The importance of establishing a scene

Directing notes from Proof.

I’ve been working with my sixth form students today on their Unit 2 Section B group performances. Although it’s the Easter holidays it is a fantastic opportunity to spend some time with the students without the day-to-day politics of school effecting things and getting in the way. There is something lovely, relaxed and very productive about working during the holidays.

One of the groups have been working on Proof, by David Auburn. It is a great play about how the central character, Catherine, is dealing with the lose of her father who she has cared for at the expense of her own career and aspirations. It transpires that all the while she was looking after her father she was working on her own thesis on prime number which would, in the time frame after the play, alter the way the world saw prime numbers.

I think that one of the most important elements of a performance is the opening 10 – 20 seconds of each scene, especially when you have had to cut the text down as we have to do for As Level exam pieces. Students too often for my liking jump straight into the dialogue without establishing some basic facts first, such as time of day, personal feelings and emotions of the character and what has happened in the intervening time since we last saw that character (especially important when you have cut some of the previous dialogue and/or scenes). I think that this is all part of a bigger need to signpost to the audience the more subtler elements of the play and plot.

I ask my students to spend 20 seconds of the beginning of the scene in silence and communicating through their actions or using only non-word sounds alone. For example, I might ask an angry character to enter the space, look around, sit down with a huff and bang their cup of coffee on the table. Or another character to read a paper and let the audience see the day or headline to show time has moved on. Or I might ask another character to enter slowly, with a tear in their eye and sit with a forlorn face. If there are two or three characters on stage, then build that up – starting with one character and add new ones as they come in and build tension before the first word is spoken. I think establishing the context of the scene before the dialogue begins helps to communicate to the audience any key information before anything is said, so that they don’t have to guess as they go along (at the same time as trying to listen to the dialogue and understand that as well).

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