You never know who your next scene partner will be, whether it is in a commercial, film, television show, the theater, or in class. But no matter who you work with next, you’ll be expected to communicate effectively, artistically, and engage with this person in a meaningful way. After all, playing well with others is a job requirement for performers.
Casting directors keenly observe the interactions between actors in the audition room, and they’ve witnessed every kind of interpersonal dynamic imaginable. Sometimes the chemistry flows quite naturally, allowing both performers’ work to shine. Other times, the energy can feel awkward and strained, interfering with the overall performances.
With the goal of working together to bring out the best in one another, here are four practices to avoid with a scene partner:
Upstaging When a performer physically takes focus from their scene partner so as to dominate the attention, making it harder for the viewer to be able to see and fully appreciate the scene partner. For example, an actor who repositions his chair so it’s at the forefront of the screen effectively diminishes his scene partner in the process.
Invading someone’s space
Every actor, regardless of gender, has his or her own range of acceptable touch that must be respected. So before “Action” is called, it’s important to agree upon any physical contact you intend to initiate or receive. Whether the role calls for a handshake, hug, or kiss, take the time to discuss what physicality your scene partner is comfortable with. In other words, a scene partner should not be regarded as a prop.
Steamrolling occurs when one actor talks in such a manner that he or she doesn’t allow the other actor to naturally add input in the scene. The manner of speaking tends to be so fast, it’s hard for the scene partner to even think straight, let alone jump into the act. This leaves an acting partner feeling sidelined.
When improvising, sometimes performers forget the important step of interacting with their scene partner with the organic “yes, and” frame of mind. Rather, they allow their own flow of ideas to overwhelm the scene by talking incessantly, assuming their ideas are on target. Unfortunately, even though their words are being expressed spontaneously, that’s not what improv seeks to achieve. Improv seeks to bring forth genuine, fresh interactions—a worthwhile collaboration that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Improv, when done properly, brings tremendous value to all actors involved.
Even well-established actors can have trouble avoiding these practices
These four practices can sometimes occur subtly, even by celebrated actors. But onscreen magic occurs when actors exhibit a generous spirit. For example, “Jason Bourne” actress Julia Stiles reflected on a particularly generous scene partner she had toward the beginning of her career. On the “PEOPLE in the ’90s” podcast, Stiles shared what it was like to work alongside the late Heath Ledger in the 1999 high school film “10 Things I Hate About You.”
Recalling a famous scene in which her character recites a poem in front of her class, the actress said, “I remember Heath Ledger was so gracious about the whole thing. I appreciate this so much more now having worked more. He wasn’t trying to compete with me. He stood back, and he was like this is your scene.” When filming his reaction shot, she appreciates that he didn’t well up to draw attention back to himself. “He didn’t go, ‘Okay, now I have to do something with my side of the camera.’ He was just like, ‘That was beautiful, and this is your scene.’” She finds this a rare quality in acting partners.
Julia continued, “He had his amazing moments in the movie, too,” referring to a scene in which Ledger sings and dances on the steps by the football field. “But he was confident enough, even just starting out, to be like, ‘I’m handing over the stage to you.’ And I learned way later in life that doesn’t always happen.”
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