is caught off guard by something that makes it appear that you do not understand the story.
Having said all that, if you go through this list of 7 things to analyze for an audition you will not be able to veer too far off the path and any strong choices you make will be informed by all the information you’ve dug out from the small bit of material you’ve been provided.
Remember when it comes to script analysis – it’s not the job of the actor to change the blueprint… even if you think you’ve come up with something better. You must first understand what’s on the page before you can nuance what’s on the page.
Clay Banks is a former Fortune 500 Business & Life Empowerment Coach. After a successful eighteen-year acting career, he founded Clay Banks Productions & Studio International (CBSI) where he’s the Head Coach offering ongoing on-camera acting classes. Contact us for class availability! Clay’s a recurring Master Coach at SAG-AFTRA Headquarters as well as a regular guest Master Class Auditioning Coach with the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Hollywood. Audit a class and you’ll see!