How to Read Drama like a Pro

hands-hand-book-readingBy: Phillip Mattie

A lot of students are unfamiliar with what exactly “Drama,” with a capital D, is. Most times, people think immediately of plays—and they’re not wrong. But that’s only half the answer. Drama is anything that has a script, which means that your favourite TV shows and movies are all considered Drama. Now, I know how hard this section in your English class really is. I do. I took it (a long time ago). One of the main issues I had with the material was that my imagination was flat when I was reading it—I didn’t have the mental scope or imagination to fully comprehend what was going on. Fortunately, I have developed some skills in this regard, so I will share some of the (hopefully) more insightful ones with you here. Happy reading!

Drama is meant to be seen

It is. Drama is not mean to be read on a flat piece of paper. The medium is three dimensional, with a stage, props, and actors that move about and swing swords and yell passionately, full of rage or hate or love. It has settings, lightings, backdrops, locales, symbols, special effects and stage manipulations that trick your eye, draw your attention, pull you from one character to another with smokescreens and trapdoors. Characters might even fly, attached to wires that fling them across the stage, enter through windows, tiptoe across the stage with exaggerated motions, or a thousand other actions. You don’t get that with just the script.

The simple fact is, in order to really understand Drama, you have to see it. I’m not saying that you can’t get a complete understanding of a production’s themes, plot, and objectives by just reading it. You can. But in order to get perspective and interpretation, you will need to watch it. After all, it is meant to be seen. Drama is not meant to be read, except by actors… But, while you are in class and in order to increase your reading comprehension skills, your teacher has to cover the written word. I suggest this, then: Read the play first, understand the themes, plot, and objectives of the writer, and then view the material on-screen. Doing so will flesh out your understanding of the narrative and, importantly, give you perspective and imagination regarding those ideas.

Pretend you are an actor

So, while you are in class reading the script, there is a tactic that you can do to improve your comprehension: Put yourself in an actor’s/actress’s shoes. Doing so will help you realize what makes that character tick. I have spoken at length about character profiles, archetypes, and the like. So if you would like information on how to break-down a character, I suggest going through the archives and find those articles—they are quite helpful. But, if you act as a character, ask yourself a couple questions, such as, “If I were this personality, what would I wear? How would I move my arms? What would my facial expressions look like?” You may also want to consider body type, which is always important when acting—you cannot get a job in a specific role if you do not look the part. I know it seems discriminatory, but that’s what the acting world is. People get jobs based on their appearance. Actors know and understand this.

It is important to note that you are pretending to be the actor, not the character. There is something called an ideological lens, which is a set of entrenched beliefs through which one interprets the world. And if you imagine yourself to be a character, you see life through that character’s lens. Looking through that lens can make it difficult to critique that character because you are inside his/her head, whim to those beliefs. If you are the actor, you are outside of that lens, giving you a better understanding of how that character thinks, what he/she believes, and how this character acts and rationalizes decisions. I know it sounds complicated, but the goal of this exercise is to answer the “why”—why act so? Why decide this way? Why not?

Pretend you are the director

This exercise takes the previous one to the next level. Where “pretending you are an actor” is a micro-exercise, this would be considered a macro-exercise. It covers the big picture, like the setting, the stage, and positioning. Of everything. Including props and actors. If you are unfamiliar with what a director does, look up some of the greats like Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and Christopher Nolan. Look at how these directors create impact—how do they position the camera, incorporate background images and symbols, move from frame to frame, etc.

Your role as director is a difficult one because you have never had to think in such a way before. So far through your studies in high school, you have read works of fiction and poetry and short stories where the narrative is laid before you by the author. Not so in Drama. You must create effect and impact, all while keeping the audience engaged in the material. Just think of all those amazing action sequences in movies you’ve watched over the years. The director is responsible for getting the camera in the right place to create the ultimate impact. Just think of the movie 300. Those action scenes where the camera was perpendicular to King Leonidas as he hew through enemies with spear and sword wouldn’t have come about if the director hadn’t made the decision to position the camera just so. Amazing.

Finally, let’s not forget the main goal of Drama: To entertain. Drama is meant to draw you in, engage your emotions, and light up your imagination. Unfortunately, difficulties come from only having dialogue. You’ll need to become an actor and a director to really increase your comprehension skills. Give it a try next time you read a script and see what happens!