on the learning of lines and the telling of the story

Scene 15 is a little over three pages of intense dialog, some important character beats, and a fair amount of technobabble. We were supposed to shoot it tomorrow, but it was moved to this afternoon, so my plan to learn it tonight was pushed up by almost 24 hours.

People always want to know how actors learn lines, and there isn't one correct answer, because we all do it in different ways: some of us learn by reading the script over and over again, some of us learn by performing the entire scene aloud by ourselves, some of us write the scene down, and some of us run lines with another person until we have the dialog in our heads.

I learn my lines by understanding the scene, deciding what each line (or dramatic beat) is about, and then trying different things with my lines until I find the choice that makes the most sense. For example, last week we had a scene where I kept blanking on one of my lines. After a couple of takes I realized that I couldn't remember the line because I was doing the wrong thing with it, and that was making my brain short out. I can't tell you the actual line, but I can tell you that the acting choice — which was wrong — was Make An Offer. When I realized that Make An Offer was wrong, and Look For Permission was right, the scene came together, and we were done in two more takes.

I also have to understand what's at stake in each scene. I need to know exactly what my character wants and needs, so I can make choices for him to get there. As I said on Twitter recently, I realized that Doctor Parrish's favorite thing in the world is "I told you so." Evil Wil Wheaton's favorite thing in the world is, "Ha! Gotcha, Sheldon Cooper." Cha0s' favorite thing in the world is, "I know something you don't know, and never will know, because I am so much smarter than you." Knowing these things gives me a place to begin in every script, just like "Don't Be A Dick" gives me a place to begin every day in my real life.

But back to today's work. I learned today's scene by breaking down the entire thing into beats, and then placed those beats within the context of the rest of the episode (In Eureka, something fantastic usually happens in the first few pages, and the bulk of the show — and the fun in each episode — is spent figuring it out and fixing it) so I know what the stakes are.

Some of the things Doctor Parrish is doing today:

  • Share scientific insight.
  • Correct them. Again.
  • Accuse him.
  • Solve the Problem. Easily. (Jesus they're idiots.)
  • Ha! I told you so.

It's easy, while doing television, to just learn the lines and rely on instinct and experience with the character you've been playing for a long time to bring it all together. We never have enough time, and some of us are working 12 hours a day, five days a week, so there are times when we're just so burned out and exhausted, we simply don't have the energy to really dig in and do more than that. While there are some great actors who can do that and deliver brilliant performances, I'm not one of them. I don't want to miss any beats. I don't want to miss any nuances because I'm relying on instinct instead of complete understanding of the scene. For example, the beat I mentioned above, where I share scientific insight, was originally Share a good idea, but while I was playing with the scene last night and again this morning, I realized that it was more specific, and stronger, and more interesting to share scientific insight. Maybe the difference between the two choices is too subtle to matter in the final cut, but it's a significant difference to me, so I made the change.

I guess I work a little harder than I have to, partially because I feel it's my responsibility as an actor to rise to the demands of the material and tell the story as fully as I can, but mostly because it's fun to break down a scene and find the strongest obvious and non-obvious choices that will tell the story the way it deserves to be told. The moments I live for — the moments I love — as an actor are the moments in rehearsal or during a take when I discover something about the character or the scene that wasn't aware of until the exact moment I found it … just like real life, which is what we're aiming to recreate whenever we make up a story, even a story that's all about nano[REDACTED] and hyper[SPOILER] [SPOILER].

28 thoughts on “on the learning of lines and the telling of the story”

  1. I adore you and everything you write. Can’t wait to see more of you on Eureka. And I’m dying for season 5 of The Guild. Keep doing what you do – it works! :)

  2. That’s a fascinating take on it, so…. where do we find this list of beats? “Make an offer,” “Ask for permission.” This is the sort of sentence-by-sentence intensity that, as a writer, I’d really like to get a grip upon. Can you make any recommendations?

  3. I trained with an acting teacher who taught a method developed by Sanford Meisner. Part of that method was to find something he called "doable actions" with each line. I don't know if there's a list anywhere; I built the one in my head over about ten years, by finding beats while breaking down scenes on my own, talking with and directing other actors, and watching movies not for the story, but to reverse engineer what each actor is doing in each scene, and critically deciding if I believed it or not.

  4. I always learn so much about how to approach my writing and performance from reading about your approaches to writing and performance. I love the concepts of Make an Offer and Ask Permission. I mostly use Say Yes! from improv. Thanks for being so generous! Looking forward to learning more from you.

  5. This is a really insightful post, Wil. Thank you for writing it. As I read through it, especially the last two paragraphs, this light went off in my head: Now I see why I like the dialogue in your stories!
    Food for thought… I hope in the future you have plans to write a book on writing. I’ve never seen this particular take on dialogue before. I’m glad I have now. Cool cool stuff!

  6. Oh, I love this so much. I’m (although mildly embarrassed to admit this) pretty sure I could currently win the title of world’s most obsessed Eureka fan (if we measured by most words of fanfiction written and published on ff.net) so I’ve been reading because of that. (Okay, following on Twitter, actually.) But this post means that even if someday I burn out on Eureka, I’ll keep reading what you write because I’ve become a you-fan, instead of just a Eureka fan. It’s just so useful. Smart. Insightful. I’m going to be thinking about it with the next story I write. And I might even be kind to Parrish! (Although probably not. He’s an ass, and I like Fargo.)

  7. May I use some of this in my classes? I teach theatre (and run the entire theatre program!) at my high school and while I’m a good director, I’m not an actor. I think this might help articulate some of what they need to know.

  8. I couldn’t agree more with your closing statement. The best moments in my minor acting career (read: high school) were when I completely became the character and my actions and tone diverged from what I thought should occur and became instinctual reaction and genuine emotion. The words even seemed to become wrought from my own mind rather than some script from a long dead writer. The hard part is bottling the essence of that moment and regurgitating it night after night on the stage.

  9. I am just happy for you that you do what I wanted to do, (and now it does not really matter anymore if I don’t do acting, but i clearly remember the desire and the joy of acting), anyway, living in a moment and being that character-person is possible when you empty your mind, and, because emptiness can become anything, you can become someone else, kind of like zen, you are that person and live that life in those moment-to-moment scenes. Awesome Wil, I like you, thanks for sharing -love your writings, you are so open, thanks!

  10. Do you mean don’t be negative towards others or are you hoping that no one is negative towards you?
    WW quote – “Don’t Be A Dick” gives me a place to begin every day in my real life.

  11. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Dr. Parrish, if for no other reason than to see you get to add more depth to him. Because, by your own admission, he’s a bit of a dick. As is Evil Wil. As is Chaos. As is Fawkes. And you are so NOT a dick. I mean, it’s even in your family crest. I’d love to see you play the nice guy again. I miss seeing him on screen. (Though truth be told, it will always probably be better to read your thoughts here than to see you on TV. I think in my mind you’ve officially made the transition to writer who it’s cool to catch on TV from time to time rather than actor who happens to blog.)

  12. Yes! That looks like it’s taken from Sandy’s book, which is wonderful. You can only get the most out of it, though, by studying with someone who really understands it and knows how to teach it.

  13. thanks- i really love reading about your process, because it seems so different from others that i have known. i find it really intriguing and i learn something new every time. i just started streaming Eureka and i can’t wait to finally get to your season(s).

  14. Ooooh…tooools! *snatches and puts in brain for multiple uses later*
    Not an actor, only sort of a writer…I’m a Jill of All Trades and I see usefulness and get excited. :)

  15. Great post. And I totally agree. If you know your character, what you’re doing in the scene and why, then even if you can’t dredge up the exact line in the heat of the moment, you can get close enough to continue the scene (I’m a stage actor myself, so no retakes). Another good thing about that is if an actor you’re working with goes off the rails, you’re in a much better position to steer things back in the right direction than if you had just memorized the lines in a rote manner.

  16. True confessions: as I don’t have cable, I totally didn’t realize Eureka was still on the air until I read it here in your blog. And I am totally geeked to get caught up on Netflix.
    When I was a kid, I could learn lines like nothing. I knew all of my lines and everyone else’s inside of a week. My senior year in college, I was in a terrible production with a lead actress who didn’t remember anything, ever, I suddenly got stage fright because I started panicking about remembering my lines. It’s the same feeling I get if someone asks if I want to play centerfield in a casual softball game: “Oh, god, I’m going to fuck up and everyone’s going to be mad because they’re all depending on me.”
    For me, I think part of it’s also that I write dialogue, and I get miffed when someone biffs a line, because I work so hard at getting the wording exactly right in every case. So I want to get the line perfectly right instead of almost right, and as we all know: perfection is the enemy of good.
    Oh, great. I’m probably going to have the playwright’s nightmare tonight. The one where it’s opening night, the lights are on in the house, the audience is talking to each other, and all the actors have the scripts in their hands.

  17. Thank you for this, Wil. I spent nearly half my time in college in the Theatre Dept., mostly behind the scenes, building and lighting them. I didn’t audition, because I was a Mass Communications major and didn’t think I was good enough for the stage. It wasn’t until my junior year that I went onstage when a couple of my friends were in directing classes. It was then that I learned of beats, which unlocked that next level of understanding acting. One of my few regets of college, which are few, indeed, is that I never auditioned for one of the major productions. One of the professors/directors was very encouraging after seeing my performances in the scenes I played, and I really wanted to act in one of his productions, becuause I respected him as a director. Unfortunately it was late in my academic career, and I was busy working at the local TV station from 4 to 7 in the morning, so late night rehearsals were out of the question, and I couldn’t have given it my full attention.
    What you’ve written here has given me that wonderful feeling, almost like a drug, that comes as understanding floods through the mind like a cool, gentle but persistent breeze. That rush is what I love most about learning.

  18. In College I took an acting 101 class, not because I thought I was going to be an actor, I was actually horrible at it, but because I was going to be a great director and wanted to understand what actors did and how they did it. the text for the class was Acting is Believing and the instructor was all about Beats. I understood it intelectually but never really groked the concept. This post helped clarify the concept for me. Of course I never became a great director, I found while being a PA that the really cool stuff was coming out of the truck so I went on to the G&E emphasis on the E. After 30 years I still do it when I can. there is nothing like lighting a scene and sitting back and watching the actor come on and give the amazing performances. That is the only reason why all of us are there. To shoot the performance. At the end of the day, if that is not accomplished then every ones time has been wasted.

  19. I have to say as a scientist there is a huge difference between a good idea and a scientific insight. The former almost always falls apart on closer inspection and the latter is typically dead on or at least testable.

  20. Knowing these things gives me a place to begin in every script, just like “Don’t Be A Dick” gives me a place to begin every day in my real life.
    Love this! Really well said.

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