It’s a theatrical legend that Anthony Hopkins reads a script more than 250 times before starting work on a character. Whether this is entirely true or not, it throws up an interesting debate on script analysis and exactly how much preparation we should do before we work practically on a play.
There are few directors out there who wouldn’t subscribe to the notion that the script is the absolute backbone of a production – the source of all creative decisions, a bible for the show, to be referred to constantly throughout the entire life of a project. As actors it’s the only gauge we have as to the potential quality of the work before taking it on, and the one document we use to justify all of the various travails we embark upon in rehearsals.
But surely one can only get so much out of a script? I can’t say I’ve ever read anything more than 250 times – I don’t know about anyone else’s concentration levels, but I think I’d stop taking in anything new at around 20 read-throughs. Even the greatest playwright would have me tearing my hair out around the 100 mark, anxious to physically do something with it, rather than letting it continually wash over me, becoming distant and obtuse.
The solitary preparation that an actor undertakes before rehearsals is a vital part of their method: a chance to think about their personal relationship to the material, what it means to them, what they can relate to and what they find difficult to understand. This is a process equally vital to directors – Max Stafford Clark says he often indulges his temptation to map out an entire production to the nth degree before the real work begins. These plans are then immediately discarded, so the play can be discovered organically as an ensemble, but, he argues, it provides a great way of forming a first impression and having a cold stab at something, more as an exercise than anything else. First impressions are often wrong, and it is interesting to look back on a piece and observe how our attitudes change throughout the process.
Each actor has their own personal way of working, and a well-written piece will have many layers and hidden depths. I’ve often understood things differently on stage several weeks into a run, where a line has obtained a sudden significance. Actors sometimes speak of playing particular Shakespearean roles at different points in their careers and finding quite different interpretations of them, due to a changed perspective. A good play can permeate every fibre of one’s being and change one’s outlook on life, provoking discussions and arguments. There is always more to find and interpret.
This irresistible urge to discover reminds me of an analogy an tutor of mine used in the very first week of drama school. She asked us to: “Imagine waking up in your bedroom in the middle of the night. You open your eyes and look about you, the space is familiar to you, but it is too dark for you to see anything at all. As the minutes and hours wear on, and the first rays of light begin to enter the room, perhaps at around 5am, you start to be able to make out the outline of the larger objects in the room, the shape of the wardrobe, the outline of a table maybe, until the light further brightens the room and you can perhaps see a dim pattern on the bedspread, or a stain on the carpet. As the sunlight invades the space, you can now spot pictures on the walls, books on shelves, until golden light fully drenches the room, and you see it reflected in shiny surfaces, bouncing off the walls illuminating your surroundings until you can disturb the dust particles dancing before your eyes.”
Surely that is the level of illumination we need to achieve when studying a script? For who can satisfactorily portray the external surface life of a character without first unearthing the intricate and contradictory raging passions beneath? How we get to this conclusion is a matter of personal preference, but must always be undertaken with an open heart and open mind.
Image credit: Laura Billings.