My Top Ten Most Useful Acting Posts

All right, they may not be my Top Ten.  I’ve written about 200 posts in the past two years, and I haven’t gone through each of them.  But I’ve noticed in the last couple of months that everyone in the world is suddenly obsessed with the difference between impersonation and acting, a post I wrote a year ago.  Now, it’s a good post, but it is hardly the most important one I’ve written, and it certainly isn’t a very practical one.  I wrote it in response to a student’s question, so it was sort of a diversion from what I typically write about.  (I love these diversions! – so keep asking questions.  But that doesn’t always make them the most useful posts I have.  Having said that, two of the posts I’m about to list were answers to questions.)

The impersonation post was visited again today, which made me think:  if I could direct readers to a handful of posts, which ones would I want them to read the most?  So here’s my quick-and-dirty list, in no particular order.  And oh — it’s eleven, not ten, simply because I miscounted and don’t want to eliminate any of them!

(By the way, I’ve noticed that some of the links from one post to the next aren’t working again.  No idea why this happens, but it seems to periodically.  I’ll get to fixing them soon, I hope.  In the meantime, you can search for the posts to get the right links!)

Line Readings, and Why They Don’t Work

The Learning Process, Part III (The Fastest Route)

Acting as Storytelling:  It’s About Competition

Equus, Part III:  The First Five Minutes

Actor’s Etiquette:  Deliberate Practice

The Subconscious Effect, or Why You Can’t Do Any Acting Until You’re Off Book

What Are Play Rehearsals For, Part III

Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs

Verbs & Beats – Moonlight & Magnolias

Playing the Verbs, Part III – Raising the Stakes

An Example of Why Verbs Make a Difference

 

 

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More About Verbs

Tampa - Selecting Beats & Verbs

Real Table Work — Selecting the Beats and Choosing Verbs

I recently spent a day with a community theater outside of Tampa, a very rewarding day with twelve actors who were so open to what I was sharing with them.  It was a joy to work with them.  As often happens, I have stayed in touch via email with one of the actors.  One of the perqs of hiring me to give your group a workshop is that in addition to the low per-person cost, I’m happy to respond to questions via email at any time after the workshop is over.  The workshop is typically about planting seeds, not harvesting them, and so it can take a little time to really reap the harvest.  I’m happy to keep helping to nudge the process along from a distance!

When a student raises an issue that I think others will benefit from, I respond to them via this blog.  So I’d like to share some of what Linda and I have been talking about, because I think there is broad application in how she is working through the newness of choosing and playing verbs.

First, remember that while Big Verbs (which cover the play or an act) are often global, broad stroke needs/wants, the Little Verbs — those which govern your moment-to-moment work — are very simple, practical things.  They may be in service of that Big Verb/Goal in some small way, or they may be in reaction to what another character is “giving” you.  But they are very concrete in terms of action.

Beats can be as short as one word or as long as a page (more often, 3-8 lines).  That means that your verb for the beat is just what gets you through the next 20 – 40 seconds.  It’s not at all global/high-level.  It’s strictly about “what do I need to do right this very minute to get what I ultimately want to achieve in this scene?”  Sometimes it takes a lot of little actions to achieve our goals.  Pay attention to what is going on right this very minute, and you’ll find some interesting things you didn’t realize were there.  I’ll give some practical examples of this in the next post.

But Linda found helpful something that I haven’t precisely highlighted before.  Scenes are a give-and-take between actors.  You and I may have very different goals in the same scene.  I may want you to help me prepare dinner for company, and you may want me to finance your new business idea.  Sometimes we’ll talk about food, sometimes you’ll try to sell me on yet another hair-brained idea.  Remember the tug-of-war analogy I used to describe conflict?  We can also use it to talk about who is controlling the situation at any given moment.  This will impact which verbs you choose.

I may want to talk about cooking, but your agenda can derail my own.  I will sometimes respond to what I am getting from you and temporarily put aside my own concerns, but I’m going to bring up what I want to talk about as soon as I can do it easily.  My need to talk about my own stuff may contribute an urgency to how I bring it up, or I may or may not listen very well to what you’re saying.  A close reading of the text should make its influence on what I do and say relatively apparent.

In other words, not everything I do and say in a scene is necessarily directly connected to my Big Verb.  Sometimes I am just responding to your need.  Think of it as tossing a ball back and forth.  When you hold the ball, you are controlling the scene.  When you toss it back to me, I take control.

Who is driving the scene at any given moment matters.  By driving, I mean, whose topic of conversation is being discussed?  Whose needs are we focusing on the most?  If we’re talking about the weather because you just came in the house complaining that you had to park halfway down the street because the snowplows have done a poor job of clearing and much of the on-street parking is unusable as a result, and I change the subject to talk about how I can’t find a dress for the office holiday party, then you were driving the first beat, and I am driving the second one.  I’m listening to you complain in Beat One, and you’re listening to me complain in Beat Two (alright, not the most scintillating dialogue or interesting plot.  But you get the idea.)

Understanding who is driving the beat helps you to connect with your scene partner, because you have a clearer sense of the fact that this moment in the scene isn’t really about you, it’s about you listening to and responding to someone else’s need.  In real life, we do this switching back and forth with ease and regularity.  So should it be on stage.

Of course, in a really well-written play, the best scenes will be where we are at odds over the same thing (that is, in conflict!)  When that happens, it is possible that no one character is really driving the scene — we are both fighting tooth and nail for what we want.  Identifying these moments can help us to focus more clearly on where and how the other character keeps throwing obstacles in our path.

But here’s the really wonderful thing that Linda wrote in her last email, which tells me that she is starting to understand the role verbs play and why they give such power to an actor:

“Your approach adds a more dynamic and complex layer to portraying a character.  Because what that character might be thinking or feeling is not in a vacuum; it’s in relation to another person or situation and it’s not static and, like much in life, it may be in conflict with ‘the other’.  It’s why verbs, not adjectives, tell the story.  So, yesterday when I was mulling over what you had written, I said to myself, ‘your emphasis is on how the character is thinking, wanting, doing, feeling, reacting, controlling, manipulating, etc (all verbs!), in relation to another person who is doing all those things as well.  [The emphasis is mine.]  It’s almost as though the actor is transmitting how that character’s mind operates and reacts in any given moment.  Which creates tension and excitement.  And even in glorious harmony with another person, it’s a result of working through all of the above.'”

The very fact that she is speaking the words I’ve boldfaced above indicates that she is starting to really understand how verbs work.  In her previous email, verbs showed themselves occasionally, but often in weak form, and sometimes not at all.  Of the seven verbs she’s used here, the last two are the kinds of verbs you want to choose.  They are actions you can play.  “I want to control my situation.”  “I want to control what you do with your life.”  “I want to manipulate you into doing what I want while thinking it is all your idea.”  Underscore your beat with those very powerful verbs and phrases, and you’re cooking with gas, as my mother used to say.

Once you can begin to use verbs on any level to describe what is going on with your character, you are on the path toward using verbs, and it is very difficult to turn around and go back to using adjectives.  Nor will you want to!

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.

Acting Beats, Part III

This is sort of cheating, because it isn’t actually a new post, to speak of.  Well, I may have a new post on the subject later this week, once I’ve had a chance to mull things over a bit.  But this post is mostly just a detour sign.

I happened to check the blog’s stats this morning, to see which posts have been visited the most.  And the two posts on Acting Beats are right up there.  Not a surprise.  I know a lot of actors either don’t really know what the term means, although they’ve heard it used, because I have actors who aren’t new to acting ask me what it means.  But even if you at least sort of understand the meaning of “Beat” in the context of acting, I think a lot of people are confused as to why we even care where a beat starts and ends, or what it covers.  And so beats become an English Lit discussion more than being a practical tool that you can use to improve your performance.

So I’ve tried, in some small way, to cover this issue in the various posts on both beats and verbs.  And my verb posts have gotten a bit of attention, too, but since actors don’t throw around the word “verb” quite as much as they do the word “beat” (although perhaps they should), I’m not sure that everyone realizes the two are connected.  And so people who want to read about Acting Beats find Parts I and II, but don’t necessarily find what is really Part III:  my post on “Why Playing Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier than Acting Emotions.”

So if you haven’t read that post yet — which assigns verbs to the example used in Part II, and has a few other things to say about the matter as well — you can read it by clicking here.

How to Learn to Play the Verbs

Choosing the verbs is one thing; even if you struggle with it initially, you’ll find it easier the more you do it.  It’s a big change in perspective from playing the emotions you find in adjectives and adverbs, but once you learn to stand in that other position, the verbs will start to come to you more naturally.

Actually PLAYING the verbs is a different challenge.  It is very easy to give the verb lip-service, but fall back into the comfort zone of simply being angry, or whatever emotion seems to dominate the scene.

As with all new activities, you need to isolate it so that you can focus on it.  So take the first beat of your scene or monologue, and work that beat all by itself, focusing strictly on the verb you have chosen for the beat.  Don’t keep going into the next beat, just play the one beat till it ends and stop there.  Since the next beat has a different verb, we want to keep it separate.  Try to blend them before you’ve explored what each verb means, and you’ll muddy the waters.

canto_basic_ms5All you want to do with each beat is to try to get what it is that you want.  Forget everything else.  If you want to persuade someone of something, then do your damnedest to persuade them.  If you want to seduce your scene partner, do.  Don’t worry about “being seductive”.  Just try to get her to kiss you.

Repeat the beat as often as you need to until you are sure that you are as in touch with your need to persuade or seduce the other actor as you can possibly be.  Then set that beat aside and move to the next one.

Rinse and repeat.

NOTE:  Remember, as I noted in my post, “The Hardest Part of Acting”  – it is very difficult to be sure that you are playing the verbs and doing this exercise properly without a teacher observing the work.  I’m explaining the process we are working with in class, but it is only through classwork that you’ll really know when you are doing it correctly.

My own first experience of this process was that it was tedious.  Boring.  Not *FUN*! the way acting is “supposed” to be.  Focusing all of my energy on what was going on in this one beat was incredibly unrewarding.  My scene partner, who was also new to the process, felt similarly underwhelmed, but we were both committed to working the scene as we had been instructed.  So we marked our beats and did the first one.  Four times.  We looked at each other and said, “What do you think?”  “I don’t know.  Shall we move to the next beat?”  “Okay.”

We did the next beat four times.  “All right with you?”  “All right with me.”  “Okay, let’s do the next beat.”  And so on.

At the end of it, we looked at each other.  “What do you think?”  “I don’t know.  Are we doing this right?”  “I have no idea.”

Our next rehearsal, we put the scene together, but still focused intently on each beat’s requirements as we went through them.  At the end of the night, we looked at each other.  “What do you think?  Are we ready?”  “I have no idea.  I mean, we’ve done what she asked, but I don’t know if it’s working.”  “Well, let’s take it to class and have her tell us what we’ve missed.”

So we did.  We played the scene as we’d rehearsed it, focusing on one line at a time, one beat at a time.  It was as incredibly boring and ordinary as it had been in rehearsal.

But we rocked the house.  That scene, because of the way we rehearsed it, remains some of the best acting I’ve ever done.

When you put your focus on what you want – that is, your verb – you put great power into what you’re doing.  This enlivens the scene and makes your scene partner step up her game to meet what you’re doing.  That focus clarifies for the audience what is going on and energizes everyone in the theater.

And a nice little side benefit you’ll get from this exercise is that it helps you to stay in the moment and not anticipate what is coming next!

See Playing the Verbs Part II here.  See Playing the Verbs Part III 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.

Playwrights are literary (and how this affects acting beats and performance)

A good playwright doesn’t just know how to develop a plot, maximize conflict, and create interesting characters.  All these things help plays to be successful, but playwrights aren’t merely practical creatures.  They (the good ones, anyway) also know how to use literary devices to their best advantage on stage.

The kinds of literary devices I’m about to talk about help to focus the audience’s attention on what is important, as well as to make what is happening as clear as possible.

Here is the monologue from Agnes of God that Davina is working on, along with the Beat marks she is presently using.  They are slightly different than the ones she started with, because it became clear that the literary choices of the playwright help to determine the Beat divisions.agnes1

Dr.  Livingstone:  How dare you march into my office and tell me how to run my affairs – how dare you think that I’m in a position to be badgered or bullied or whatever you’re trying to do.  Who the hell do you think you are?  /  You walk in here expecting applause for the way you’ve treated this child.  /  She has a right to know!  That there is a world out there filled with people who don’t believe in God and who are not any worse off than you!  People who go through their entire lives without bending their knees once – to anybody!  And people who still fall in love, and make babies, and occasionally are very happy.  She has a right to know that.  /  But you, and your order, and your Church have kept her ignorant, because ignorance is next to virginity, right?  Poverty, chastity, and ignorance, that’s what you live by.

What are the literary devices John Peilmeier uses in this monologue? 

REPETITION.  Repetition means at least two of something.  It’s typically used to emphasize something, and Peilmeier uses it (forgive me) repeatedly in this monologue.  Two examples:  “how dare you” and “She has a right to know.”

GOOD THINGS COME IN THREES.  We talked about lists of threes in comedies, that three is the necessary number for a joke to be funny when it involves a list of some sort.  It doesn’t just apply to jokes, however.  When a writer wants to emphasize a point, he often builds to it by using a list of three.  Such lists can be used in a number of ways, but typically they escalate upwards emotionally, as in big, bigger, biggest.  (Choose to use them differently if you like, but be sure that you recognize that there are three related items which need to be delivered with some sort of variety in order to be effective.)

This monologue has a number of lists:

  • How dare you/how dare you/who the hell – forget that the third element doesn’t begin with “how dare you”, it is nevertheless the climax to this list of three.
  • Badgered/bullied/whatever you’re trying to do
  • People who/people who/people who
  • You/your order/your Church (and notice how each element is tied to the Mother Superior)
  • Ignorant/ignorance/ignorance
  • Poverty/chastity/ignorance (notice that “ignorance” is part of two separate lists)

FRAMING.  Framing is when the repetition begins and ends a thought.  “She has a right to know” is used to frame a list.  Just in case you forget where she started, why she made the list, Peilmeier reminds you by hammering it home with the closing frame.

A less obvious frame is in the last two sentences.  It is an implied frame, because it begins with “you, your order, and your Church” and ends with “that’s what you live by”, which is another way of saying the list that begins this section.  Just in case you forget that Dr. Livingstone is directly accusing the Mother Superior, the phrase “that’s what you live by” brings you back to where she started.

Peilmeier uses these devices to make sure you get his major points.  Words in a play can fly by, and you don’t know which words are the most important ones unless the actor and/or playwright help to underline them for you.  Peilmeier presents the actress with some great tools in this monologue; your job is to use them to their best advantage.  Don’t swallow any of the repeated words, and make sure your audience knows you are giving them a list.  The need to give them some variety in delivery will also help you explore the emotional underpinnings to your character at this moment.

With regard to choosing the beats when you find literary devices like this, make sure you include them in one beat.  Lists, frames, and repeated words typically belong in the same beat.

Acting Beats, Part II – A Practical Example

Diagramming the beats of a scene is an art, not a science.  There is room for reasonable people to disagree.  A change in your scene partner’s emotion or tactic doesn’t necessarily mean anything changes for you.  Some actors will identify the smallest nuances, while others will take a slightly broader view.  (Taking the more detailed approach isn’t necessarily “better”; it is entirely possible to identify fewer “formal” beats but nevertheless play the subtleties within them.  Going the detailed route can also become tedious by the second act if you have a major role in the play!)

I typically mark the beats in my script in pencil, because as I go through the rehearsal process, I may find that I change my mind about a beat’s placement.  Even if I give them no conscious thought after I mark them, the slashes serve as a subsconscious reminder of where there is a bend or turn in the road.

Here’s a monologue by Dora Strang, from Equus, by Peter Shaffer.dora strang

Look, Doctor:  you don’t have to live with this.  Alan is one patient to you:  one out of many.  He’s my son.  /  I lie awake every night thinking about it.  Frank lies there beside me.  I can hear him.  Neither of us sleeps all night. /  You come to us and say, who forbids television?  Who does what behind whose back? – as if we’re criminals.  /  Let me tell you something.  We’re not criminals.  We’ve done nothing wrong.  We loved Alan.  We gave him the best love we could.  /  All right, we quarrel sometimes – all parents quarrel – we always make it up.  /  My husband is a good man.  He’s an upright man, religion or no religion.  He cares for his home, for the world, and for his boy.  Alan had love and care and treats, and as much fun as any boy in the world.  /  I know about loveless homes:  I was a teacher.  Our home wasn’t loveless.  I know about privacy too – not invading a child’s privacy.  /  All right, Frank may be at fault there – he digs into him too much – but nothing in excess.  He’s not a bully. . . /  No, doctor.  Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan.  Alan is himself.  Every soul is itself.  If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing – because that’s him; not just all of our things added up.  /  Do you understand what I’m saying?  I want you to understand, because I lie awake and awake thinking it out, and I want you to know that I deny it absolutely what he’s doing now, staring at me, attacking me for what he’s done, for what he is! /  You’ve got your words, and I’ve got mine.  You call it a complex, I suppose.  But if you knew God, Doctor, you would know about the Devil.  You’d know the Devil isn’t made by what mummy says and daddy says.  The Devil’s there.  It’s an old-fashioned word, but a true thing . . . /  I’ll go.  What I did in there was inexcusable.  I only know he was my little Alan, and then the Devil came.

The slashes mark the start/end of the beats I’ve chosen on my first pass.  As I say, there is no right or wrong here.  You might want to have “We loved Alan” begin a new beat.  You might want to put all the lines about “privacy” into one beat, beginning with “I know about privacy too” and ending with “He’s not a bully.”  You might want to include “Do you understand what I’m saying?” in the beat that precedes it, and start the next beat with “I want you to understand.”

Wherever you choose to place your slashes will impact how you deliver the monologue.  Make the changes I’ve proposed in the preceding paragraph, and it will change how you say the lines.  In subtle ways, perhaps, but there will be a distinct change in what is going on inside of your character.

I won’t go through the piece to describe the changes from one beat to the next; for the moment, I prefer to let you understand them in your own way.  I’ll give you a detailed analysis of it when we get to talking about playing verbs.  But if my choices confuse you in any way and you’d like some clarity now, just let me know, and I’ll be happy to explain my logic.

See Part I here.  See Part III here.  Or just skip to Why Playing Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier than Acting Emotions here, which is where you can read about the changes from one beat to the next (which uses this monologue as an example).  See Playing the Verbs Part II here.