What do you focus on when you first get a script/scene in your hands?
Is memorizing the piece your first priority? Once you “have it down” then you can start the real
work of developing your character?
Or do you work the other way around: Once you understand your character then you commit it
My preference is the latter. You don’t want to inhibit your creative process by having
unconsciously decided how you're going to play a scene because you’ve memorized it a certain
In my experience, once you’ve committed something to memory it becomes a challenge to take
adjustments that don’t jibe with how you have envisioned a piece. When your first priority is
memorization this can create other obstacles as well.
Acting doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It requires other characters, other voices to tell the story
that must be told. Unless you are in a production where you get to rehearse with a director and the other actors, like in a play, the only voice you hear when you are working on your character is your own.
So, when you are memorizing a scene and constructing your character as you memorize your
scene you are not only expressing yourself the way you want to be heard but you are also
responding to what others are expressing about you and what is going in the scene as well.
When those other voices are not around during this period of preparation then you are deciding how those voices will be expressed based on how you want the story to be told. In other words, you are creating the narrative. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, for starters it’s going to create a certain amount of resistance when you’re on set because the other actor(s) are not aware that you have decided how they should play their parts in order for you perform your part the way you memorized/envisioned it. Secondly, taking direction will feel like someone is telling you are wrong, or they disagree with what you’re doing.
At Krater Studios, in my on-camera scene study class (Making The Scene) we work on scenes
two weeks in a row. I always remind my actors when they get a new scene to just familiarize
themselves with it. In other words, the words are not the first priority, memorization is not the
main focus. Rather go over the script a number of times, 3, 4, 10 times without committing a
single word to memory. See what wants to stick, what resonates with you, what gets your juices flowing and then ask yourself why. If you don’t have an answer that’s okay, just go over the script again. Then put it down and forget about it and get on with your day. Then go back to the script and ask yourself some specific question about motivation, intention, objective, what are the dynamics of the relationships involved, etc (things we go in to great detail in my class). All these questions should resonate within you and the answers if they are available to you should also come from within you. Once this happens, bringing the work into class will allow you to continue exploring these very important elements even more personally. And then, and may be then, when you feel you have a strong understanding of character should you start to think about memorizing the scene.