Note to Actors: “Really Ask the Question.”

This blog is mostly for my fellow actors.

One of the things I like to do here is talk about what directors TEND to do when communicating with us, what I THINK they often mean, and how YOU can adjust your performance to give them what they want while staying faithful to your notion of CHARACTER TRUTH at the same time.

Most of the time, your director is on your side. They are doing their very best to serve the story, and they are doing their very best to make YOU look good. Give them credit. It’s a challenging job.

Now, as you know, I can be rather critical of directors, and have written in the past about how directors can help themselves help actors. So, let us examine a note I hear directors give actors, and how actors sometimes respond:

  • Director: “REALLY ask the question.”
  • Actor: ‘What?”
  • D: “With your line, really ASK the question.”
  • A: “Sure.”
  • —–they run the scene again—–
  • D: “Okay. I did not hear you ask the question…”
  • A:  “Okay…Um…”
  • D: “REALLY ASK the question.”
  • A: “Okay.”
  • —–they run the scene again—–
  • D: “Upward inflect.”
  • A: “What?”
  • D: “I need you to REALLY ASK THE QUESTION.”
  • A: “Okay…I thought I was…”
  • D: “I need you to INFLECT UP at the end of the line so I know that it is a question.”

Okay, let’s EXAMINE this note, shall we? I think directors sometimes see this -“?”- symbol in a script and think that A) it means that the character is REALLY looking for an answer or B) a sentence with that symbol at the end should upward inflect (rise in pitch) at the end. I believe that SOMETIMES a question is a question (but this is rare: the intention behind so-called questions is typically not “to get an answer.”), and SOMETIMES questions should rise in pitch at the end of the line.

I have explored the idea of intention behind questions here, so let’s examine inflection, shall we? Because, NO, sometimes a QUESTION is NOT a question, and upward infecting is a goofy idea, as a rule.

On Inflection:

  • “How was your day? – This seems to usually want to rise with the word DAY, doesn’t it? Especially if your wife just got home, and you are really wondering or even making casual conversation (welcoming, perhaps). But, if you have asked the question of one person in the room, and then are asking someone else, you might rise or “inflect up” on the word YOUR, maybe.
  • Let’s look at another question: “What do you want to do tonight?” As a question (meaning, when asked, is looking for an answer), this might not need any upward inflection to be considered a real question. If you inflect up or emphasize the last word, you might be looking for some response which takes time (tonight vs. last night) into consideration.
  • And then, of course, there is the rhetorical question isn’t there? A rhetorical question does not look for an answer, and is, instead, used to argue a point, so, perhaps, upward inflection is not required here, either.

If, actors, you take anything from this post, please take away the notion that even though directors sometimes say silly things or parrot various phrases they have heard from other directors/teachers (“really ask the question”, etc.), it is your job to defend your character’s choices and how you say the things you, as the character, say. Play with inflection. And, when your character is looking for an answer, really look. What does your character expect when asking the question? You might inflect up, you might not. If you are evaluating your scene partner, and reacting to them, the action of question and answer will be easily seen, and the technical note of “upward inflect” will not be given because you are really listening, really talking, you are behaving with believability.

Thanks for reading.

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