"Turning Points"

Changing Direction

When it comes to identifying the elements of story it has been explained in previous notes about the value of labeling and how, for example, if endings aren't clearly identified/labeled then frequently they aren't clearly played either.

The basis of this phase of the process (i.e. identifying the elements of the story) hinges on a number of straightforward assumptions -

  • The actor's main task is to deliver the story and therefore identifying the essential ingredients is a good way of making sure that the task is completed
  • Simple labels of the essential story elements are a clear way of keeping the information in mind without cluttering up the brain with excessive unnecessary information. This is helpful because the less responsibility there is to remember things the easier it is to listen and allow the intuitive impulses to work.
  • There are often elements of the story that are essential to deliver but which are not clearly represented on the page. These elements often include the fact that frequently the story being told is about what is happening between the characters while they are saying the lines rather than about the content of the dialogue.

The simplest way of labeling the essential ingredients is to make sure that the beginning, middle and end of the story (of the scene to be played) are clearly identified:

  1. The beginning identifies the start of the conflict
  2. The middle generally is about testing and exploring the dimensions of the conflict
  3. And the end makes plain whether the conflict is resolved or not.

The above items have all been articulated before. And it is plain that three items of story element are more than enough to remember at any one time. If a simple list like that will guarantee that the story is clearly told then there is no reason to make the actors task any more complicated. The dialogue will do the rest.

But there are occasions when a fourth element is required.

The Fourth Element
There is one further story element of a scene that the evidence strongly suggests needs to be labeled clearly. If it is not identified then often actors don't play the moment at all or mechanically move through it as something which is done by the character rather than something that happens to the character. This additional element, which is sometimes part of a scene, is

THE TURNING POINT is the moment where the drama changes direction. Inevitably this has arisen because a character has experienced a moment of realization. It is the realization that ultimately produces both the change of direction for the character and the turning point in the story. Without the realization the turning point is arrive at without clear reason and therefore the audience will know that they are watching actors acting, not characters interacting.

TURNING POINTS are always important moments in a scene and in a story. Actors need to take time here to allow thought processes to unfold. Labeling them helps identify them as moments of importance so that the actor doesn't self-consciously rush through them. The labeling identifies that this is a story point which needs attention, that needs 'playing'. TURNING POINTS generally involve processes which embrace listening, realizing, assessing and choosing. Actors should take time to process these elements.

"American History X"
A recent viewing of "American History X" provided a worthwhile opportunity to assess performance process. In this instance it is particularly interesting to look at the turning points, as this is a story of how Derek (EDWARD NORTON) comes to a new understanding - so the steps along the way that change his views are important elements of the story. There are three significant scenes. They all happen in prison.

The First Turning Point
(This scene commences at 1 hour 14 minutes and 10 seconds into the movie.)
Derek (EDWARD NORTON) is confronted by a black man, Lamont (GUY TORRY), who explains something about Derek's behaviour which he was unable to see himself at the time. Once it is pointed out, Derek recognizes it as truthful. Instead of reacting against Lamont, Derek changes his behaviour. This is his first step towards acquiring a new understanding. So the turning point in this scene is based around a moment of realization for Derek. EDWARD NORTON'S performance choices are interesting here because he chooses to play a significant part of this important moment of realization with his back to the camera. However he takes a significant amount of time to realize, assess and choose. The story is well told.

The Second Turning Point
(This scene commences at 1 hour 16 minutes and 41 seconds into the movie.)
The next step of the journey also occurs in the prison laundry. Here Lamont offers more advice but in a considerably more intimate way. This adds considerable complexity to the situation and there is much for EDWARD NORTON to assess before he decides to accept this advice in the spirit in which it is given. This is the next phase of the journey and although there is no pause in the dialogue here EDWARD spends a considerable amount of time assessing the choices before he finally decides. Important decisions often take time to make. If the actor takes time to deliberate then the audience understands both the difficulty and the significance of this decision.

The Third Turning Point
(This scene commences at 1 hour 23 minutes and 39 seconds into the movie.)
Although other information contributes to Derek's realization and choices, the final stage of his new understanding is reached in a scene in the prison hospital. This is the ultimate turning point and although the story is clearly and effectively told here it is also possible that even more time could have been taken to arrive at his new view. See what you think.
Whatever your conclusion it is in fact evident from this material that
# turning points are significant moments in a scene
# that labeling them clearly as moments of realization help the actor confidently give them the performance space they need and deserve
# that taking time to process the elements of a turning point is frequently a good and appropriately dramatic way of allowing the story to be told .

In fact these circumstances in "American History X" offer the opportunity to try a turning point exercise. Transcribe a few of the lines that lead up to and include Derek's major moment of realization in the prison hospital. Then -

  1. See what elements you can add to Derek's assessment of this situation that would increase the complexity and difficulty of him arriving at this final choice.
  2. See how much more you can expand the duration of this turning point while still keeping the process truthful and dramatic.
  3. See if you can remove some of the lines the script has given Derek to help articulate the realizations he is experiencing and still play the stories turning point. If it is importantly about realizing and assessing it probably doesn't need many words to make the story plain.

Whatever your conclusion about the outcome of your exploration of this exercise you should ultimately be more aware of the importance of turning points in story.

This scene is not specifically gender orientated at this point - it can just as easily be played by a female. To assist in that manipulation you may choose to alter the back story a little, if you so desire. Obviously it requires two actors for the scene to satisfactorily maintain the interactive ingredients.

Copyright © The Rehearsal Room 2002. All rights Reserved.



All contents copyright © The Rehearsal Room unless othewise stated

Want to get some useful audition tips? Looking for current auditions? Then drop by our Auditions section to find out more ...

Want some insight into the acting process to get you started? Then try our Green Room section ...

Looking for Casting Director and Theatrical Agent listings and other acting business information? Then visit our Working Actor section for all that and more ...