Directors Use Adjectives, Actors Use Verbs

(A slight detour from the tools’ posts, which are still a work-in-progress…)

HELLO in eight different languagesLet’s say you’re still making this transition, trying to learn how to avoid thinking in terms of angry, innocent, deceitful.  You’ve studied the script, you’ve marked your beats, you’ve found your verbs, and by God, you really are trying to play them for all they’re worth!

Then you’re at rehearsal one night, and the director says to you, “You used to be angrier in this scene.”  Or, “Could you be a little more confused when she asks you that?”  Or, “I think the scene would work better if you were more excited when she comes home.”

It’s almost like offering an alcoholic a cocktail, only with much less serious repercussions.  But there’s a strong temptation to comply.  You want to please your director, and he must know better than you do, that’s why he’s in charge!  You may not even realize that he’s putting you back on Adjective Road, so eager are you to “get it right.”

But there is something worth noting:  your director has a different job to do than you do, and adjectives/adverbs are part of the language he is apt to speak.  He may not even be aware of this adjective/verb thing.  He’s going to continue to use adjectives, and you know what?  That’s just fine.

Because you can translate them into verbs.Translate Computer Key In Blue Showing Online Translator

Why does he use adjectives and adverbs if they aren’t part of a good actor’s language?  Because he’s not an actor.  Because it’s a quick way to communicate what he wants; verbs take longer to find.  Because even though it’s live theater, his view is almost cinematic, and so he is dealing on some level with images, sounds, emotions.  Large brush strokes.  And because he naively thinks that he is getting to the heart of the matter and being helpful.

So if he asks you for anger, or confusion, or excitement, he’s not really telling you how to do your job.  He’s just telling you what he wants to experience viscerally.  He may not even know what he means, exactly; but he’ll know it when he sees it from you.

It’s not his job to learn an actor’s verbs; it’s your job to translate his instructions into terms that are meaningful for you.

So maybe “angry” becomes, “I want to make you accept me as I am!”  Maybe “confused” becomes, “I want to understand how this happened.”  Maybe “excited” becomes, “I want to get married tomorrow, not next week!”

You may need to take a minute in rehearsal to make this translation, which goes something like this:

“Angry?  Angry.  Why would I be angry in this part of the scene?  What is it that I want that I’m not getting, and why does not getting it upset me so?  How can I raise my stakes in this scene, so that not getting what I want really pisses me off?”

When you have a verb you can actively play that will help you produce anger, you can move forward with the rehearsal.  But if you allow yourself to revert to using adjectives just to please your director now, that choice will have a negative impact on your performance, and that won’t please your director later.  You’re just postponing that difficult discussion for another day down the road, when he realizes that you aren’t making the progress with the scene that he had hoped for.  And believe me, he’s not going to realize that he hamstrung you back at the rehearsal where he asked you to play angry.

Take the time you need to make the translation and then to consider how this adjustment might affect the scene.  Then play the scene again, with the adjustment.

I’ve never met a director who objects when an actor asks for a minute or two to make an adjustment.  Don’t feel that you can’t ask for time.  In the long run, you are helping the production and saving it time.  Trust that.

To read Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs, go here.  To read Why Playing Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier Than Acting Emotions, go here.

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2 thoughts on “Directors Use Adjectives, Actors Use Verbs

  1. Yes. I will throw an adjective at the actor and at the same time think, “but that’s not a verb.” Now I’ll stop worrying about it!

    • You’ll find that as you become fluent in verbs as an actor, it will be easier to speak in an actor’s language when you direct. But there is so much thinking on your feet that happens as a director that no, it doesn’t come naturally to most. And no, it’s not your job as a director to worry about i!

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