How many relationships are really in the scene? A lot more than you might think!
When fleshing out relationships in a scene, every actor will tackle the most prominent one. Most actors will develop relationships with secondary or ensemble characters in the scene. However, not many actors take a true tally of all the relationships that are in any given scene and take full ownership of them by personalizing them in a way that elicits an emotional connection.
Characters in both comedy and drama spend a lot of time talking about the people in their lives who aren’t present. For example, if you have a scene featuring a brother and sister planning their father’s retirement party, and the emphasis is on the debate between the brother and sister regarding how the party will be executed, actors very often fail to develop their relationship with the father.
Although Dad’s not in the scene, he is referenced. The conversation has everything to do with him and a milestone in his life that includes the entire family. If the actor hasn’t thought through their relationship with him, there’s a lot of depth that is not being mined in the scene. It’s very likely brother and sister don’t have the exact same experience or opinion of dad. If they continue talking about his party without a developed relationship—an emotional attachment to him—the scene will suffer.
Comedy, in particular, is very gossipy. People talk about each other all the time. Two characters can rattle off the names of every other character in the show in just one scene! Your thoughts, opinions, and experience of each person to whom you refer should be evidenced in your performance.
Aside from people, characters talk a great deal about past memories and future plans. I’ve found over the years that not only is this a weak area of exploration for a lot of actors, for some it was never even a consideration. Yet indeed, we do have relationships with the very thoughts in our heads. Sometimes we’re more emotionally connected to thoughts than people.
Our memories are like emotional time machines. Just thinking about the best experience of your life can make you happy; thinking about the worst can you make you anxious or angry—in many cases, to the same degree you felt those emotions the first time around. Once our emotions are churning, our physiology begins to change. Peaceful thoughts can you slow your breathing and temperature down. Turbulent memories can raise your blood pressure and make your heart palpitate.
So if your character is discussing an event from the past, it’s important to ignite some or all of that emotion when speaking the words. Otherwise there’s a vacancy in the performance. If an actor isn’t having an emotional recollection, just an intellectual one, then he’s not really even acting. Anyone can memorize words and say them back.
The same is true for dreams and future plans. We develop strong emotional relationships to our thoughts about what we want. The end of a dream can cause as much grief as the end of a person’s life. Your dreams and memories are deeply personal and they’re what make you uniquely you. So it is true for your characters. Make sure you are giving those moments justice in your performance.
Lastly, ensure you are developing relationships to objects either present or not present, but mentioned in the scene. If you’re speaking about something obviously sentimental like a photo of your late grandmother, chances are you will have an emotional connection to the photo. But what about a coffee cup? A preferred spot on the sofa? A sandwich?
Particularly in comedy, the idiosyncrasies of a character manifest in their attachment to objects in their world. Again, the point is to ignite yourself emotionally when you see such a reference. If a coffee cup doesn’t move you, but it moves your character, what’s your personal substitution? It’s up to you to give those moments emotion.
In summary, a three-to-four page scene can easily have 20 or more references that have meaning to your character. Develop all of those relationships and your work will be much deeper and more impactful.