Why (and How) I Use Verbs

verbs (1)I wasn’t introduced to verbs as a dramatic concept as an actress.  When I was learning to act, we talked about “motivations” and “objectives” without distilling it to the very simple idea that these multi-syllabic high concepts can be put into verbs.

No, I encountered verbs much later, in playwriting class.  It occurred to me then that they had use for actors, but I wasn’t acting at the time.  Another decade, probably, passed before the use of verbs infiltrated the acting community in a meaningful way.  (Like everything else, acting has its “fashions”.)

As an instinctive actress, talking about objectives was sufficient for me; I was playing verbs without having any idea that was what I was doing.  But in recent years, I have taken to sitting down with my script before rehearsals start, whether I am directing or acting, and doing some intentional verb work.

First, I break the scene into beats, which I mark with a pencil in case I want to change my mind later.

Then I give each beat a name that says something to me about what happens in that beat.  It’s an outline of the play, basically.  It’s my big picture feel for the play, and it helps me to get a stronger sense of the flow of the play, as well as to cement the structure in my head.  Knowing, generally speaking, what happens next is essential if you are going to help “save the day” when someone forgets his line.

It also can help me to spot what is humorous and what is not.  If I’m in a comedy, it helps me to clearly identify when the dramatic moment starts and ends, and vice versa if I’m in a drama.  In a drama, I’m always looking to find ways to lighten the piece, and clarifying which beats are humorous allows me to extend the humorous moment throughout the entire beat, rather than just using it on the punchline.

And then I go back to Beat One and identify my verbs, beat by beat.  It can be laborious work, if I have a large role.  But as instinctive as I am, I find it does a few things for me:

  • It helps me to get more specific about my verbs.  When a general verb shows up on my list (“to find out”), I know to go looking for a more interesting version (“to inquire”; “to demand to know”; “to cross-examine”; “to probe”; “to dig”).
  • It helps me to make distinctions between beats that have similar verbs.  If I have “to find out” on three different beats in the same scene, I know I need three different verbs for each, and I head for the thesaurus.
  • It helps me spot my own stereotypes.  We all have them, but it can be hard to see them ourselves.  It allows me to take a third-person position and evaluate my own choices with a certain amount of objectivity.  I’m not afraid to call my own choices “trite” when I do this.
  • It helps me to identify the areas of the script I’m apt to have difficulty with.  If I have trouble choosing a verb, I know I don’t understand that beat well enough.  I may not solve the riddle of this particular beat today, but it now has a red flag on it, and I know I need to give it special attention throughout rehearsals.
  • It helps me to see patterns.  If I have the same general verb several times in one scene, I know I’m probably dealing with something that needs to escalate.  I might notice the scene is framed by similar beats.  It also helps me to see patterns across the full play, e.g. a repetition or a reversal in the second act of something that happened in the first.
  • It helps me to know who is the aggressor in the scene, or if we change positions during it.  If I’m the weaker character, it might help me to identify the moment when I start to develop a spine.  It doesn’t just happen on the line when I explode in my own defense.  It has probably started several beats before that explosion, and I need to know when that is.
  • It helps me to identify things about my character that are revealed later in the play but which need to be foreshadowed in the first scenes.
  • I’ll usually notice who is the “star” of the beat, if there is one.  Even if I’m playing the lead and all the action of the play centers on me (e.g., Woman in Mind, Trudy Blue), it doesn’t mean the attention should always be on me.  It’s important to know when to defer the limelight to the other character.  Among other things, this will affect the blocking of the beat.

For me, this is pretty intense, conscious detective work, and it may easily take me four hours if I have a leading role, but I have a strong sense that its benefits are worth the time.  This is also the one thing I commit to writing when I act.  (I know actors who write formal and extensive biographies of their characters, but I’ve never found that useful for myself.)

Beyond this, I don’t do much with the verbs.  I trust that my subconscious has gotten the message and will do what needs to be done.  While you’re learning how to use verbs, you may need to play at least some them a little more consciously, while you’re getting the hang of it.  Don’t worry if you don’t manage to hit every single verb during the course of a single run-through.  It can be difficult to make all those switches effectively.  If you manage to get 25% of them the first time, that’s probably pretty good.  Over the course of several run-throughs, you’ll be able to hit the most important ones.  But don’t worry if you don’t intentionally play every single verb you’ve identified.  That’s normal.

I have a good memory, and I’ll probably remember the verbs in some haphazard fashion during rehearsals.  By that I mean that I’ll sense that a scene isn’t going as well as it should, that I’m being superficial or monotonous, and I’ll remember to think in terms of verbs.  (Because the beat divisions are marked in my script, they remind me on a semi-subliminal level of when things change on stage.)

If I’m really struggling with a section of the play a month into rehearsals, I’ll ask the director if we can run it a few times, and I’ll do some very conscious work with tools at this point.  It is likely that I’ll play with verbs a bit on at least one of the run-throughs, or perhaps several as I ratchet up the intensity of my choices.


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