As anyone who has seen a show which is just monologues can attest, while they are amazing in their own right, it’s scene work and the interaction of characters where the real magic of stage and screen lies. Because of this, there are going to be times in your career, where you are not the centre of attention – I know, I know, this shocked me too, but it turns out it is not all about you. I know. Wild. But, being a great scene partner is vitally important to being a great storyteller. And that is what acting is all about right? This is StageMilk’s guide to being a good scene partner and a great storyteller.
Listen. Actively listen!
This is so important, not only as a scene partner but as an actor in every possible format. You have got to listen, be actively listening to not only your scene partners words but their body language as well. The very worst thing in the world, outside of war, famine and the increasing popularity of coriander (this is a hill I will die on, don’t at me) is scene partners who are not paying attention or even worse are actively disinterested in the scene. There is no more sure-fire way to kill a scene than one person who is acting their heart out, across from another who is utterly disinterested.
Don’t be that guy. Be fascinated by your scene partner, remember even if you are doing three shows a week, your character has no idea what the other person is about to say! Stay in that moment, keep yourself focussed on them by examining their facial expression or body language, and ask yourself, how does that make me feel? What are they doing with that eyebrow? Whatever it is, to keep your focus on the other person and stay active in the scene
It’s not all about you
I know, I know this came as a shock to me too, but it is really not all about you. Sometimes you are just there to be talked to by a more significant character in that moment of the story. This does not mean that you are insignificant, quite the contrary, however, the story is always the most significant thing. Where does your character fit in that grand landscape? In what way can you aid the telling of this tale? Sometimes that means taking a backseat and listening to other characters as actively and attentively as you can.
Additionally, don’t upstage, unless specifically instructed to do so by the director. 99% of the time upstaging is about you, and your ego getting in the way of the story being told. Acting requires you to leave your ego at the door and get into the work. You can be confident in who you are and what you bring to the table, without ego getting in the way. Literally watch any interaction with Hugh Jackman for a perfect example of this.
Be generous and surprising
Even if you are not heavily involved dialogue-wise in the scene, you can still be generous and surprising for your scene partner. Can being surprising and generous go hand in hand? Absolutely, when I say that I am talking about sticking to your blocking, hitting all your marks, but offering different actions on your lines, giving your partner offers to bounce off. Being vulnerable and open to change at any point and allowing your emotions to naturally react to the given circumstances, as they change. The worst thing you can do as a scene partner is so rigidly locked into your choices, utterly inflexible and predictable that any energy or life in the moment is destroyed. This obviously has to be balanced with the directors’ vision of the scene being kept sacred, but finding life and spontaneity in those moments will go a long way to taking your scene to the next level and turning you into a fantastic scene partner.
This applies across the board, but I’m specifically thinking about being a scene partner for someone shooting a showreel scene. Showreel days can be extremely stressful, sometimes the person acting in the lead has paid thousands of dollars for the privilege. The last thing they need is a scene partner who is being less than kind. Even if you think the other persons’ performance isn’t great, unless you are the director, their performance is not your problem. Leave that to them, if they ask you for advice try and work with the compliment sandwich, something positive, something to work on and then something positive again. Being harsh on your scene partner is rarely a good option, were all in this together – let’s work as a team people!
Please, for the love of everything that is holy – take direction. Actually. Really. Seriously, take direction on board. They are just trying to make the show better, and if you are not the focal point of the scene or even if you are, take on board what the director is telling you. Sometimes it can be difficult to understand exactly what a director wants from you, language barriers, stress, different terminology for things, people who are just poor communicators all of these things can be an issue. However, you have the power to change these challenges, simply ask questions and clarify with the director what they need from you. This is absolutely essential for any actor and is a muscle that you have to learn how to flex.
Be a pro
Be on time, know your lines, be polite, be ready to work. If you are there for more than a day, do everything you can to learn the names of the cast and crew. I re-read cast lists and shooting schedules and memorize peoples names before I arrive so I don’t get into any embarrassing situations! The modern industry does not have time for divas, if you are unprepared or unprofessional – word will get around. Your reputation takes years to build and minutes to destroy. Again, don’t be that guy. Be the person that when everyone walks away they say ‘Sure, they didn’t have many lines but damn they’re a pro! Let’s get them in again!’ Next thing you know you’re on the set of Star Wars!
Being a great scene partner is simple, doing it day after day, week after week and year after year can be challenging. Just like being a great athlete, it is often about doing the basics well. Listen, be open to new ideas, take on direction and don’t be a diva! If you are able to bring these ideas into your practice you are going to have a great and glorious career!