Open Scenes for Acting Practice

Why these exercises are such great practice for student actors

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Open scenes — also called content-less scenes, ambiguous scenes, spare scenes, skeletal scenes — are great exercises for acting classes. They are also fun and worthwhile for students in other subject area classes because they call for layers of creativity and they are great examples of how revision improves an initial effort.

Most open scenes are written for pairs of actors. They are generally only 8 to 10 lines long so that the lines can easily be memorized. And, as their name suggests, they contain dialogue that is open to many interpretations; the lines are intentionally ambiguous, suggesting no particular plot or intentions.

Example of an Open Scene

A:           Can you believe that?
B:           No.
A:           What are we going to do?
B:           We?
A:           This is really big.
B:           We can manage it.
A:           Got any ideas?
B:           Yes. But don’t tell anyone.

A Step-by-Step Process for Working With Open Scenes

  1. Pair off students and ask them to decide who will be A and who will be B. 
  2. Distribute a copy of the open scene. (Note: You may give the same open scene to every pair of actors or you may use several different scenes.)
  3. Ask the pairs of students to read through the scene together using no expression. Just read the lines.
  4. Ask them to read through the scene a second time and experiment with line readings — possible expression, volume, pitch, speed, etc.
  5. Ask them to read through the scene a third time and change their line readings.
  6. Give them time to make some decisions about who they are, where they are, and what is happening in their scene.
  7. Give them a short amount of time to memorize their lines and rehearse their scene. (Note: Insist on precise memorization of lines — no substituted words, no added words or sounds. Actors must practice remaining true to the playwright’s script — even in open scenes.)
  8. Have each pair present the first draft of their scene.

Reflect on the First Draft of the Open Scene

Young acting students often believe that success in this activity comes when others cannot guess who they are, where they are, and what is happening in the scene.

Open scenes are an excellent way to emphasize that in acting, transparency of character and circumstances is the goal. Success, therefore, means that everything (or practically everything) about the scene is crystal clear to observers.

Questions Following Each Open Scene Presentation

Ask the actors to remain silent and listen to the observers’ responses to the following questions:

  1. Who are these characters? Who might they be?
  2. Where are they? What is the setting for this scene?
  3. What is happening in the scene?

If the observers are completely accurate in their interpretations of what they witnessed the actors doing, congratulate the actors. This is rarely the case, however.

Ask the Actors

Ask the actors to share who they decided they were, where they were, and what was happening in their scene. If the actors did not completely determine those elements of their scene, emphasize that they must make those choices and work to communicate those choices when they perform the scene. That is the actor’s job.

Gather Ideas for Revising the Open Scene

Together with the observing students, help the actors with ideas for revising the scene. Your coaching words may sound like the following:

Characters: You’re sisters. Okay, how could they show that they are sisters? Is there anything that sisters do...any way that they behave towards one another... any gestures, movements, behaviors that would let the audience know that these two are sisters?

Setting: You are at home. Which room are you in? How could you let the audience know that it’s the kitchen? What movements or activities could you perform to show you are at the table or the counter or looking in the refrigerator?

Circumstances: What is happening? What do they see? How big or small is it? Where is it? How do they feel about what they see? What precisely do they do about it?

Repeat With All Open Scenes

Go through this process with every pair of actors following the first draft of their open scene. Then send them back to rehearse and incorporate elements that will communicate who they are, where they are, and what is happening in the scene. Have them present the second draft of their scene and reflect on what changes improved the open scene and what areas still need work.

Keep reminding students that successful open scenes will clearly communicate the who, what, where, and even the when and how of the scene to the audience.