Review by Rob Hartmann
ACTOR’S ALCHEMY: Finding the Gold in the Script. By Bruce Miller. 188 pp. Limelight Editions, an imprint of Hal Leonard, 2011. $16.99 (paperback); ISBN 978-0-87910-383-5
In his book Actor’s Alchemy: Finding the Gold in the Script, Bruce Miller lays out a very detailed, yet easy to understand process of script analysis for actors. Speaking as a writer, I hope all young actors read Mr. Miller’s book and absorb his advice on ways to understand and communicate a playwright’s work.
I have seen many student actors make common missteps: they generalize, approach scenes passively, exhibit “fuzzy thinking”, and fail to really make use of the words of the script. The ability to be specific versus general in one’s acting choices is, in my opinion, the chief skill which defines the professional, trained actor. Mr. Miller points out that it is impossible to be specific if you have only a general comprehension of the story you are trying to tell. Some beginning actors, when advised to “be specific”, don’t know what to do – only because they have never had the nuts-and-bolts of what specificity means explained to them in a useful manner. Mr. Miller, who is the Director of Acting Programs at the University of Miami, has seized on this pervasive problem, and focused his book almost completely on enabling actors to fully understand the scripts they are trying to bring to life.
Mr. Miller takes the reader step by step through the process of breaking down a script into its smallest components; he then explores all the options available to the actor once they understand the script thoroughly – everything an actor might do to take specific, effective action. Unlike many books on script analysis, Actor’s Alchemy makes the connection between understanding and doing very clear.
Although this book is probably most useful for young actors (Mr. Miller mentions his work with students a number of times in the book), I think any actor who would like a concise refresher on analyzing a script and finding strong acting choices would find this book worth reading. I believe Mr. Miller’s advice would be especially helpful in giving nuanced readings of sides at an audition, when actors are often forced by necessity to deliver a scene with little or no knowledge of the larger context of the play.
Mr. Miller’s tone is engaging – clear, authoritative, never dull. The book explores its subject comprehensively, yet is a fairly quick read. Mr. Miller has a true knack for storytelling, which not all textbook authors do; I was halfway through the book before I realized it. Perhaps it’s unusual to describe an educational book such as this as a “page turner”, but I believe this book qualifies.
Like all books which aim to teach a specific skill, Mr. Miller’s work is at its strongest when he is dealing with concrete examples. The book contains the full text of the short one-act Eye to Eye, by Chris Graybill; Mr. Miller dissects the play in a number of ways, showing the reader exactly what steps one needs to take to be fully prepared to begin rehearsals.
Many books on script analysis for the actor don’t think to go further than talking about what the actor can do with his or her dialogue; Mr. Miller includes a section about the importance of being fully present when another character is speaking. The chapter begins:
Even when watching classroom scenework, it’s pretty easy to tell which actors have equipped themselves to enter the marketplace and sustain a career. They’re the ones who can bring their strong analysis skills to the scene and know how to make choices based on what they have learned from the script, yes; but these are the ones who can also listen as well as give and take onstage. ... [A]nalysis and synthesis are essential for making choices about character and story action, but listening and reacting in the moment is every bit as important, and ultimately you must make all of these aspects work together.
The chapter goes on to describe some interesting exercises which can help improve and sharpen one’s ability to be an active listener onstage.
There are certain books intended for actors and directors which I recommend to writers as well; I have now added Actor’s Alchemy to that list. Mr. Miller’s thoughts about how to “find the gold” in a script (he mines the alchemy analogy thoroughly) I believe will be inspiring and instructive for playwrights: in order for actors to find any gold, we have to make sure we’re creating work which contains gold for them to discover.
Any actor, student or professional, who wants to improve his or her skill at unearthing every possible layer of meaning and action in a dramatic text, would do well to read Mr. Miller’s concise yet thorough book. In an audition or a rehearsal, the techniques Mr. Miller describes will give dedicated actors effective tools to focus and sharpen their performances. To borrow the author’s alchemy analogy – this book just may be the key to transform base metal into gold.
Rob Hartmann is a composer, lyricist and bookwriter on the faculty of New York University’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program; his works have been produced in a number of theaters across the country.