"The Moment Before" Acting Technique | Giving Context to your Acting

“The Moment Before” Acting Technique

Written by on | Acting Methodologies

There are few things as frustrating as watching an actor enter a scene with no motivation. It’s like a clip from The Walking Dead: they shuffle into view, aimless, expressionless, devoid of energy or light behind the eyes … and then suddenly they snap into action as if they remember their reason for being. No matter how good the subsequent scene is, it’s hard to shake that image of an actor walking on stage—not because of the story—but because a director told them it was their cue. Want to avoid becoming a zombie-actor? Use “The Moment Before.”

The Moment Before refers to a concept in acting in which actors consider the circumstances before a scene begins. These circumstances may be affected by the preceding plot, the environment of the story world (such as a disaster or significant event) or the individual journeys of the characters. Employing The Moment Before can grant a scene a greater sense of truth, as it hints at the context of the action and the motivations of the characters.

In this article, we’ll outline the basic concept of The Moment Before, utilising examples with a sample scene. We’ll give you everything you need to know to put this concept into action in your process, so that your scenes never lack a sense of context—or the larger, compelling story world.

What is “The Moment Before”?

In the simplest terms, The Moment Before is what happened before the scene began. It is the stimulus for the scene, as it is what propels characters onstage and into the action of the piece. What makes this such an interesting concept—and a powerful tool for an actor—is its ability to inject context, energy and stakes into a scene. Without consideration, actors come on stage or screen because that’s what the script told them to do. With consideration of the moment before, they have a reason to do so.

It could be a story event, such as a battle the king has just fought and lost. It could be environmental, such as acid rain that causes the characters to burst in and strip off their post-apocalyptic jumpsuits. The Moment Before could also be an emotion: the sorrow a widower feels having just come home from their partner’s funeral. It helps to set the tone of a scene: it loads the characters with plot and emotional baggage and pushes them out into the lights with purpose.

The Moment Before Example: Two Brothers

Let’s take a look at an example of The Moment Before in action. The simplest way to drill this concept is to practice with A/B Scenes—short, context-less scripts that allow plenty of creative wiggle room for actors. We have an entire article devoted to A/B Scenes For Actors you should check out. This one, titled Two Brothers, goes like this:

A: Where is it?

B: It’s here somewhere.

A: Help me look for it!

B: I will!

Hardly The Cruciblewe know. It might be a bit thin in terms of character, and shorter than your average haiku, but there’s plenty that can be done to elevate this short dramatic piece using The Moment Before.

Read the piece again, but this time with a Moment Before in mind: The two brothers have just been yelled at by their father for losing his antique pocket watch. 

A: Where is it?

B: It’s here somewhere.

A: Help me look for it!

B: I will!

Suddenly, the scene has so much more pace and energy. By granting the scene context, the boys now have a reason to be on the stage. We could tune The Moment Before even further: The two brothers have just been yelled at by their father for losing his antique pocket watch, which was dropped by them and no longer works. Now, the performances don’t just carry a sense of urgency, but an emotional state: one of dread. Even if they find the pocket watch and achieve their objective, their troubles have only just begun.

A Moment Before for Each Character

The Moment Before does not just apply to the circumstances or environment of the scene. This can be helpful to get your characters working in the same world, with the same parameters. But it’s limiting when you consider how exciting and complex an A/B interaction can be. Try applying The Moment Before to individual characters: how do different circumstances prior to a scene beginning modify it further?

Let’s return to our two brothers. Remember that the they have just been yelled at by their father for losing his antique pocket watch, which was dropped by them and no longer works. This time, Character A’s Moment Before is he was told if he doesn’t find the watch, their father is sending them both to military school. This gives him a stronger motivation to achieve his objective in the scene.

However, Character B’s Moment Before is he was the one who broke the watch in the first place—and has hidden it in his brother’s desk to frame him. For our four-line dramatic epic, the stakes have never been higher:

A: Where is it?

B: It’s here somewhere.

A: Help me look for it!

B: I will!

Proper use of The Moment Before is a solid reminder that good acting can lift a mediocre scene. It can excite, intrigue and flesh out the motivations and stories of the characters.

Applying The Moment Before to Feature Films and Full-Length Plays

How does The Moment Before apply to an actual scene from a full length film or playscript? Exactly the same—except you have more information to build from. Read the script through and understand the context and circumstances of where your given scene ‘fits’. This will give you clues as to what The Moment Before might be.

Sometimes, it’s suggested by a previous, written scene: like on Page 10, where you were chased by a clown and sprained your ankle. Other times, the Moment Before lies in the details of the scene description: if it’s raining outside the pawn shop where you’ve just walked in, how did your character navigate the weather, and how did that contribute to their mood?

The Moment Before is arguably most important for screen acting, as you seldom have the benefit of shooting in chronological order. Know your character’s story and where they’re at physically and emotionally in each scene: this will help your performance tie together in the editing room, informed by their previous escapades.

Popular Moments Before

As an additional resource, we thought we’d include this list of Moment Before prompts to get you started. Remember to experiment with each scene you are performing, and ensure that the moment before fits with what the text suggests to you in script analysis. There is nothing worse than a Big Dramatic Moment Before that does not fit with the actual story. An audience will see through that in five second flat.

  • Location. Where have people come from? What was it like in that other location? What happened there that affects the situation now? (Example: two people walk in from the rain, soaking wet, with all the negative feelings and moods that brings with it.)
  • Emotion. What emotional baggage are your characters bringing in with them? How do they feel coming into this particular scene? (Example: mourners return from the funeral of a dear friend, dead too soon.)
  • Relationships. Can you map out the relationships between your characters? How might their shared history modify a simple interaction on the page, with all that has come before? (Example: at a chance meeting in a coffee shop, former lovers meet after twenty years of silence.)
  • Plot. What has been happening in the story before this? How can you contextualise the scene with what has come before, or what will come after this? (Example: in the previous scene, the characters have been told that if they can’t resolve their differences, they will both find themselves banished from the kingdom.)
  • Objective and action. What does your character want? How do they plan to get it? What might your character have done to achieve their objective in this scene before it even begins? (Example: two flatmates argue about going out to a party, when one of them always drives drunk. The other, before the scene, has hidden their keys for their own safety.)

Experiment And Practice

Admittedly, things don’t look too good for our two, watch-looking brothers. But it doesn’t have to go down that way: we can change The Moment Before in a heartbeat and totally reinvent the scene. What if they’re both looking for the key to the mysterious box they found? Or a present their father has hidden in their room on Christmas morning?

Our final piece of advice on The Moment Before is to experiment and practice modifying scenes with it. Pick a piece, pick the circumstances and the moment before … and then turn that piece on its head completely and try it another way. It’s a great technique to do in an acting class or a scene study group: have everybody pick the same scene, but with different Moments Before. You’ll be surprised how many ways you can squeeze blood from the stone of a simple script!

When you get really good (read: comfortable) with The Moment Before, applying it and changing it up will become like a game. This is what you’re shooting for—as you should with every acting technique. Learn a skill, practice a skill, make it a part of your actor’s process. And then treat it like play.

Good luck!

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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