The creative power of questions
About a year ago or so ago I went to an acting workshop led by Amos Crawley, which focused on his method of breaking down a scene. The way he does it is by going back to elementary school basics; he focuses on answering the five ‘W’s of the scene: who, what, where, when, and why. What stood out to me as unique was when he told us to not worry about the ‘how’. ‘The ‘how’ of the scene, how we play the scene, is the thing most actors jump to first, when it should be the thing we think about last. If we answer the other questions of the scene, (and by doing so, know the scene inside and out) we will be able to answer ‘how’ to best play it. This was the first time I’ve head this idea laid out so clearly and succinctly. In much of my experience, the focus in rehearsal rooms, has been on how to play a scene, rather than exploring all the questions about the piece first, and allowing the scene to develop based on those answers. Think about it, how many of you read a scene and immediately jump to ‘I’ll do it like this!’ ? I know I’m guilty of jumping to what I think is the right way to play it. What happens if we don’t do that? The ‘how’ is the statement we make, it is the final project, and it is in the rehearsal room that we try to answer that question. What happens if we leave that to the end? If the rehearsal is used to explore the question, rather than giving an answer? If we find the answer at the end of the rehearsal period, and not near the beginning?
I love questions. Questions have been the driving force of my life: what do I want to be when I grow up? Why do I want to be an actor? What does it mean to me to be an actor? How do I get to be an actor?
A few years ago I found myself broke and wanting to take classes. As someone who loves questions, I also love learning (surprise, surprise!). I felt that trying to act on my own was not benefitting me as well as being in a group setting would. Acting is not a solo craft, and there’s only so much one can do on their own. You need others, an audience, or other actors; this is especially true if you’re looking to improve, which I was. So I asked a question, how do I keep improving my craft, with the help and support of others, when I don’t have the means to take classes? The first answer that popped into my head was find a group of actors who want the same thing and work together. The next question was, how do I find these people and how do we get this going? When I began asking this question to others, I began hearing possibilities. One person suggested two actors who might be interested in starting something. Those two had ideas about how to make a this kind of group, who might want to join, and how we might work. Eventually, we had our first meeting.
The next question we had to attempt to answer was, how to use this time to try to benefit a number of people with different backgrounds and goals? We were all peers, and we were trying to allow the group to run as a unit with no leader. A group of actors in a room with no director presents some challenges. Sometimes we would not work, rather chatting, complaining or gossiping through our work time. Though our intentions were incredibly supportive, when we did present pieces to one another, we would do as all actors do, and direct the performer into performing the piece as we would do it. This led to some anxiety to present in front of one another, and a question as to ‘why was this happening and how can we stop it?’
Our answer lay in questions. We began asking performers who were presenting to let us know where they were in working on their piece, what their goals were, and if there was anything in particular they wanted us to pay attention to, and then as observers, we stuck to asking questions rather than making statements.
As actors, we are taught to listen to teachers and directors; take what they tell us and give them what they want. In our acting group, we wanted our members to think about what they were aiming for, and what they wanted their pieces to be. As observers, we wanted to help them achieve their goals, rather than direct them into what we would do. Asking questions put the answers back onto the actor performing. We allowed ourselves to make observations to help with our questions, “I didn’t quite understand that one chunk of text. What were you saying there?”, but we always led back to questions.
Even when it comes to how the group runs, we rely on questions. At the end of last year, we had a night where we put to the group questions about what they found was working, and what they wish they had more of. This led us to restructure our time and add more leadership, based on the answers of the group. Every time we’ve gone to questions, we have found better ways of working.
Asking questions in our work helps us delve deeper, and explore what we are aiming for. It keeps us open to other interpretations, and to being wrong. It allows us to be more creative and come up with interesting solutions. We’ve been conditioned to try to be ‘right’, try to get the highest grade possible, but trying to be correct can cut us off from each other, from growth, from being artists.
Last week, I was having dinner with a friend who told me she had recently begun focusing on objectives rather than tactics in her work. She had always spent her time trying to figure out the best way to play a line, the most interesting verb to use, but by focusing on what her character wanted, rather than what she was doing, she found she didn’t need to worry about the tactics at all. ‘If I want to warm up, I grab a sweater, If I want you to tell me you love me, I tell you I love you.’ She had begun focusing on the questions, asking what her character wanted, rather than how she was going to play the scene, and it had changed things for her.
How do you approach a scene? What kind of questions do you ask? What kind of questions could you ask, and what would be the benefit of asking them?
Questions are beneficial for every aspect of our work and lives. It may be easier to make a statement, but I encourage you to allow yourself to be curious and possibly wrong. Even as I began writing this, I began researching ‘are questions powerful?’. I was fascinated by what I discovered. Steve Aguirre’s Ted Talk on the topic, in particular, stuck with me.
I’m always asking myself questions, and it’s what’s led me to where I am today. Why do I want to be an actor? What about it drives me? What kind of artist do I want to be? How can I achieve my goals? What’s stopping me?
What questions are bursting inside you?