Every Actors Must Have Study Guide!!


Michael Shurtleff has been casting director for Broadway shows like Chicago and Becket and for films like The Graduate and Jesus Christ Superstar. His legendary course on auditioning has launched hundreds of successful careers. Now in this book he tells the all-important HOW for all aspiring actors, from the beginning student of acting to the proven talent trying out for that chance-in-a-million role!

The Twelve Guideposts

  1. Understand the relationship between you and the other characters in the scene. Once you establish the facts, recognize how they make you feel. It’s important to not idealize love, the desire for it can be narcissistic and selfish, but the desire to give and receive love is still the chief propellant in human beings.
  • Ask yourself what you are fighting for in the scene in order to pinpoint the conflict. If there is no conflict, then why don’t you run? What is keeping you engaged in the scene?
  • When beginning a scene you need to put yourself in the mindset of the moment before. Many actors take time to get into a groove on the stage but the best don’t need to–get into rhythm on the wing before entering.
  • You need to find the humor in every scene, not just the “funny” ones. In real life we use humor not to be funny but as glue in relationships and to help us get through the day; this should come across in your acting. Shurtleff has “never seen a great or star actor who did not have humor.”
  • Exploit opposites in your behavior, as “consistency is the heart of dull acting.” There are opposites in every scene, it is up to the actor to find a way to show these, because they pop up in the most interesting kind of acting: the complex.
  • Identify the discoveries in the scene, the things that happen for the first time. The more discoveries you have, the more interesting the scene will be, so take nothing for granted.
  • It is not enough to have a feeling, you need to find a way to communicate it to the other actor in the scene. Remember that “communicating is the desire to change the person you’re communicating with.” Moreover, you need to embrace the competition in the scene, focusing on the facts that a) I am right and you are wrong, and b) You should change from being the way you are to be what I think you should be. Competition is healthy. He finds more resistance to this concept than to any other, but “an actor must compete, or die.”
  • Nobody wants to see everyday humdrumness, so actors must emphasize the importance of a scene. What is unusual? Strive to make the stakes as high as possible.
  • Don’t get so wrapped up in your character that you forget to create the events of the play. An event can be a change, a confrontation, or a climax, and they can be obvious or hidden, but what they all do is make the play progress.
  1. Create a place that you are acting in to help forge a reality for your reading. Since it is imaginary and you can choose whatever you want, you should make it real, like your own apartment.
  1. Ask yourself what game you are playing in every scene. Don’t worry that you are being insincere, because this is how you act constantly in real life, and it is meaningful to you then. For example, at a cocktail party everyone plays the game of trying to be the wittiest. Embrace this fact.
  1. After you’ve done all the other 11 guideposts, add “what you don’t know” to imbue an atmosphere of mystery. This is inexplicable but all the best actors do it well.
  • Romance is the secret life to have something better happen to us that is the “primary motivating force in every human being,” so find it.
  • You can’t learn comedy, you must be born with it.
  • Comedy is like a game of Ping Pong: “The faster and more precise the game of Ping-Pong is played, the more brilliant it is.”
  • Often the simplest choice is the most telling, so don’t be afraid to make it.
  • Present your true self in auditions
  • Shurtleff believes an actor’s greatest asset is his or her authentic self. “The first step to a better audition is to give up character and use yourself,” he insists. In the audition room, present your true self and then react as you would to the unique situation, going wherever the story takes you. “Actors, who should pride themselves on their singularity, are forever trying to be someone else. It isn’t necessary for you, the actor, to like yourself. Self-love isn’t easy to come by for most of us. But you must learn to trust who you are. There is no one else like you,” he says.
  • In his book, Shurtleff lists 12 guideposts for actors to use as a resource for preparation. Here are some of these guideposts, and tips for preparing on a deeper level:
  • Relationship
  • What is your relationship to others in the scene, and how do you feel about each of them? Is it a child who you love unconditionally, or an unreliable coworker who’s disappointed you several times? “Creating relationship is the heart of acting. It is basic. It is essential,” Shurtleff says. But beyond that, he insists, “Every scene is a love scene. The actor should ask the question: ‘Where is the love?’” Consider many options. He encourages actors to say “yes” to possible love stories. For example, if you’re wondering if your character is in love with another, answer “yes” and see what dramatic possibilities emerge from this creative decision. But don’t stop there. Keep exploring all the relationships. Perhaps your character wants revenge on another? Again, say “yes” and explore what happens. Was your character’s heart recently broken? Say “yes” and see what happens.
  • Conflict
  • What are you fighting for, and how are you working to get what you want? “An actor is looking for conflict,” Shurtleff asserts. “Conflict is what creates drama. [In life] we are taught to avoid trouble [so] actors don’t realize they must go looking for it. Plays are written about the extraordinary, the unusual, the climaxes. The more conflict actors find, the more interesting the performance.” Viewers yearn to live vicariously through others, seeing what happens to those who take risks that most dare not take in real life. 
  • The Moment Before 
  • Shurtleff insists that each scene starts in the middle. He urges actors to explore what their character was doing just before the scene started. What is your character taking from that experience into this new scene? “Every scene you will ever act in begins in the middle, and it is up to you, the actor, to provide what comes before,” he says.
  • Humor
  • Shurtleff asks what it is that keeps the character from giving into despair. “Humor [in a scene] is not about telling jokes,” he insists. “It is that attitude toward being alive without which you would long ago have jumped off the 59th Street Bridge.” Humor is a frame of mind that allows one to survive life’s difficulties. “Comedy is based on pain. And we laugh because we’re so relieved we’re not in their position. It allows us to suffer vicariously without going through the pain. So we laugh.”
  • Discoveries 
  • Tune into what makes each moment different. Pay attention to the things that happen for the first time. What does your character learn from each new situation? “Take nothing for granted. Make an emotional discovery as often as you can find one in every scene. Ask yourself: ‘What is new?’” Shurtleff urges. “Doing nothing is a really bad choice. No actor doing nothing is ever going to be interesting.” 
  • Communication & Competition
  • Communication is a circle; you send out feelings and messages and receive them back from others. Shurtleff says, “Listening is not merely hearing; it is receiving the message that is being sent to you. Listening is reacting. Listening is being affected by what you hear. Listening is letting it land before you react. Listening is letting your reaction make a difference. Listening is active.” He instructs performers to find out what the basic fight is in every character as well as in every scene. “An actor must make his needs (goals, wants, objectives) so strong that he is willing to interfere with the other actor in order to get what he needs. Interfering means getting in their way so that what you want is stronger than what they want.” 
  • Shurtleff insists that friendships within a scene are centered on competition. Two people are not friends simply because they enjoy each other’s company. Rather, they compete in some way. Consider if one is more athletic, more successful in the workforce, or has a more fulfilling marriage. “Competition [in a scene] is healthy. Competition is life. Yet most actors refuse to acknowledge this. They don’t want to compete. They want to get along. And they are therefore not first-rate actors,” he asserts. “The good actor is the one who competes, willingly, who enjoys competing … Peacefulness and the avoidance of trouble won’t help in his acting. It is just the opposite he must seek.” Once you determine the competitiveness, find a way to show the friction within the friendship. 
  • Mystery and Secret

What do we not know about the character? What secrets do they keep? What can’t be explained? “No matter how much we know about the other person, there is always something going on in that other heart and that other head that we don’t know but can only ponder. And no matter how we explain ourselves to someone else, no matter how open we are, there is always still something inexplicable, something hidden and unknown in us, too,” Shurtleff insists. Know what romance, dreams, and fantasies are in your character’s heart. “Everyone thinks romance is weak. Yet romance is everyone’s secret dream—it’s why we’re alive.”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: