Originally published August 7, 2014 backstage.com
Photo source: Backstage, Clay Rodery.
I was teaching my comedy class at Kalmenson & Kalmenson when I discovered one of my students was very adept at improvisation. I asked what her background was. She said she was a writer and an acrobat.
Yes. She was studying aerial acrobatics, à la Cirque du Soleil. I asked what that was like. She said it was a rush to perform 40 feet off the ground. (I let that comment pass as part of the foolishness of youth.) I asked her how you learn something like that. She said her teacher told her that the critical moments in any acrobatic move were the transitions from various planes, from the horizontal (on the ground) to the vertical (going into the air) and to the horizontal once again when you reach your final position above the arena. She said the essence of acrobatics is the transition between horizontal to vertical. Doing it in a seamless way. Doing it in a beautiful way.
Her remarkable passion explained one of the primary tools of script analysis: Find the transitions.
There is a tendency to get lost in a script, in a role, in a single speech. The words become the forest that keeps us from seeing the trees.
On a macro scale, look for the moments that change the direction of your character. On a micro scale, look for the moments in each line where there is a transition. Where is the place you learned something you didn’t know before? What is the one piece of information in a line that makes that line necessary?
There is something else I found curious in my student’s acrobatic dramaturgy: It was laid out in three acts. It started on the ground. There was literal “rising action,” followed by a conclusion. This is the same dramatic formula offered by Aristotle in “Poetics.” Although it is about 2,500 years old, it is still a good tool to use.
Finding the “acts” in a script, in a part, even in a single line, will usually lead you to the important, playable transitions. These transitions are not set in stone. They can move around. That is exciting, too. By playing with where the “act breaks” are in a line, you may find alternate readings and new ideas. For example, we all know:
To be, or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.
By changing where you want to break this small part of Hamlet’s monologue into “acts,” you can find very playable specifics. For example, you could start Act 3 of this section on the word “or” in the next-to-last line. Alternately, you could start it on the word “and” in the final line. Either way will create an interesting performance choice.
The transitions in acting are the ways we discuss physics. They are the changes of direction, the energy of a new idea that can lead us to the truth we long to uncover.
Precisely my point, Stephen. All good stories have 13 major beats for the protagonist, sometimes expanded to 18, but the 13 must always be there. Seven of those beats are sequences, but the six beats BETWEEN those sequences are the most important. Those are the TURNING POINTS, the transitions, the times when the story changes direction in both the physical and psychological planes. If you get those TP wrong, it won’t matter if the rest of your craft is good.