Taking the long road to relating to the words will serve you best
At the Stella Adler Studio in New York, where I did a lot of my acting training, words were given a position of huge importance. By the way, did you know that the word huge also means limitless? Stella Adler alumni will get this inside joke, since we were commanded to bring a dictionary to class with us every day. When working with text, we would often get challenged on the meaning of words, and it was amazing how often our understanding of a particular word was wrong, or at least off-base. We also got to learn more about the history of a word, how it evolved over time, and what it meant at the time the text was written. This process of verifying our understanding of text led to some positive enduring habits that still serve us today.
In script interpretation class, we were trained to not just consider the words of a script or play, but also the whole social, political and historical context of the work. We also worked line by line through the text, to check our understanding of each of the characters and what was going on in a scene. This was amazing, because when you begin to develop that level of relationship with the words, you can suddenly see a vastness and richness that can be built upon as a performer, in service of the audience. Unfortunately, the work of modern film and TV can make us a bit sloppy as actors, a bit content to do the minimum and just memorize lines. It's not entirely our fault, because we often only get "sides" rather than context, and frequently have little time to do more than memorize. But memorization is only entry-level performing. If all you have done is focus on your own lines, then you are likely to be too worried about getting your lines right and waiting to hear cues from your partner. That's not really being there, for your partner or for the audience.
One of my favorite exercises, that I have adapted for use in my own teaching, is one that Stella Adler herself used. Fellow Stella Adler alumni will recognize this as the "Gibran exercise." This work involves developing a deep understanding of a piece of text, and then freeing yourself up from its constraints. The text in question is the book "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran. This is a beautiful collection of essays that considers the important aspects of life, deep topics such as love, marriage, reason and passion, crime and punishment, joy and sorrow, and so on. The ideas in "The Prophet" are timeless and universal, even to a non-religious type like me. I've done this exercise several times myself over the years. Here's how it works, and how it can make you a better actor.
Robert David Duncan, award-winning director, actor, writer and producer with a passionate interest in art, storytelling and the whole amazing journey called life. Founder of Fat Punk Productions Ltd. and Festival Director of the Miniature Film Festival.