Dealing with Exposition

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    The events that set up a story mostly have nothing to do with moving the story forward. They usually only explain how the story arrived at this point. Exposition is about what has gone before and story is about what’s happening now and what might happen next. Exposition is a natural enemy of story.

    For the actor expositional scenes are a trap. Often the actor identifies the inert nature of the material and tries too hard to dress it up and make it interesting. These kind of scenes like reminiscing ones and scenes that discuss a third person (who is not present at the time) easily divert actors into thinking that the off screen character’s are what the scene is really about. This can never be the case. The story of any given moment is about what is happening between the character’s in the scene. Any character’s not present are only devices to heighten the drama between those who are.

    Working in the Real World
    Recently I had a conversation with an actor who was struggling with an opening scene of a production. He had no real connection with it because it was all exposition. “Its all about things the writer feels the audience should know,” he said. This conversation prompted the following thoughts.

    The application of basic Rehearsal Room theory is, that if a story doesn’t exist you should impose one. There are many Rehearsal Room exercises where the aim is to make the dialogue mean whatever the actor wants it to. In these exercises the text is spoken exactly as written but a new story is imposed so that the words don’t necessarily convey their original intention. However, we aren’t talking about a workshop exercise here, this is a scene in a play. Its work, these circumstances are different.

    A Plan of Attack
    So if a scene has no obvious story happening, where can the actor search to find one? When looking for a story the first element to examine is the "what’s happening between the characters in the scene" one. In fact, that will always be important because that’s the task that’s immediately in hand.

    Keeping It Simple
    The aim is always, especially when imposing a story, to keep the concept a simple one. (See Directors Notes “Identifying the Story” in the archives) If it’s a scene between a number of characters the simplest way to encapsulate the story is to think about “what it is that your character is doing to the group.” Obviously if the scene is a two hander then the story can be defined in terms of “what is happening between the characters while they are saying the dialogue.”

    An example of the above approach are the interview scenes between Verbal (KEVIN SPACEY) and Dave Kujan (CHAZZ PALMINTERI) in “The Usual Suspects.” One of these scenes is described by Oscar winning writer Christopher McQuarrie as epic exposition.

    Look at this section of the scene –

    You got him wrong.

    Do I?
    Keaton was under indictment a total of seven times when he was on the force. In every case, witnesses either reversed their testimony to the grand jury or died before they could testify. When they finally did nail him for fraud, he spent five years in Sing Sing. He killed three prisoners inside – one with a knife in the tailbone while he strangled him to death. Of course I can’t prove this but I can’t prove the best part either.

    Kujan pauses to drink some coffee.

    Dean Keaton was dead. Did you know that?
    He died in a fire two years ago during an investigation into the murder of a witness who was going to testify against him. Two people saw Keaton enter a warehouse he owned just before it went up. They said he had gone in to check a leaking gas main. It blew up and took all of Dean Keaton with it. Within three months of the explosion, the two witnesses were dead, one killed himself in his car and the other fell down an open elevator shaft.

    Christopher describes this scene as a “tide of exposition”. Certainly there is a lot of talk about someone who is not in the scene. But the reason the scene works on the screen is not because of the words they say. What unfolds between the characters is a story about how they both test each other. Both characters work at trying to understand who might have the advantage. By the end of the scene they know the contest between them will be tough and they both think they have a chance of being the winner. This is good writing. But it is not so much the dialogue that makes it so. It is rather the simple clear competition between the characters that generates the drama.

    “The Usual Suspects” is Oscar-winning-good writing but if the script you are dealing with is really crap you might have to look further a field than the scene itself.

    Examining the Story Structure
    THE NEXT PLACE to look is in the whole story. Questions to ask are:-

    * What’s the overall journey for your character in the play?
    * Where does he/she end up?
    * What is it really about?

    For example if at the end of the story he/she experiences an increase in self-confidence and sense of self then this might be a clue to the story in the opening scene. If we were to impose a beginning for this story in the opening scene it might now be a scene where the character is trying to explain how they value themselves, and fails to succeed at this. Or a scene where the character tries to explain what life means so far and can’t. Or looking for an answer and can’t find one. Etc

    The outcome of this is that what initially was just information now becomes about why the character is saying these words. If it’s about what they want achieve then the scene can now become the beginning of the journey that is completed at the end of the story. Such an outcome can be very satisfactory.

    On the other hand the story could be about a character who ultimately loses his way and runs off the rails or tops himself. The obvious choice under these circumstances is to play the first scene as someone who has doubts about himself – much like the above suggestions. BUT a more complex way to go would be to start off lightly, so that at the beginning he is telling a friend how good life is. In this case it’s a story about someone who succeeds at hiding their self-doubts from a friend. If you take a more complex path like this one then there needs to be room in the overall play for enough steps to be taken to allow the character to journey into the darker territory for the ending. If there isn’t enough room to travel the distance from a light (but threatening beginning) to the dark ending then the shorter journey from a dark beginning is probably the way to go.

    Of course all this is hypothetical until you have a text in your hand but it is surprising how often you can turn "the sows ear into a silk purse". Whether you succeed or not this sort of adventure is always worth a try.

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