By: Jess Canty
So I was googling Stanislavski this morning, you know, as one does on a Sunday at 10am - looking for a quote to inspire my post, and I ran across his "Seven Questions" which frankly I haven't thought about since college.
But when I was reading them over, it hit me like a cement truck - Stanislavski was a genius, but not for the reason you think.
And I know that "the method" has gotten a bad rap all these years later because of the number of people who have come after and bastardized his teachings and made them self-indulgent. And also because "the method" doesn't work for everyone and there are other acting techniques out there that work perfectly well.
BUT! Still genius.
Wanna know why?
Because his "seven questions" are ROOTED IN SCRIPTWRITING. Here they are again:
Who Am I?
Where Am I?
When Am I?
What Do I Want?
Why Do I Want It?
How Will I Get What I Want?
What Must I Overcome to Get What I Want?
Now "who am I" is pretty important, and I would say that if you get sides or a script and you can't find the answer to this one, well, probably not worth auditioning LOL.
Questions 2-4: These are STRAIGHT OUT OF ARISTOTLE.
Remember in our Writing Series we talked about the fact that the writer must accomplish unity of Time, Place and Action? Well, here is the actor's version - Where Am I (place), When Am I (time), What do I want?(action).
Remember: characters are judged by what the DO not what they SAY. So if in the sides your character says they don't want a cookie, but then they spend the rest of the scene trying to sneak into the cookie jar, then the ACTION is about getting to the cookie jar - even if they say repeatedly they don't want a cookie. What do I want? A cookie.
If you can't answer these three questions when you get the sides for your audition you probably want to do some research on the show. Even a one-line co-star role you should be able to at least answer questions 1-4 when breaking down your sides.
WHY DO I WANT IT?
The answer to this question, interestingly, is typically primal (or should be if the writing is any good). People are generally motivated by fear of loss (missing out), greed or gain (aspiration) the need to be loved or liked (tribe affiliation / acceptance), or basic survival (kill or be killed).
So... if it is not clear in the sides - PICK ONE. Make an educated guess as to which of these primal motivating factors is motivating your character in the scene. All scenes are "negotiations" "seductions" or "fights" (because of primal motivators above), so use this to help you discover your character's "why." Again, if it's not clear - make an educated guess.
Is it a seduction (remember seductions can be non-sexual) scene because of fear of loss? Or because of kill or be killed? Or the need to be loved?
The last two questions you probably don't need for that co-star one line audition, but for a guest-star that has three pages of sides for each of your three scenes? You bet your bottom dollar you need to answer these questions.
Remember when we were talking about writing and how the screenwriter must take the character on a journey to get them what they NEED while they are trying to get what they WANT? AND that the way to do this is to throw 1,000 obstacles in their way - to essentially torture your characters?
These last two questions should apply to any scene you are working. Because every scene should be a step in the character's journey of them TRYING to get what they want and being blocked (with perhaps the exception of the opening scene which is expository).
Remember story structure: the first half is the character trying to get what they WANT. The writer gives it to them at the midpoint BUT... suddenly everything starts to go wrong. Because what they WANT isn't what they need. So the second half is about discovering how to get them to figure out what they need - and this is where they're put through the wringer.
HOW WILL I GET WHAT I WANT?
Is your character going to lie, cheat, steal, cajole? Or will they use charm, sincerity? Are they smarter than everyone? Or naive and lucky? Will they bust the door in or knock politely?
WHAT MUST I OVERCOME TO GET WHAT I WANT?
The answer to this from a writing perspective is two-fold. There are the literal stumbling blocks in the character's way - i.e. the people who are stopping them or chasing them. The falling rocks, The other characters who have wants THEY are trying to achieve.
So you need to know those, but the answer at the END (at least insofar as the hero is concerned) is something internal. It will be the last roadblock.
In terms of the audition material.
Let's go back to the first question now: WHO AM I?
You need to approach this as "WHO is my character in terms of story function" as well as "WHO is my character." I think this is actually what Stanislavski was getting at but it has been turned into this weird ego-trip down memory lane thing.
There is no character written into a script that isn't necessary in some way. Why? Cuz that is a scene you have to shoot and an actor you have to pay. If you don't absolutely need it, you ain't gonna spend the moolah.
Even if you are the "janitor" you are there for a reason. Even if that reason is to add verisimilitude to the "unity of place" question above. What is a school hallway without a janitor? So you ARE necessary and that is your function in the story. So go into your audition being the most truthful janitor that ever cleaned a hall.
If it is a larger role you need to answer this as in "who am I to the hero?" Am I a roadblock character or a helper? Am I on the team that will help the hero discover what they need or am I working against the hero? Or - am I pretending to work for the hero while really working against them (the most fun roles, in my opinion).
When you get your audition material - after you answer the "who" you should also be able to try to guess if the scene occurs in the first half of the story or the back-half after the midpoint (if you don't have access to the entire script).
If there is a lot of exposition this scene takes place in the "teaser" (in TV) or the first 10 or so pages in a film. *Note that the exception here is soap opera - which repeats exposition throughout each episode, and that is what can make it difficult to act.
If everything is going great for the hero / lead role the scene is likely happening pre-midpoint (pages 10-54 in film) or in Act III (unless this is a tragedy).
If everything is going shitty for the hero / lead role the scene is likely happening post-midpoint, but before the start of Act III (pages 55-89 in a film).
Moral of the Post: Use these questions to break down your sides before an audition (and of course to break down the script if you get the role) so that you will be better able to give a performance that FITS with the where, when, why, how and who the character is IN THE STORY.
If you don't know for sure, make educated choices based on what you think is happening to the lead character in that scene (if you are not going out for the lead).
Ultimately, the person that books the role is the one that "fits" the best. It can be a nebulous feeling on the part of the casting director - its a gut thing to feel who fits.
But I would bet that 90% of why that actor feels like they fit is because they have done the work to break down their sides in this way, because they know exactly how they fit in.