It's fun to write lists in dialog. A good list has power. In Henry V, the English soldiers charge "For God, for Harry, and St. George!" Somewhere I have a felt banner that says, "For God, for Country and for Yale." (This motto is listed in a dictionary as an example of "anticlimax," no doubt by a lexicographer from Harvard.)
This is the planned list, a list that has solidified in the speaker's mind. I had fun this morning writing the sentence, "No one's going to go to war for the sake of an island of rubble, subsistence farmers, and terribly large badgers," describing our alternative history England. The speaker clearly has said that before, even if only to himself.
Then there is the unplanned list. After Agincourt, Shakespeare has King Henry V read a herald's note detailing the dead among his enemies, the French:
King Henry: This note doth tell me of ten thousand French
That in the field lie slain. [...]
The names of those their nobles that lie dead:
Charles Delabreth, high constable of France;
Jacques of Châtillon, admiral of France;
The Master of the Crossbows, Lord Rambures;
Great Master of France, the brave Sir Guichard Dauphin;
John, duke of Alençon; Anthony, duke of Brabant,
The brother of the duke of Burgundy,
And Edward, duke of Bar. Of lusty earls:
Grandpré and Roussi, Faulconbridge and Foix,
Beaumont and Marle, Vaudemont and Lestrale.
Here was a royal fellowship of death.
When most actors get a list, they tend to read it like a grocery list. They know they're reading a list. Each word they speak is part of a list. It becomes singsong. If you perform Henry's speech like that, it has little power.
Take a moment, and read the above like a list.
Now, read the list, but each time you come to a name, pause for a moment, and imagine someone you know. Now imagine them dead. Only then move on to the next name.
Seriously, do that.
See what that does?
It becomes an unplanned list. Short planned lists have power. Long planned lists are tedious. Long, unplanned lists have power.
It is a challenge to get actors to perform unplanned lists, because they can see the damn list right in front of their eyes. They know how many names are coming up. Yet you have to knock them off that, derail that train, or it sounds like a planned list. You have to remind them that their character doesn't know what they're about to say until a fraction of a second before they say it.
(In Meisner technique we were taught to practice lines at the highest possible speed, without affect: "Whatapieceofworkisman hownobleinreasonhowexcellentinfaculty etc.". That way the words would be there when I needed to say them, but wouldn't be associated with an emotion. So the emotion would come fresh and surprising, even though the line was memorized.)
(The ability to let go of what you know is critical to many artists. An editor has to be able to say, "Who the hell is this character that just showed up?" even though in the 22 previous cuts of the film, that character was properly introduced, so of course she knows who it is. Same thing for a writer.)
One of our characters in We Happy Few has a problem:
"Beatrice says she loves me. But she loves everything! Me... long walks... sunsets and rainbows of course. Simon Says… big wristwatches on a man… wrapping paper… dandelions… a good night’s sleep… ribbons… Uncle Jack’s bedtime stories… six o’clock … commemorative spoons. I have to know if it’s real!"
What's funny about this list, I hope, is that it is (a) unexpectedly long (b) terribly specific (c) weirdly diverse. "Unexpectedly long" is only funny if the actor performs the list as if he does not know how long the list is. If the list becomes sing-song, it's not funny. He has to perform it as if he is searching his memory for everything Beatrice loves. It's funnier if it sounds like he's done, and then he thinks of some more things. Ideally, to make it more comically upsetting, the actor should do homework: create a different imaginary circumstance in which Beatrice liked each distinct item on the list. Then each item comes with its own distinct emotion, and it will come out of his creative instrument sounding distinctly different.
By the way, giving the actor a distinct imaginary circumstance is almost always helpful, not just with lists. With good actors -- and this deep into development we've got an amazing repertory of voice actors -- if you simply tell them something about their imaginary circumstance, the line comes out more distinctly. Even if they've said the line the way I intended it the first time, I'll still tell them something about it sometimes, to see how that informs their delivery. They usually deliver the line sharper. Remember this is in a voice session where we're doing a new line, on average, every 30 seconds. Our guys are Teslas: they go from 0 to 60 at ludicrous speed. Their ability to interpolate the imaginary circumstance I just gave them and deliver the line fresh is what makes us bring them back.
Labels: We Happy Few