The Value of Documentary for the Screen Actor


Actors can sometimes be heard to say that even in a moment of great crisis in their lives they often find themselves cataloguing the nature of their reactions for future reference. This is a dedicated commitment to their performance art. And there may come a time when the memory of that experience will be of great use. However often such a subjective view can sometimes be considerably distorted.

True or False
When challenged about a moment of clumsy or clichéd acting the justification sometimes offered by the performer is, "But that's exactly what I do" or "That's the sort of person I am. I do that all the time." The response, which neutralizes this justification of performance choices, is often, "You are actually never like that. In life you are always believable and that wasn't believable." Subjective views re-translated subjectively can be a long way off the mark.

Actors need to be cautious about the gathering and use of that sort of experience - sometimes it's invaluable, sometimes misleading.

Research Sources
Another source of behavioural research for the actor is to observe others and in this event the documentary film is a useful tool. It has the added advantage of viewing people's life experiences through the camera lens in the same way that screen actors are seen.

In fact this week an individual's personal experience was minutely explored and analysed by the media. This was the final test match played by Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh. Watching him standing on the Sydney Cricket Ground waiting for the final presentations at the end of the last test match of the series was extremely informative. Here was a man in a highly emotional moment of his life and yet it wasn't the display of emotion that was the significant factor. It was his battle not to display emotion that was the dominant element - an immensely informative moment for any screen storyteller.

Even news services can provide useful material.

The Difficulty of Making a Choice
The observational value of documentary first occurred to me many years ago while watching a programme about women and their relationships with their mother's. Here it was apparent that the pauses and the moments of choice were more informative than the actual words uttered. The difficulty or lack of difficulty in selecting what a person would say was extremely revealing. This was a classic example of someone revealing themselves by the way that they made their next decision.

Actors often define sub-text as the unspoken element of a scene but there are many things that can be unspoken in a scene which are text. These are the elements of the story that the writer requires to be seen on the screen. It is in fact the thoughts that emanate from the decision-making processes that generate the real communication. These thoughts evolve when a character is dealing with unconscious as well as conscious impulses and drives.

In this documentary a persons real relationship to the circumstances they had been caught up in, were most evident in moments of choice.

Sub-text and Story
'Start Up Dot Com', screened between Christmas 2003 and New Year on ABC-TV, was also an interesting documentary from an actor's point of view. Here simple interaction and lack of emotional display carried the story development. There was one moment where the two best friends who had set the whole business up were in conflict. The more dominant one had decided he had to sack his friend from the project. The poor fellow who was being forced out was experiencing a great sense of loss but again it was his determination to stay on top of the emotion and not let it be seen that was his person goal. His real life battle was to not show his emotion and to stay in control. Actors in these circumstances often feel they have to explore the display of the emotion. But in this character it was the determination to not display the emotion that brought the complexity to the battle and informed us of the relationship that he was trapped in. In fact, the battle for control was the most important element in this real life scene not the display of emotion.

The Foundation of Drama
The drama of this documentary was specifically about the personal cost of a quest to create a successful company. That was the story. The tension that was created through this drama was the result of conflicting character goals. Who would dominate? It became plain that it was a story about the dominance of the character who wanted to stay in control of proceedings. When he was on top he felt fantastic. Initially his decisions generated millions of dollars of investment. By the end he was still dominating but the business had failed. Then he admitted that his worst moment was when his best friend had said that he didn't trust him anymore. That was his worst moment. But we understood from his choices that this was the point he felt least in control.

It's the way a character makes the next choice that reveals most about the real nature of the conflict.

Much can be learnt from the documentary.

January 2004

Copyright © The Rehearsal Room 2004. All rights Reserved.



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