The other kind of physical action you can use on stage is what is called “business”, but let’s stay away from the theatrical term for the moment, and call it an “activity” instead.
Every actor should have an activity in every scene, if possible.
Sometimes it isn’t. If you are a guest in the house of someone you don’t know well, you may not be able to do anything other than sip your coffee. Repairing your lipstick may not be appropriate for your well-mannered character. If you’re having dinner in a restaurant, your activities will mostly be limited by what is on the table at any moment. Fixing your contact will be distracting to the audience, who will worry that you, the actor, are in real pain.
But in most cases, actors should have an activity. Guess why they call us actors?
While a change in physical location can be driven strictly by your emotions, it often is part of an activity. If I’m picking up the kids’ toys because my mother-in-law is coming over, I’m moving around the living room, but it is in service of the activity of picking up the kids’ toys.
What happens as a result of choosing an activity, no matter how disconnected it may seem from the actual drama of the scene?
- It makes what happens in the script seem more like real life.
- Like a change in physical location, it adds visual interest to the audience. The stage isn’t film, but post-MTV audiences like to watch motion while they listen. Watching someone do something with purpose is much more interesting than watching someone sit around talking. Some scripts have scenes that seem to be about people sitting around talking. When you are cast in a play like that, you must put on your thinking cap and invent things to do.
- What you choose for an activity says something about who your character is.
Chosen correctly, your activity can also underscore what happens dramatically in the scene. For the moment, however, let’s leave that responsibility in the director’s lap.
But the grand prize of using an activity onstage? It puts you in touch with your emotional life without you having to do anything intentionally. This alone is worth the price of admission!