Blocking is an area overlooked by actors. Many beginners believe this responsibility rest solely with the director. But it is the actor who knows his character best and a good director seeks out this input during early readings and rehearsals. Therefore, it’s essential to learn the basic elements of blocking, even when a director is assigned. For to make these collaborative efforts productive, there must be a common understanding of blocking terminology and its principles.
Let’s begin by defining blocking. Blocking is the positioning and movement of the characters to tell the story in visual terms. This placement can suggest the attitudes of the characters toward one another so the story situation is conveyed to the audience with or without dialogue. It makes the audience understand, at times contrary to the dialogue, the inner meaning existing within and between characters.
Blocking should make the dramatic or comedic purpose of the scene so clearly apparent to the viewer that even a deaf man could understand it. For example, silent films were almost all physical behavior. A whole generation grew up understanding and enjoying these films.
The visual story reflects the moment to moment failure or success of each character’s struggle toward their objective, as well as the intensity (commitment) and focus (direction) of their emotions. Blocking is thus the accumulation of several components: the dramatic relationship, the character’s wants, what he feels, what stands in the way, and how is the conflict presently resolving. Now when I say winning or failing, I don’t mean whether the character achieves their end goal, but whether they are succeeding or failing at specific moments along the way.
Blocking, is therefore, a comparative portrayal of strong and weak movements, and relative positions. This means that certain body positions; stage areas, planes, and levels along with character movements have definite values. They inject meaning into the picture and the telling of the story.
MOVEMENT AND PHYSICAL BEHAVIOR
For instance, a strong movement of a figure is one rising from a chair, straightening up, placing weight on the forward foot, raising the arm, or walking forward. A weak movement, on the other hand, is stepping backward, slouching, placing the weight on the rear foot, sitting down, lowering the arm, walking backward, or turning around and walking away from a figure or object.
We could also define, in general, whether physical behavior is strong or weak, whether it signifies a winning attitude or one of struggle or failure.
STRONG, WINNING ATTITUDES: Confident, direct, controlled, active role, good eye focus and control, definite goals or wants, aggressive, assertive, strong speech patterns, concise movement, firm, stands ground, good self-image, relaxed, dominate, independent, resilient, self-sufficient, wanting something, control over life’s choices, emotions open, changing for the better, growing, sincere.
WEAK, STRUGGLING OR FAILING ATTITUDES: Uncertain, lacking confidence, hesitant, not in control, reactionary, unsure or second thoughts about goals, emotionally tense, submissive, intimidated, evasive eyes, suffering in pain, masking or hiding emotions, giving ground–retreating, reliant, needing something, indecisive, fragile, static, regressing, little or no control over life’s choices.
STAGE ORIENTATIONS AND EMPHASIS
Next, lets look at the stage areas, the planes, levels, and their relative strengths. The stage is divided into various areas and notated from the actor’s perspective looking out towards the audience. In large opera productions, the back portion of the sloped
stage is elevated to facilitate better viewing of the company. This is how the terms upstage and downstage evolved. The rest of the stage is subdivided up right center, down left center and so forth as indicated by the above layout.
Movement from or to various areas is indicative of its relative strength. The following chart provides the value of lines of movements of a moving figure not only in strong and weak stage movements but also in their relative degree of strength and weakness. Movements that are indicated by the number (1) are the strongest in each set.
But one should note that when a weak body movement follows a strong stage movement, the stage movement is made weak. For instance, if a character moves from upstage to down center and sits, the general effect is weak unless he makes a strong body movement after sitting. It like manner, a weak movement followed by a strong body movement can be made strong, for example, moving from downstage to upstage and turning full front for the character’s final dialogue. In this way, the exit is made strong and emphatic.
As you can see, movement from a weaker to a stronger area is very strong. In this way, important dialogue and business can be strengthen making the character emphatic. On the other hand, a character kept in a weak area until the crucial moment will become stronger going from a weak area into a strong area. In fact, more so than if the character were in the strong area continuously. This principle, that of relative weakness and strength, is true in many areas of blocking.
When we look at the relationship within the various planes and levels of the stage, we see the same relative weakness vs. strength principal coming into play.
The planes are sections of the stage drawn parallel to the foot lights. They are as long as the scenery opening and as wide as is the actor standing in the plane. When all factors are equal, i.e. position of the body, the level, the distance left or right of center, the character downstage or nearer the front is stronger than the character upstage or near the rear wall. The character’s degree of strength lessens proportionately as he withdraws upstage.
Levels are the elevation of the actor above the stage floor. The weakest might be lying on the floor, next sitting on the floor, then sitting in a chair, sitting on a chair’s arm, standing, standing on one step, two steps, and so on until the actor reaches the top of a stairway or high platform. Ordinarily, the higher the level of the character, the stronger his position.
There are exceptions where contrasting positions or lighting come into play. The attention of the audience is attracted by anything that is out of the norm. An example of this would be on actor sitting in an armchair while the rest of the group is standing. Another example would be where a group on a platform is in shadows and to the side, while one character stands at stage level in a well-lit area. A third exception is where sight lines of the group at various levels are directed on character at mid elevation.
There are five basic body positions relative to facing the audience or camera. In the Full Front, the actor faces the audience or camera and is considered to be the strongest of the body positions. The full front position and the one-quarter front position (facing slightly to left or right) are labeled as open positions. The Full Back position has the actor standing with his back to the camera or audience, usually for a brief period. This body position is usually used for dramatic effect.
With the one-quarter front position, the body is turned a quarter away from the camera or audience either facing slightly left or right. Being an open (strong) position, it is the most frequently used and is also referred to as three-quarter front. When the actor stands or sits facing either to the left or to the right allowing the camera or audience to see only one side of the face and body, it is called the Profile Position. When two actors face one another in profile, they are said to be ‘sharing’ the scene. Also referred to as the half position, this body position is not particularly strong. In theatre, the actor looking to his right is said to be in “right profile” and the left side of the face and body is open to the audience. For the camera actor, facing to the right is actually the same as a camera left profile. This is because all positions for the screen actor are designated from the camera’s point of view.
In the Three-Quarter Back Position, the actor turns his body nearly full back to the camera or audience, either left or right so only one side of the head and shoulder is visible. It is the weakest of the five positions.
Blocking positions are the positions of the characters relative to one another and to the audience. Here again, each position has a strong or weak value and affords opportunities to emphasize certain dramatic elements of the characters, their relationships, and the story. To facilitate understanding of basic principles of this topic, we will use only two characters in these examples. When more characters are added to the scene, blocking positions are usually determined by one’s relationship to the character dominating the thrust of the story at that moment.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT AND SUPPORT
Once the characters and their relationships are defined, the actors must acknowledge and support these choices so the purpose of the scene is best displayed. If the actors are not in tune with each other and go off in different dramatic directions, the scene will not be clear to the audience.
Let’s look at an example. The world’s strongest man enters and you shake his hand. With no support, we have two people shaking hands. But with support, by ‘feeling’ the pain of his strong handshake, the character comes to life, that of being the world’s strongest man. And the strong man need not do anything other than normal behavior. He need not act strong. He is strong and your reaction supports that fact.
Let’s use another example. Two people await the arrival of a dignitary, a person of considerable importance. How important? Through acknowledgement and support, the actors, with their blocking and physical behavior, can establish this relationship.
The dignitary enters and introductions are made by a forth party. That’s the action. And if we know the relationship, we can block the scene to portray this fact. The following are variations in status depicted by blocking and physical behavior.
- Considerable difference in status. Two servants, new to the palace, are being introduced to the queen as she makes her rounds. A humble bow or curtsy by servants standing in place is acknowledged by a quick nod from the queen, then she continues on her way.
- Moderate difference in status. The Prime Minister is being introduced to two local officials. The two officials would stand at the same time, then one by one, would come forward to shake hands with the PM, then return directly to their original places.
- Very little difference in status. A new company executive is being introduced to his two staff members. The staff members would stand and move to the executive with one leading the way. They’d, in turn, shake hands, remain comfortably close and go into conversation.
MAKING IT MORE IMPORTANT
Blocking is also used to emphasize certain parts of the story. When you have a number of people on the stage, the audience attention is divided between the characters. As actors, you have a responsibility to direct this attention to the right person. How can this be done?
When you watch a play or movie, your eyes go first to the area with the most motion and away from areas lacking action. In close-ups, our attention is drawn to the eyes and when the character is speaking, sometimes to the mouth. These are areas with motion. Likewise, the audience attention will be drawn to someone who is the most intense emotionally.
Sight lines of the characters also direct the audience attention. We tend to look where others look. However, our eyes are easily satisfied with redundant behavior (like that of a person looking at another person). Our eyes seek out excitement or the potential for excitement (a person taking action, speaking, reacting, feeling, thinking, or about to act). This potential for excitement is sometimes what creates the tension.
Tension in a scene is very much a function of blocking. Some think of tension as being a lot of frantic motion or the unleashing of big emotions. Tension is actually the opposite. It’s the restriction or confinement of motion and emotions. Tension is strongest when we sense the power behind some impending action. Once the action takes place and the power is unleashed, the tension decreases. Tension is like that of a rubber band being stretched to the breaking point. Or like that of a bomb with a lit fuse. To create tension, look for the dramatic forces in the scene, then confine them. We can maintain this tension by delaying, repressing the inevitable.
Blocking and movement must ultimately appear to come from the character, whether it is a need, desire, or drive. For this reason, in blocking a scene, directions should be implemented in terms of motive and objective — to better observe, to get something, to be near something, to stretch, and so on. In this way, blocking positions and movement are justified by explaining the impulse for it rather than giving arbitrary directions to cross R to L, then turn left one-quarter front. There will, of course, be times when the movement and blocking of one or more characters is done to set up a specific scene interaction. In such cases, the actor may have to choose and initiate the motivation for such moves.
During the run through and rehearsal periods, the blocking evolves as the characters come to life. Most actors write notations in the script as to the blocking directions. These might be either short hand symbols or graphic depiction of the moves and position. It’s a good idea to write these down with a soft lead pencil as most will be modified as the rehearsal progresses. You should, likewise, tie in your motivation for key moves and physical behaviors. In a long play or film shoot, such notations can greatly improve the clarity and continuity of the overall performance.
Hitting your stage mark may seem difficult at first. But by walking through it a number of times, the body somehow remembers. It will, with practice, become a conditioned response. This is a skill one should work on by using a variety of methods. Some marks are relative to furniture, others to characters, some even to the camera’s location. Practice various actions, movements, even dialogue and attempt hitting your mark on a specific word or action.
In film, hitting your mark becomes crucial because the camera location, lighting, and sometimes special effects are based on your being at a certain position at a given time. You can’t cheat because the camera will catch you looking for your mark. Your skill in this area will improve with practice and actual production experience, especially when you rely most on your body’s ability to remember.
When you have two characters that are in static positions, standing or sitting, there are still ways to add movement, even if they are sitting facing each other. You can use subtle moves such as head turns, look aways, changes in body language, or adjusting the posture. You can find ways to make a statement with your behavior. Leaning in, turning away, crossing the legs, folding the arms, each can give meaning to the scene. The expressed desire to stand or to run away can have greater impact than the actual act because it expresses the inner struggle of the character. It makes us care about the outcome of the conflict.
Blocking, like dialogue, comes out of the character, his relationships, wants, feelings, and the obstacles he faces. It can be made emphatic when isolated from the other dramatic elements. You can see that by moving and speaking at the same time, each element diminishes the other. On the other hand, if we isolate every move from the dialogue, we loose the impact of contrast and variety. Thus the decision, to isolate certain blocking moves, must come out of the characters and the story they live.
STAGE VS. SCREEN BLOCKING
In the theatre, the actor is required to reach out with his character and move the audience. In screen acting, the audience, because of the intimacy of the big-screen, comes to the actor. The screen actor must thus underplay and do less, especially in close ups. Another difference is that on the stage, there is more space between the characters and total body behavior is more dominant. On the screen, action has to be tightly blocked to allow the camera to capture the dominating behavior of the character’s faces.
Theatre actors tend to favor open body positions rather than closed. This allows the audience to read the faces of the players. In film, the character’s moves, blocking, and body positions are more realistic as there is no imaginary forth wall and the camera can be moved to almost any angle. Such moves are motivated by the audience desire (via the director and editor) to get a better perspective and to obtain more information. Some camera angles give into this desire while others delay or suspend it.
Because the stage picture is spread out to give good balance and composition, the stage actor makes horizontal crosses more so than vertical ones. In film, we think more in terms of depth rather than width for the camera can pan or be repositioned from numerous vantage points. The screen, likewise, can isolate action or, with cuts, parts of the action. Thus matching gestures, moves, and dialogue from a long shot to a closer angle becomes a critical concern for the screen actor. This attention to continuity is also important in repeated takes from the same angle.
On the stage, the actor is required to extend moves and gestures to reach the last row of the theatre. The screen actor, on the other hand, must reduce body actions, understate his performance, and allow the camera to carry the performance to the viewers.
Falseness of the performance is more apparent in screen acting as big-screen close-ups reveal the slightest insincerity. Good screen performances require a life-like naturalness and the ability to do less without energy loss.
You will note that, despite these minor differences, the blocking principles remain consistent for both venues.
At times an actor, through his own nervousness or ineptness, will make unnecessary and distracting movements. These movements continually bring attention to the actor and result in an ambiguous character behavior that leads the audience away from the story. Another fault is attempting to act too many facets of the character at the same time. The definition and importance of the character is thus diminished and the audience will care little and root less.
Making strong definitive choices and standing by them is probably the most valuable attribute for a skilled actor. In your choices for movement, blocking, and physical behavior, you must simplify everything so that the audience understands the behavior of the character and how it fits into the unfolding story.
The actor’s job is to play the character truthfully so the context of the scene appears to be realistic and convincing. And to do this, you must move physically and mentally in the same story as portrayed by the other performers. That means giving consideration to the essentials of drama — the opposing goals, the emotions, the failing-winning aspects of the struggle, all of which have to come to the surface; have to be seen, heard, and felt. If you do this, the scene will have purpose. It will have a pattern, a dramatic shape. And most important, it will have the desired affect on the audience.
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