Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why You Need To Play With Your Characters’ Status

I’m currently having great fun reading Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation And The Theatre. It’s a book of improvisation techniques and exercises for theatre actors, and it’s full of enlightening insights for screenwriters. In his chapter on status, for example, Johnstone sets out how he gets actors to understand, through practicing different roles, the importance of the various characters’ status in a scene. He gives some hilarious examples of students playing high and low status to each other, to the space around them, to objects and so on. But always with the intention of making students aware…

… that we are pecking-order animals and that this affects the tiniest details of our behaviour.

It’s essential for actors to understand what status characters have in the scene, and to what extent this conflicts with what they and the other characters believe about themselves. Is it a master-servant relationship, a subtle difference of rank, do the characters have superiors as well as minions, etc.

The issue of status is also important for screenwriters, though. Even a scene with no dialogue can show the characters’ attitudes to themselves and each other in terms of status. A character who feels in charge, who is on their own territory, will move and occupy the space differently from someone who feels intimidated and powerless. Equally, in terms of dialogue, characters constantly reinforce or challenge each other’s status with the subtleties of their language.

Above all, status is expressed in behaviour. It’s not just some abstract notion of social standing or military rank. One character may formally have a lower status than another, but they can still play high-status, in order to bluff or to reassure themselves, or for some other reason.

Here’s a brief example from The Departed by William Monahan. In this scene Billy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to infiltrate into the mob run by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). He’s been called in to meet with Costello at his home. He’s wearing a wire and he’s very scared of being discovered. Also present is Costello’s right-hand man Mr. French (Ray Winstone), a ruthless killer.

Costello sits down in the breakfast area in his bathrobe. He has a bowl of cornflakes.


.....Have a seat Billy.

.....Thank you.

.........(he looks up)
.....You know John Lennon?

Billy sits. Mister French is nearby.

.....Yeah, he was president before

.....Lennon said “I’m an artist. You
.....give me a fuckin’ tuba and I’ll get
.....you something out of it.”

.....I’d like to squeeze some fuckin’
.....money out of it.

Costello and Mr. French look at each other.

.....Smart mouth. Too bad.

Costello lifts a piece of plastic on the table revealing a severed human hand. Billy tries to conceal his shock.

See how that’s done? Costello receives Billy in his pyjamas while eating his breakfast. He is so much higher in status that he is completely unthreatened and totally at ease. He also has his lieutenant at his side. He gets to determine when Billy sits and Billy confirms the relationship by politely thanking him. Then Billy shows he’s more than just another hoodlum for hire by being flippant, and it’s clear that Costello registers this and appreciates it. He does this first of all by smiling, and when Billy is flippant again, by looking at his lieutenant before speaking, as if to say: Do you see how much guts this guy has got?

Costello’s judgement, passed as perfunctorily as Caesar at the games, “Smart mouth. Too bad,” expresses amusement and concern. These both reflect his higher status. He’s saying: I like this guy and I might consider hiring him, but he also might just be too clever for his own good so I might just have to put him in his place. So to finish off, just to show Billy who’s really boss, Costello uncovers the human hand on his desk.

This scene would have played very differently if Billy didn’t try and up his status by being clever. He takes a huge risk, because his flippancy can be construed as a sign of strength (I’m not scared of anyone), or of nervousness (I’ve got something to hide). We the audience feel his anxiety. We feel hope as he impresses Costello and then despair when Costello cuts him back down to size.

Great insights from Keith Johnstone, great writing from William Monahan. Don’t you just love this profession?


Brett Johnson said...

Impro is an amazing book, and Keith's insights into Status are hugely insightful (recently posted on status myself). Nice example of the unspoken, underlying tension and push/pull implicit in the Departed scene.

Anonymous said...

Dave Herman,

On my honeymoon, we saw a stage play in London. I walked out and she was pissed. And that night no one got any booty.

Moral, I'm really sorry I can't comment on any screenwriting tip associated with theatre.

As a screenwriter, I cannot understand theatre and its teachings.

Dave, I feel I'm really not connecting and I don't understand theatre.

In this world, are there guys and dolls who really like THEATRE? Are there theatre goers who really love this stuff or are they faking it?

What is there to like and learn from theatre?

I don't get it?

Sorry if I sounded like a disrespecful asshole.


Raving Dave Herman said...

I just find Keith Johnstone's writing inspiring. He writes about actors learning to improvise, and if there's one thing your screenplay needs to be, it's interesting for actors.

His observations make a lot of sense to me in terms of writing dialogue and in terms of being aware of what's driving your scene.

Don't let the word "theatre" get in your way!!

Anonymous said...

I can't. Have you written a stageplay? How come the stageplay business is not as lucrative as the screenplay business? What is there to learn with stageplays?

Brett Johnson said...

LS - I also did not 'get' the theater thing for a while - until i realized that it was different from a film or tv show (or novel) only in the method used to tell the story. Though it has its own qualities (in particular, the performance being done live instead of filmed), quirks, and history, it is essentially just a different form to tell a story through.

One possible valuable difference is the fact that, compared to a movie (where whatever the camera is pointed at the viewer is forced to view), a play done live/ on-stage requires the performers (and playwright) to work with the understanding that they have to direct the audience's attention to the important things on-stage, and if there is other activity going on the distraction should be minimized. It sounds like the show you saw in London was not very good at all at keeping attention and interest (to which Keith Johnstone would tsk-tsk, and not blame you for walking out).