« Troubleshooting the... Juicy mistakes »

Patrick Stewart on learning a script

Steve Eddins
Posted on Monday, December 11, 2023

I don’t read biographies that often, but I am enjoying my birthday present from last month, the book Making It So, by Patrick Stewart, known to many as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise. I’ve seen him very many times in TV shows, movies, and even in a Broadway play, “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan.” I’ve only gotten to his teenage years in the book so far, but I’m already finding a lot to admire about him as a person, and as an artist.

A passage just caught my attention, a description of the process Stewart was taught at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School for learning scripts.

In school and in the early days of my professional career, I loved this process: sitting alone in my room with a script, a notebook, and a pen, nothing else needed.

What I am going to describe might seem obvious or rudimentary, but believe me, it is gold dust.

For starters, I read and reread the script many times, recording my discoveries in my notebook as I went. I still have a stack of notebooks with the BOVTS logo, filled with what might be called research. Each of these readings served a distinct purpose, which I kept foremost in my mind as I read:

Reading 1: What is the narrative, the story?
Reading 2: What is the play about?
Reading 3: What does my character say about himself?
Reading 4: What do other characters say about my character when he is present?
Reading 5: What do other characters say about my character when he is absent?
Reading 6: What is true in the play?
Reading 7: What is false in the play?
Reading 8: What does the character actually do?

Duncan Ross provided us with this approach. He told us that the day would come when we would no longer have to go through such an arduous process, that as our skills became sharper and more finely tuned, these questions would answer themselves instinctively. That is indeed what happened, and it was exhilarating when it did: Acting had entered my bloodstream. Still, to this day, I like to read a script multiple times, especially for a film or TV, making notes as I go of the feelings it generates.

pages 122-123

This passage jumped off the page, captivating me, and I stopped and reread it several times. It speaks to me in ways that will probably take me a while to figure out.

First of all, throughout the chapters I have read about his early life, Stewart clearly loves and cherishes every memory and detail of how he learned the art and craft of being an actor. Second, his description of the research process, with its multiple readings, and with the formation of different “maps” (my word) of what happens in the script, resonates with ideas that are just barely starting to form in my head about how to go about learning a musical work. Third, I appreciate his description how such a process becomes automatic, over time and with experience. Even so, he still treasures the process (“gold dust” in his notebooks) as he originally learned it.

I’m sure that I’ll be thinking much more about this. For now, though, I have more chapters to read!