Given Circumstances For Actors

Given Circumstances For Actors

The actor picks up the script, reads it, forms first impressions about the story, and “character” he is to play, and is eager to start “acting” using these first impressions as a blueprint for his work on the role. With this approach, the actor’s work seldom progresses past a superficial understanding of the life of the character in the author’s Given Circumstances.

The actor using this approach may pick out parts of the script which seem to “indicate” certain emotions the “character” feels at that point in the story, and try to duplicate in his own way these emotions. The results from working this way are usually mechanical in nature. Because the actor has “figured it all out” after reading the play once or twice, the more experienced artist will observe the actor working and conclude the actor is “in his head”, or “too intellectual”.

The preceding pages at this site have given you many techniques and procedures to help you achieve the “creative state”, or “the moment of inspiration” from which creative work can develop. If you have read the preceding pages, you know by now that analyzing a part involves much work if you are to attain a level of artistic achievement beyond the superficial.


We learn to relax. We learn to use sense memory. We develop our powers of concentration. We learn to choose objects upon which to concentrate. Then we make choices, deciding upon which objects we will concentrate at various moments of the story. Ideally, the “blueprint” for our work will be a string of objects, tied logically together to support the “spine”, or “theme” or “main objective” or “concept” of the author’s play.

[Above; Spine of the play] One or more choices can be made for each scene in the play, but all choices should tie in to the spine of the play, as do all scenes. At times, one choice may be enough to carry the actor through several scenes.

Where Do These Choices Come From?

First of all, it’s a good idea to have the “spine” of the play verbalized. During production, this is usually determined by the director, who should have a clear interpretation of the author’s intent. But actors working on scenes in class will have to ask themselves, “What is this play about?”. This question does not mean “What is the plot of the play?”. Anyone can determine the plot of the play by simply reading the play.

The actor has to ask, “What is the play about in terms of the human condition?”, or “What is the author trying to say to the world with his work?”. The answer to this question should be given in forty words or less. The more clear the answer, the fewer words needed to express it. When the actor (or director) determines what the play is about in human values, the process of making choices moves from the realm of “general” to “specific”. Once you decide what the play is about, you ask, “How does this scene tie into what the play is about?”, or “What is this scene about in terms of the play?”.

After you know what the play is about, you can begin to explore the author’s Given Circumstances.


The Given Circumstances of the play can include anything the author has supplied with his story.

Some examples include:

  • Place – (where the scene takes place)
  • Sensory Elements – (heat, cold, looking out a window, physical handicaps, etc.)
  • Relationships – (to the other characters and to the “event” of the scene, what others in the play say about you, etc.)
  • Period – Specific choices regarding the period of the play

For a better understanding of making choices for a scene, let’s examine the above examples individually:

Place: Let’s suppose the scene takes place in the living room of an apartment. You “live” there. Now, the set may look nothing at all like your own living room. It may be quite different in all respects. You need to make a choice that will make that “imaginary” living room your living room. We need to believe that you believe that you live there, and that the “set” is in reality your own living room. Simply accepting that condition as a fact may not be enough to make it personal for you.

If you have the opportunity to spend some private time on the set, you can begin to behave “as if” it were your apartment. How do you behave when you are alone in your living room? How is this behavior changed when you are not alone in your living room?

You can use sense memory to create a wall of your own living room as the “fourth wall” of the apartment (the invisible wall separating you from the audience). If you are successful in creating this personal wall, you may start to feel “more at home” in your imaginary apartment. So you “choose” to create that wall to help you believe you are actually in your apartment living room. After some practice with this, your sense of belief will become second nature for you.

Sensory Elements: In the author’s story, your mother has recently died. It is obvious you are having a hard time accepting this fact. At a certain point in the story, it is indicated by the author that you cry while talking to another character in the story. The Sense Memory exercise can be very useful at this point. It can lead you to an Affective Memory, or you can use your imagination to sensorally create an “imaginary object” upon which to concentrate. For example, a minute or so before you, the actor, knows you must cry, you can sensorally create a loved one lying dead in a coffin. If your senses respond truthfully, the desired result will happen of its own accord. You won’t need to force it. So, creating the coffin with your dead loved one in it becomes your “choice” for that moment in the scene.

Given Circumstances should not be taken lightly. If the author indicates it is extremely hot in your apartment, your “choice” to create the heat must be very specific. Extreme heat can have unpredictable effects on people. If you simply “indicate” the heat with conventional gestures, you will miss subtle changes in behavior that take place in you when you are truly hot. Sensory creation of heat will help create that behavior. Just making the effort to concentrate on the sensory elements of the heat will strengthen your concentration onstage, which in turn makes you more believable to the observer.

Relationships: Think of stage relationships in two ways. 1) You have been given a relationship to the other actors on the stage by the author. 2) You have a relationship to the other actors on the stage as fellow artists involved in the same production. Obvious, right?

But one of the author’s Given Circumstances tells you that “Actor A”, who is your worst enemy in real life, is your beloved wife in the story. How can you convince the audience that you truly love this bitter foe playing opposite you?

You make a choice to do a Substitution, which involves sensorally creating a person you really love in place of the actor you are working with. If you employ your full powers of concentration to this task, it will work for you.

Let’s examine another example. The author has given “Actor B” a line in the story in a scene in which you are not present that says, “That Stanley is really a brute boor.” You are Stanley. Although “Actor B” never says this to your face, you the actor have this information to play with. The choice you make concerning your relationship onstage with “Actor B” can now be filled with an inner life personal to you. It will be a more specific relationship. In making your choice, you can either use the actual “Actor B”, or you can again use a Substitution.

Period: When does the play take place? If it is a period play, you will more than likely be costumed in clothing of that period. Is wearing the costume enough to convince the audience that you are “Cyrano”? Of course not. Shelley Winters says “You have to understand, a man who wears a sword walks differently than one who doesn’t. You have to have a sense of period costumes, how they can change people’s bodies and minds.”

And study the language. Colloquialisms of various periods in history have very specific meanings that may transcend our modern comprehension. What will the actor 100 years from now think when he picks up a script from 1999 which has a character saying, “Oh, too cool.”?


IMPORTANT QUESTION: What were you doing before the scene started?

Were you backstage chatting with your fellow actors? I hope not. I hope you were concentrating on what you as the character were doing before the scene takes place. Exactly where are you coming from, physically and emotionally? If you are already onstage at the top of the scene, what are you thinking? Why is this scene taking place? What would happen if this scene didn’t take place? What does the author give you about your previous circumstances? Whatever it is, it should be part of your present circumstances. It should fill you. It should be part of your life in the moment.

When analyzing a script, don’t take anything for granted. You may find the key to your entire performance buried somewhere in the middle of the script in a line spoken by another character while you are not even present in the scene.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *