Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Scene Chewing

By • Apr 7th, 2010 • Category: An Actor's Advice

“Scene chewing” is an almost polite term for what most would call over acting. The etymology seems to be the idea that an actor is so absorbed by the performance he is giving that he actually leaves teeth marks on the set from having bitten down on same.

I would think it is obvious that in general it should be avoided. After all, poorly trained dogs tend to chew furniture, and I can’t help but believe there is a connection between this fact and the common phrase, “scene chewing.”

True, some scripts, especially farces, actually require scene chewing, in a fashion. (Though in my view if a script is written with intention in an over the top fashion it isn’t really scene chewing. But that’s another column.)

By and large, however, the concept is undesirable.

But why? Getting a chance to go over the top is a fun rush. Isn’t it a blessing for an actor to be able to run so wild with a performance? Doesn’t that mean an actor has a lot more built up within them than most?

In a word, no.

I don’t deny how very tempting it is to chew scenery. There would be a certain rush to doing so for some. I think it would be fun to floor my Honda Civic all the way down a major highway one day, just to see what kind of rush would ensue. That doesn’t mean it isn’t reckless. If that is what I want to do, there are places I can go for that, far from the open road. The same is true with scene chewing and standard productions.

Scene chewing is not interchangeable with intensity. Intensity is the power to use almost everything you have in deliberate pursuit of a dramatic goal. (For a single scene or for an entire play.) The operative word is deliberate. The actor is at the wheel of a very large powerful ship, sometimes in tempestuous seas, but is in fact in command of the vessel. Despite all that is going on around him, the lighthouse illuminates their destination, and the master craftsman gets there in one piece.

Scene chewing is running that same ship at full throttle into the shore, and damn anything that gets in the way. Even when the waters are calm. You may get to land, but who would want to be on board that ship?

Control. It is always about control for the actor. And while those that may be accused of scene chewing are hopefully in control of their actual mental faculties, they are not often in control of their performances.

I will allow for a bit of what I call scene nibbling here and there. Theatre, after all, is a reflection of real life, but not real life itself. As such, everything we tend to do on stage is somewhat magnified as compared to real life events. So a well timed over the top moment or two may be powerful even in a straight show. But a return to balance should not be far behind such nibbles.

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is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs (for theatre related thoughts) and (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

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