The Story in a Conversation

(This article has been re-written since it was first published in June 2005 because we now have new processes that create a simpler path to clearly identifying the story – Richard Sarell, August 2007)

Actors are often heard to say that identifying what is actually happening in the scene is the most difficult task. They generally have a strong connection to the way the character feels, they therefore have a strong connection to the way they feel the dialogue should be delivered but identifying the actual story that’s unfolding is a task that’s often confusing. However, once the story is clearly identified, how the character feels and how the dialogue will be delivered can change radically.

How do we resolve this difficulty?

Everyone seems to agree that when we are having a conversation we are always having it for a reason. We might be talking to someone to –

  • distract them
  • entertain them
  • manipulate them
  • challenge them
  • bully them
  • keep the friendship alive by sharing with them
  • control them
  • seduce them
  • test them
  • or please them. (The list is never ending – and that’s a large part of the problem.)

And we also agree that we always know why we are having the conversation (i.e. we know what this reason is). We know too, that the subject matter of conversation (i.e. the things that are being said) might not relate directly to the goal we are trying to achieve (i.e. the reason for having the conversation). For example –

  • a husband and wife might be discussing their child’s behavior but in fact they are contesting who should be in control of the punishment;
  • a lover might be telling his partner how beautiful or generous she is but in fact he is testing her to see if she will cope with his final rejection;
  • or two children might be arguing over the rules of the game but in fact they are challenging to see who is the dominant one in the friendship.

And so on.

In A Real World
If you were watching any of the above conversations in a real world then (mostly) you would have no difficulty in identifying what was really going on. You would have no difficulty in describing the real issue that was at stake. In other words you would be able to identify the story that was unfolding between those people. The story being the real reason why these people are having the conversation.

And in the real world, when observing one of the above interactions, you would have no difficulty in saying who threw down the challenge and what resulted. You would plainly know who initiated the contest and whether one of the participants had succeeded in their quest (a win) or if perhaps neither was prepared to acquiesce (a draw). In other words you would know how the conversation began and how it ended.

Dealing With A Scene
For the actor it is no different. The story of any scene is the real reason why the characters are having the conversation. And every scene will have an instigator (a beginning) and an outcome (an end). So if you are looking at a scene as an outsider (as an observer) it should be possible to see

  • the real reason the characters are having the conversation,
  • who begins it
  • and whether the conclusion is a win, a loss or a draw.

(Some scenes obviously commence midway in a conversation. In these cases the audience wont have seen the instigation but there will still be a sense conveyed through the interaction that there is an instigator and a responder. It is therefore of value for the actors to know how the conversation started, and who the instigator was, even if it isn’t included in the scene.)

Simplifying the Story
Reducing the number of options to consider when endeavoring to identify the story would be a very useful trick for actors who find this task difficult. To help with this process The Rehearsal Room has been testing out the principle that there are only three options for ‘the instigator’ of a conversation.

The instigator either initiates –

  • A battle for control
  • A test
  • A challenge.

When PAUL COUSINS decided that method was a good starting point for sorting out the type of conflict a scene was founded on, it seemed a reasonable proposition that was worth testing out. At the time a guessed that it would deliver about 80% efficiency. However, a considerable amount of testing has revealed that its efficiency is much higher than that. In fact, it now seems that there are only three stories.

Can It Be That Simple?
To start with actors tend to believe that it can’t be as simple as this. The next difficulty they experience is the belief that there is no significant difference between the three categories. However, in time it becomes clear that the distinction is clear and practical.

A Battle For Control – seems to quite satisfactorily explain itself. It is a contest where the driving intention is to be in charge of the decisions.

A Test – are circumstances where the character is gathering and assessing information to aid the decision making process. Under these circumstances the character may not necessarily have a strong point of view.

A Challenge – emanates from a character that has a point of view and wishes to provoke a reaction by pushing that point of view.

These three story formats are immensely useful as they are all very active and do-able. It is known at The Rehearsal Room as the Paul Cousins Contribution.

The Kirsty Lee Hypothesis
KKeeping choices simple and clear is the real challenge. During an audition coaching session actor KIRSTY LEE decided that her character was being ‘blamed’ for the current circumstances of the story. She decided that the story began with character ‘A’ blaming character ‘B’. In trying to decide how character ‘B’ should respond KIRSTY felt there were only two possibilities –

  • to return the blame (i.e. blame character ‘B’ for the problem)
  • or to resist, deny or avoid the blame.

It was plain to her that neither character was going to give in so the ending was unresolved (a draw) with both characters refusing to change their choices. So KIRSTY'S story structure was,

Beginning – Character ‘A’ blames character ‘B’;

Middle – Character ‘B’ resists the blame;

End – Neither character gives in.

These elements define the action, reaction and outcome of this story structure.

At that stage the Paul Cousins Contribution had not been discussed. And so what we now know is that KIRSTY'S story should really be framed as follows -

  • Beginning – Character ‘A’ battles for control of character ‘B’ by blaming them;
  • Middle – Character ‘B’ resists the battle for control;
  • End – Neither character wins.

Testing It Out
KIRSTY’sKIRSTY’s simple hypothesis is that once you know what one character is doing there are only two options for the other character - to “do the same thing back” or “resist, avoid or deny” the provocation. This concept seems to make the choices remarkably simple. So if, as a casual observer of the character’s behaviour you can decide who starts the story rolling and what the outcome is, then all you have to do is to apply the KIRSTY LEE Hypothesis to ascertain the middle.

At The Rehearsal Room we have been testing the KLH for at least twelve months with very positive results before the PCC emerged. These two processes are now thoroughly tested and found to be very productive.

Over Simplification
Some actors fear this is an over simplification which limits acting outcomes but in fact the reverse is true. There are many benefits. Simple story definitions bring more powerful, colourful and complex performances. Clarity of purpose is directly connected to clarity of outcome. Complexity in fact multiplies it doesn’t shrink.

Why don’t you test it out too?

Copyright © The Rehearsal Room 2007. All rights Reserved.



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