Playing the Verbs, Part III — Raising the Stakes

One of the keys to good acting is figuring out what your character wants, slavishly sticking to trying to get it, and not worrying too much about how you feel.  If you really know what you want, why you want it, and everything hangs on your getting it, then most everything else is going to fall into place without you having to work too hard.

Let’s go back to our party; notice that each option begins with the word “because”.

“I want to make sure this party comes off perfectly, because I will feel embarrassed if it isn’t successful” or “because if I can’t control my world, I won’t feel safe and will freak out” or “because if it is successful, I will get the job I want more than anything in the world, the one that will both set  me up for the rest of my life and make me happy to go to work every day.”

What do I want?  To give a perfect party.  Why do I want it?  “Because . . .”

As for “everything hangs on your getting it”, this is about what we call “stakes”.  Every character has something at stake, which means that whether or not they succeed at something MATTERS.  I mean REALLY, REALLY MATTERS.

Whether I am fourth or fifth in line doesn’t matter much if I’m making a bank deposit, I’ve got time to kill, and there is plenty of money already in the bank to pay my bills without bouncing a check.  If my family is starving and there are only four loaves of bread left at the bakery, it does matter.

Whether I am hired for a job doesn’t matter much if I’m already employed and simply looking to move up the ladder, but it matters a ton if I’ve been out of work for eight months, my unemployment has run out, and I have a child who needs a life-saving operation.

Whether a man asks me out for a date doesn’t matter much if I just think he’s cute; but if I have fallen head-over-heels in love with him and want to bear his children, it matters a great deal.

poker chipIn each of these cases, I can RAISE THE STAKES for my character by choosing the second alternative or something like it.  The higher the stakes for your character, the better.  When everything seems to hang on whether or not you what you want more than anything in the world, it’s fun theater to watch!

A good way to do this is to think in terms of Life and Death circumstances, at least figuratively.  The higher you can build your house of cards, the more things you can hang on whether or not you succeed, the more it becomes a tightrope act.  And the audience is on the edge of its seat.

Let’s take the first “I am bossy, because”, which is to avoid embarrassment.  This is good, but the stakes aren’t high enough to be as interesting and dramatic as possible.  We can amp up “embarrassed” by changing the word to “mortified”.  But even this isn’t enough.  To really make this work, you have to understand WHY your character is mortified.  Does her self-esteem depend on appearing to be perfect?  Has she never failed at anything?  Does she feel inferior to all her invitees, and “knows” they will judge her as being inadequate if the party isn’t perfect?

Whatever you choose, make the consequences of failing to get what you want as dire as possible.  If this party isn’t successful, will she be ostracized by the group?  Is the party for her husband’s coworkers, and her husband will be furious and withhold his love if they don’t walk away impressed?  Or better yet, is their marriage on the rocks and depends on this party being a success?  Will her husband file for divorce if someone leaves the party unhappy?

Or does his getting a promotion depend on her impressing the boss with her social skills, and they need his promotion to buy their apartment, which has just gone co-op?  Or to pay for private school for their children?  Or to bail her mother out of jail?

Sometimes the playwright will clearly define what your character wants and why he wants it so badly, but more often than not, it is written “between the lines” and is part of the subtext.  If the playwright doesn’t explicitly tell you either the desire or the reason for it, then you are free to choose whatever you like.  Just be sure that nothing in your choice conflicts with any of the information the playwright does give you.  Your choices must always make perfect sense in the context of the play.  But make clear choices that give you something to go after and a compelling reason to do just that!

See Part I here.  See Part II here.  See Why Playing the Emotions Doesn’t Work here.  See Why Playing the Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier than Acting Emotions here.  See Choosing Verbs here.  See Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs here.  See How to Learn to Play the Verbs here.  See An Example of Why Verbs Make a Difference here.

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5 thoughts on “Playing the Verbs, Part III — Raising the Stakes

  1. Pingback: Playing the Verbs, Part II – Going After What You Want | SceneStudySTX

  2. Pingback: Why Playing Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier Than Acting Emotions | SceneStudySTX

  3. Pingback: Choosing Verbs | SceneStudySTX

  4. Pingback: Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs | SceneStudySTX

  5. Pingback: How to Learn to Play the Verbs | SceneStudySTX

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