As an arts educator, I’ve worked with youth and adult performers who have talent and drive. What they are often missing is experience and knowledge that can enhance their performances. This includes a lack of awareness of the meaning of the stories they are trying to tell. When they make performance choices, they do it without considering how those choices serve the story. Sometimes, when the meaning of the story has not been considered, no choice is made at all. Making acting choices that serve the premise allows performers to more effectively convey the meaning of their stories.
What is a Premise?
In order to make better acting choices, a performer must be able to identify a story’s premise. It is important to note that the word premise is used differently in other storytelling disciplines, namely film. Some screenwriters use premise to describe the pitch for the film; a one-sentence synopsis that describes the hero and inciting incident. However, others such as Michael Tabb use premise as we will use it here:
“A premise is the core belief system of the script and lifeblood of the story… Now, it’s important to note that there can only be one premise per script from which all the ideas it contains serve, otherwise the script loses focus and its sense of purpose. Premise is hypothesis. It is the story’s purpose for existing at all.”
Michael Tabb – “Where Story Begins – Premise“
A premise describes the TAKEAWAY MEANING of a story. It is often confused with synopsis, which is a summary of the plot. Let’s use the musical Beauty and the Beast as an example.
A girl trades her freedom to save her father and is trapped in a castle with a Beast. They grow to love each other, which frees the Beast from his curse.
Real beauty is found within.
A premise is not a synopsis of the plot, nor a one-word theme such as “love”. Rather it describes the message the author(s) is trying to prove to be true. In short, the premise is the meaning of the story and the purpose for its existence.
Premise and Acting Choices
Once the premise has been identified, a performer is tasked with making acting choices that serve the meaning of the story. But how is this accomplished? It starts by understanding that EVERY choice a performer makes affects the story.
Should I take a beat after this line?
Which tactic should I choose?
Should I change my tone quality on this lyric?
How can I energize my choreography?
Do I need to gesture on this word?
For each of the above questions, a seasoned performer would next ask this question:
Does it serve the premise of the story?
Making acting choices that serve the premise can also help performers avoid a common theatrical pitfall:
Not making any choice at all.
Examples of tasks performed without an acting choice include:
- Speaking a line with no intent or tactic
- Singing notes on a page rather than breaking into song to reveal high stakes
- Executing a dance sequence rather than painting a detailed story through movement
This happens when performers aren’t sure how to make a choice. Focusing on premise helps performers to make choices and gauge their effectiveness. For every acting choice, consider not only WHAT you must do, but WHY it should be done. This will help you discover HOW to do it in a way that serves the premise.
Returning to the example of Beauty and the Beast, say you’re playing the role of BELLE. In the scene before the villagers storm the castle, BELLE has the following line:
WHAT – “I know he looks frightful…but he’s really kind and gentle.”
As you decide how best to approach the line, consider the premise to help you make your acting choice:
WHY – BELLE values BEAST’s heart more than GASTON’s handsomeness. She’s discovered the premise to be true.
HOW – Tactics like realize, cherish and protect can be used to show the audience BELLE’s discovery.
By constantly weighing choices against the premise, there is a barometer for determining a choice’s value. This leads to a greater understanding of a character’s function within a story and the intent of the author.
See the Big Picture
Understanding the premise helps performers make better acting choices. It also helps them better understand their role within the world of the story. Each character has a function that either supports or attempts to disprove the premise. Knowing your character’s function is vital in helping you make better choices.
Consider the three main characters in Beauty and the Beast:
BELLE – beautiful on the outside and the inside
BEAST – ugly on the outside and the inside; discovers his inner beauty which transforms his outer beauty
GASTON – beautiful on the outside, ugly on the inside
BELLE is proof that the premise is true, and remains so despite any setbacks she experiences. BEAST is a different proof of the premise’s truth. His physical ugliness is overcome by his inner beauty. GASTON, as the villain, remains ugly on the inside. The villain usually represents the opposite of the premise: his handsomeness cannot overcome the ugliness inside of him.
Why We Tell the Story
The best way to tell your story is to make acting choices that serve the premise. Every detail of a performance should be considered with the end in mind. Landing your premise with the audience is the ultimate goal of theater. There is no more profound theatrical experience than being moved by the meaning of a story. It is WHY performers tell stories onstage.
Instructor, Show How Studio
Steve Kovacs has amassed a wealth of knowledge and experience in his 15+ years as an arts educator in public schools, theatrical productions and private teaching. He is an honors graduate of The Miami University (Ohio), an adjudicator and workshop provider for the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, as well as co-author and composer / lyricist of We Like It Where?, an original musical that premiered at Northern Sky Theater in Door County in 2019.
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