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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Should Actors Have Knowledge of Story Theory? Guest blog from @StoryMeBad

If you think about it, in the context of performing arts, a story can’t exist without an actor. The actor is the means of communication between the audience and the story, and the written character is the ‘media’ - the sensory languages - that connect the story emotion to the audience senses.

So it is your duty as an actor to be true to the character; and the character is defined primarily in terms of what he or she does in delivering the real story. If you are not true to the character, you will not communicate the story as intended by the writer. How can actors understand what a part really asks of them?

I recently worked with the actor Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley in The Harry Potter films; also star of 101 Dalmatians; Shakespeare in Love and many, many more) and with Willy Russell (Theatrical legend and writer of Educating Rita; Shirley Valentine; Blood Brothers). The results of our conversations threw up four key factors in, firstly, what an actor needs to do in delivering a story and secondly, what a story and its characters should have to reflect well on you as the actor. Here we go then!

1.       Deliver the ‘Real’ Story
 An actor must understand his character`s role more deeply than simply delivering the actions and speaking the words. An actor must understand his role in delivering the truth of the story - the learning and message the author wants the audience to leave with. Once you have read the script, uncovered all its mysteries and you understand the real purpose and message of a story, then your job is clear: you must deliver your character`s contribution to delivering that purpose and message. That is the actor’s job.

2.       Deliver the Character
Secondly, the character himself: what is it about him that facilitates the delivery of this story? For example, if the story relies on your character`s cowardice, you can work on how to shape your delivery of this facet of the character. It is often way more important to approach this key component from its polar opposite in order to deliver it to maximum effect. In other words, a character who presents as strong and brave in dominating his wife and children may show this critical cowardice when genuinely under pressure to be brave out in the real world. By understanding the element of his character that delivers the story message and moral, the actor can be smart in the way he wraps up this precious deliverable and feeds it into the story at the perfect time and in the perfect manner. Watch Back to the Future. Marty McFly’s dad, George, is portrayed throughout as weak and unassertive. And yet this whole story pivots around his moment of bravery when he finally makes a fist. Everything. Watch it again, and think about that in the parts you play.

3.       You, the Actor
You must ask yourself, as an actor, what can I bring to this character that is different and special and which stamps my authority on this part? When a part gets an actor it is inevitable – totally unavoidable, in fact – that the actor will bring something to the part that was unexpected by the writers. If an actor is any good, and has done 1) and 2) properly, this is generally a good thing, whereby the actor is able to give life to the character in the correct spirit – the one intended by the author and required by the story.

To give you an example, Mark Williams told me this about his role as Arthur Weasley, Ron Weasley`s dad in Harry Potter:

”When we first worked on Harry Potter, I was coming to grips with Arthur, and Julie Walters was playing my wife, Molly Weasley. Julie and I spent time discussing how our characters might have met; where we met; how come we have seven children; how long we’d been together and what shared loves and values our relationship might be based on. We decided that we met at college and had been together since then, so we gave them a kind of studentish attitude and a ‘Jolly Hockey Sticks’ characteristic that they share because they met at college and have been together since then. Obviously, JK Rowling didn’t write that into the books, but having that provenance and understanding helps me to ‘be’ the character and helped Julie and I to deliver something that makes the Weasley family, as an entity in itself, feel real.” 

How can an actor know if the part is a good part to play?
The absolute top thing for an actor to look for in a story and in a part is our old friend, subtext. The majority of acting roles are `on the nose`. That is to say, everything the character does and says represents what he is genuinely doing and saying. It is very hard for an actor to make themselves look good with a part like this. A part that you can get your teeth into and which will reflect well on you as an actor must have subtext. The words you speak and the actions you take will not be the truth. Your character will know more or less than the audience about the truth of the situation.

When a character says `I love you`, but her actions tell a whole different story, this is a character with dimension, a character delivering the ‘real’ story in subtext.

If you would like to know more, I have a specific blog post on subtext at and address the subject in full in The Story Book, where you can also find the complete conversations with Mark Williams and Willy Russell. 

Never forget, you aren`t acting. You are delivering a story. If you have a good story and you deliver it well, you will be a fine actor.

David`s Book - The Story Book - is available now in hard copy in the UK, or in eBook format from his website ( or from Amazon Kindle eBook stores.


  1. Thank you for the post, Ben. It was very useful.
    I'm an actor myself, studying at the Lee Strasberg in New York. I hear about the things you wrote about everyday, and it's good to find someone giving more insight. I found the part on subtext very interesting. I totally agree with you. The most interesting characters are the ones with a subtext. They're polidimensional, more complex, more difficult, but also more stimulating.

    I also have a blog where I write on acting.
    I post every Saturday (except for this week). I'd really appreciate it if you could check it out and tell me what you think. If you find what I write interesting, feel free to leave a comment and follow me!

    Thank you again.