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!