In good scene work, on stage or on the page, the moments vary between connect and disconnect, moments of understanding, communion versus moments of challenge and hurt.
Terry acquiesces, giving in slightly to her challenge. “Yeah, I get your thought,” he replies, eyes somewhat faraway. Failing to win her trust through compliments about teachers, he changes tactics, creating different beats, returning to their shared past, and teases her, describing how her hair “looked like a hunk of rope” and how she had wires on her teeth and everything. “You were really a mess.” She responds to his gentle put downs with action, removing the glove from his hand, re-indicating a desire to leave, and he issues a halting apology: “I just mean to tell you that you grew up very nice.”
After taking back the glove, Edie once again looks offscreen right, and exits the frame. Terry, uncertain, wonders if perhaps she too sees him as a bum.
This is the scene and the film’s super-objective: self-respect.
How will she respond? Will she connect with him or push him away with words or silent action?
Desperately, he calls her, trying to halt her movement, his voice climbing an emotional register as he pleads, “You don’t remember me, do you?” Beat.
Finally, he’s broken through to her.
Admissions by actors are almost always powerful moments. They make us all vulnerable: performers, viewers, readers. They strip us actors of our armor and disarm our fellow actors too.
In my acting classes, our acting coach/professor often has us do “speak-outs.” That’s where a performer admits in front of the whole class what it is that makes her nervous about the scene work she’s about to perform. It’s a way to speak as the self about our selves, our neuroses, our fears, our weaknesses. These speak-outs are always arresting in their honesty, and I’ve never once seen a fellow actor, observer in the class, mock or reject the speaker’s authentic feelings. Such speak-outs bring all of us together as fellow actors and human beings. And often, the performance that follows the speak-out is better for having gone through the process of admitting our fears and making ourselves vulnerable.
Terry is doing a muted form of the speak-out at this very moment in On the Waterfront before Edie. His vulnerability on display, his dropping of his armor and fear of being invisible, brings about an equally vulnerable admission from Edie: “I remembered you the first moment I saw you.” The tension is broken, he jokes about his nose, and the two connect as he crosses over to her and she offers up her philosophy about the need for teachers to treat troubled youngsters with more “patience” and “kindness.” He needles her for her innocence and indirectly asks for a date. “What for?” she questions. With an inarticulate shrug he responds, “I don’t know.”
The beginning of their love is established in this “getting to know you” scene. Terry and Edie are vulnerable and open, letting genuine feeling in. For Terry the scene moves from denials; deflections; his need for approval (am I a bum?); his desire to win her by praising, teasing, holding onto the glove, and reminiscing about the past; an apology; his making himself vulnerable and partially known; and finally, rather clumsily, asking her on a date. For Edie the scene moves from a desire to leave; interrogate; chastise and challenge; accept his apology; leave; admit a certain fondness for him; and question the “date” while leaving the possibility still open. She doesn’t say no.
Literary writers can, like actors, follow a scene’s impulses and seek out surprising shifts in their own work. A response to objects (Brando and the glove) is one way. Stella Adler noted how a character’s connection to an object is a road map to the inner life. But the easiest way to infuse a story with levels of shifting tonalities is to think of subtexts in terms of verbs.
Sidney Lumet defined acting as “doing. Acting is a verb.” If you look back on my analysis of On the Waterfront you’ll see many subtextual beats listed as verbs: deflect, challenge, chastise, admit.
Don’t preplan or overdetermine scenes: let the scene grow organically, surprise you. But once you revise, step back, and think more like an actor. What verb is being played here? And here? And there? Every time you have a new line of dialogue wonder what verb/objective/desire is under it. If the dialogue, in a certain line is cajoling, and you don’t feel it quite works, make what she says a reprimand. Change the verb, the action, and the subtext will adjust accordingly. And as the subtext adjusts, so will your choices and thus the revision of a scene you’re struggling with will suddenly take you to surprising new ends.