When You’re Not Feeling It: 6 Ways to Save an Emotional Scene

Perplexed young womanSometimes everything is easy: The text is powerful, your scene partner is connected, and tears spring easily and honestly into your eyes at precisely the most theatrically compelling moment. Most times, however, intensely emotional scenes have a few wrenches thrown in the works. The script might be clumsy, your scene partner detached, filming conditions distracting. Perhaps you’re shooting an isolated shot that deprives you of the luxury of emotional buildup. Maybe you’re in fifth week of a run and you’ve done the scene so many times your usual triggers feel stale and meaningless. Unfortunately, the stage directions still demand that your character weeps tragically and beautifully on her bed like a Disney princess, so the show must go on. When the fire beneath your intensely emotional scenes goes out, here are some strategies to help you reignite the spark.

  1. Go Back to the Basics—Earlier this month, I wrote about when to simplify your work. This is one of those times! If you’re having trouble, chances are you’re complicating matters. Take a breath and remember what your objective is. If it’s not active enough, reframe it in your mind. Ask what you want from the other person. Reconnecting with what you need is a great way to strip all the distractions away. At the end of the day, your job isn’t to keep every single detail of your backstory and circumstance in the forefront of your brain. You’ve done the work. It should already be in you. Your job is to fight for what you want.
  2. Strengthen your Prebeat—Especially in film, where the order in which scenes are shot can feel like a game of 52 pick-up, it’s important to know where you’re coming from. It will inform your actions and choices from the first seconds. Get specific. Write a journal-style entry if need be, detailing every moment that leads you to the scene in question. Creating a strong prebeat is the emotional launch pad that will catapult you into the crux of the scene.
  3. Listen—If you’re feeling out of touch with a scene, a great thing to do is focus on the other person. Make it about them. Stop anticipating what they’re about to say and really listen like you’re hearing it for the first time. Letting your scene partner’s words hit you in fresh ways might snap you back in.
  4. Connect to your Breath and Body—The mind-body connection is a powerful thing. If you are not creating a physical home for the emotion, it won’t come. Make sure you’re physically warmed up. If you have some down time, do some stretching, maybe yoga, focus on your breath. Make sure your breath isn’t getting stopped up in your throat or chest. If you haven’t done so in awhile, get reacquainted with how your body naturally responds to heightened emotion. Understanding the physical map of your own feelings will help you access them in the moment.
  5. Change Things Up—Sometimes a scene gets stale. It happens. We run it too many times, we lock choices in too early or for two long, and eventually it just doesn’t pack the same punch. So if something’s not working for you, come at it from a different angle. Director permitting, change up the blocking or switch up your tactics. Sometimes just saying something with a different intention will be enough to breathe new life into the text.
  6. Stop Trying—I know this is a little like saying don’t think about polar bears, but it will save you. I recently had two separate scenes in which I needed to cry, and was having trouble with both, despite easily accessing the necessary emotion in rehearsal. Of course the problem was I was putting too much pressure on myself, instead of fully engaging in the scene. The moment I made the decision to stop trying to cry, and instead listened to my scene partner and fought for my objective, the emotion came naturally. In this particular case, ambition is the enemy. Keep it simple and relax.

There are many, many strategies you can use to plug back into a scene and every actor responds a little differently. Try some of these basic tips and see what works for you. Remember that acting is a process and we are none of us robots. It might feel different every time, and it will never be perfect. We can only do our best to learn as we go. So shake it off, take a breath, and get back to doing what you do best.


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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com

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