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Using “Open Scenes” or “Ambiguous Scenes” with Young Actors

The other night in our Teaching of Theatre class at Catholic University, we worked with short scenes that have specified lines, but leave open unlimited possibilities for setting, characters, and circumstances. “Open Scenes,” —or as my student Kristin called them—“Content-less Scenes,” are a staple in Acting classes everywhere. I find them to be an excellent vehicle for teaching young actors many of the basics before setting them to work on an established scene from a published play.

Teachers and students can write the scenes themselves. Here’s an example of an extremely brief one for two actors, identified simply as Actor A and Actor B:

A:            What’s that?

B:            My latest project.

A:            It looks very interesting.

B:            Well, I think so.

There’s no one correct way to involve students in working on these scenes, so I will just share how I have used them. I provide all the students with the same 4 lines of dialogue and emphasize that, as with any script, the actor’s job is to deliver the playwright’s words. The actor is not permitted to add or delete words—but the manner in which the words are spoken (the line delivery) is the actor’s choice. (The first “basic” of working with a script.)

Pairs of students are then set free to make decisions about the scene and rehearse. (Note: If you have an odd number of students, an effective alternative is to have a group of 3. The actors in that scene then have to incorporate a non-speaking character into their scene. In fact, you could purposely form several groups of 3; figuring out what a character with no lines does within a scene is a valuable acting exercise.)

Have students regroup to watch each other’s interpretations of the same scenes. With young actors, it is rare that these first presentations exemplify clear settings, characters, and circumstances. After each group presents, ask observers: “Who were they?” “Where were they?” “What was the ‘latest project’?”

In most initial scene presentations by young actors, the “who,” “where,” and “what” of the scene is not apparent. That’s one of the first acting lessons of this exercise. The actors’ goal is to communicate clearly with the audience—through body and voice. So, if the observers haven’t a clue about where this scene takes place or who the characters might be, it’s time for more work.

You can focus on one aspect at a time—setting, for example. Where are the characters in this scene? How can the actors show the setting through their movements and the placement of chairs, tables, classroom furniture, etc.? Young actors often have to be told that the scene can start before a single line is spoken. Hold a discussion with observing students—How might the actors show that they are in a bakery, an art studio, the maternity ward, a high school classroom, or Project Runway? Then send the pairs of actors back into rehearsal with the goal of making the setting of their scene crystal clear. (This task should also result in the increased clarity of what the characters are discussing—“my latest project.”)

Present the scenes again and have everyone note the acting choices that made the setting clearer. Then focus on the characters—Who are they? How old are they? What is their relationship to one another? What are their moods? What are they doing in the setting? How does each really feel about the “latest project” referred to?

Use the third rehearsal to concentrate on the above aspects of characterization and present the short scenes again. Because the scene is so brief and the lines are easy to memorize, the students can concentrate on acting choices—how their characters move, speak, pause, use their faces, and interact with one another. Their third scene presentations should show even more specificity and improvement.

One of my teachers recommended thinking of this exercise as adding “layers of paint” to the scene. With each additional layer, the ambiguous scene should become more and more clear, and each should tell a different story because of the specific choices the actors make. Other layer possibilities: the part of the world the scene is set in, the temperature of the setting, and the year in which the action occurs (1776? 2001?). That’s probably enough for young actors—university and grad actors, of course, go much deeper into these kinds of scenes.

While writing this, I checked the Internet and found two super resources. (The generosity of others willing to post and share still amazes me!) A person identified only as Mrs. Bamford shares five open scenes here and there’s a PDF of the introductory chapter of Spare Scenes 60 Skeletal Scenes for Acting and Directing by Diane Timmerman that will make want to make you buy the book.

If you’ve never heard of or tried Open or Ambiguous scenes with your students, I hope this post will prompt you to. Give them less before you give them more!