Playing the Emotions

I just realized that when I talked about playing the verbs, I contrasted them with adjectives, as in, “my character is bossy”, as opposed to “I am bossing people around [tactic] because I need everything about the party to be perfect because it’s the first party my new in-laws are coming to, and I want to make a good impression, because I don’t think they like me.”

The verb in this instance would be, “To impress”.

But there is another, perhaps more common, route that actors go instead of using verbs (and I am stunned to realize I only vaguely referenced it in those posts.  Ah, I guess I’m human.  Or else my students at the time were really locked into adjectives.)

Once they move beyond the stereotypes of bossy, etc., actors tend to focus on their character’s feelings.  So, in this party example, my character might be frustrated, or angry, or anxious, or any number of other feelings.  Let’s say that this is a large lawn party, and I have a dance floor and want good music, and my cousin has told me he can be my DJ, and he’ll handle all matters about the sound system, etc.  An hour before the party, however, it’s clear that he is just a wannabe, he’s completely clueless and nothing is working, and I am upset.  Or angry.  Or frustrated.  Or anxious.  Or any number of other emotions appropriate to this circumstance.

And a lot of actors will focus on playing upset, or angry, or frustrated, or anxious.

Why doesn’t this work?  First, it’s just as generic as playing “bossy”.  Second, it’s arbitrary (my character is probably upset, angry, frustrated, AND anxious all at the same time, but if I choose one emotion, I’m only playing one and bypassing the others.)  And third (which relates to the first reason, but is really a separate item), it’s approaching the problem from the wrong end of the stick.

If I play “I want to host a perfect party because my in-laws think I don’t deserve their son, but if I pull this off, their attitude about me will change,”  I don’t have to think about whether I am angry or frustrated or whatever.  My lines in the play will lead me in the right direction.  If I really know who my character is and stick to my guns about what I want, the rest tends to fall into place pretty naturally.  (Okay, that may be a little simplistic, but it’s not far off from the truth.)

More importantly, however, the emotions that manifest themselves will seem perfectly natural, and not forced.  If main concern is making sure that the audience knows that I am angry or shocked or delighted, the degree to which I am any of those things is not necessarily in correct proportion to the scene.  It’s easy to (particularly) overdo the emotion.  When you focus on your verb for the scene — what you want and are working very hard at getting — the emotions tend to take care of themselves in absolutely the right way.

Focusing on the emotions rather than what you need also runs the risk of anticipating the “event” that triggers the emotion (often what someone else has said to you), and the split-second difference is enough to make the audience find the moment to be unbelievable.

Ignoring the emotions and just going after what we want with all the determination we can muster is so counter-intuitive to the human experience and our assumptions about what actors are doing onstage.  Emotions rule, don’t they?  Well, yes, they do.  But they are also sly devils that make their way into a scene whether you like it or not.  This is actually a blessing for the actor.  When you learn the lesson inherent in this (which is to focus on what you WANT in a scene), you learn that being open to whatever emotions arise in you when you rehearse is ALL you really need to do.  The rest takes care of itself.


On Staying in the Moment

Hamilton The Musical is my current obsession, and so I came across the above interview with five of the cast members.  Scroll down and you’ll find Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, talking about the moment every night when Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, hurls the insult that causes Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel and ultimately, to kill him, simultaneously ending his own political career.

“Every night, I’m looking for it in his eyes — I want him to make different decisions. I want it to end differently.”

When you are so in the moment and caught up in what your character is feeling that you actually want what your character wants, hope for it to be so, even though you know it can’t happen any other way — that is truly being in the moment.

Also interesting to note:  how they deal with the different energies that audiences bring with them to the performance, and how they continue to develop and understand their characters over time (and they’ve been working with the show for at least a year now).


2015 Actor’s Renaissance Season: Top 5

From an actor at my favorite theater in the world. Given that we’ve been talking about script analysis lately, check out #3 for a good example of how lines in different parts of the script impact each other and how even good, trained actors don’t necessarily see the connections immediately.  This is also an example of Diamond Lines.  Isn’t it funny that you can have Diamond Lines that you somehow completely miss?  It’s a V-8 moment when the penny finally drops, and you are so grateful!  And oh, yes — read the rest of the post, too. Worth your time!


The Actor’s Renaissance Season is an experience unlike any other in the American Theatre, both for the audience and the actors involved in creating it. Eleven actors. Five plays. Three months. Zero directors.

The 2015 Actor’s Renaissance Actors featured these plays:

  1. THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by William Shakespeare (1591)
  2. THE ROVER by Aphra Behn (1677)
  3. THE WHITE DEVIL by John Webster (1612)
  4. EVERY MAN IN HIS HUMOR by Ben Jonson (1598)
  5. MOTHER BOMBIE by John Lily (1594)

In the Actor’s Renaissance Season, there are two levels of “Staging Conditions” applied to the plays. The first level relates to performance:

  • We perform with the lights on, so you can see other patrons, and the performers can see you
  • We perform in a thrust at the beautiful Blackfriars Playhouse, so you can sit right on stage
  • We use cross-gender casting, and all actors plays multiple characters in the same play
  • We…

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Macbeth and Love


David Mead as Macbeth

Love may not be the first thing you think about when you think of Macbeth.  Pride, ambition, and murder probably are.  And yet, the first thing you should look for in any play – even a grand and gory tragedy like Macbeth – is love.  Love is the driving force of mankind, and no one wants to see a play that doesn’t have it.

As an actor, you must always look for the love.

I’ve just come from seeing the American Shakespeare Center’s production of Macbeth, with James Keegan in the title role and Sarah Fallon as his wife.  (No, this isn’t a photo from that production, but one my friend David Mead was in several years ago.  I don’t know the name of the actress who played Lady Macbeth.)

Now, I am an unabashed fan of the ASC in general – I’ve never had more fun at a theater than when I see their shows – and one of the things I love about their acting is their passion onstage.  Every one of the ASC actors is fully committed to the moment, from start to finish, and goes at it full tilt.

Here is a portion of director Jim Warren’s program notes for Macbeth – notes he sent to the cast before rehearsals began:

“Underneath is all….running through it all….has to be….love.

  • If our production is not filled with big love, the story/tragedy doesn’t work.
  • If Macbeth is just an evil s.o.b., a) it doesn’t match the words and b) who cares about his thoughts/feelings/guilt/journey?
  • If Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth don’t love each other truly/madly/deeply, who cares about the ride that rips them apart?
    • I want Macbeth to be as thoughtful/introspective/intelligent as Hamlet, but also a warrior who is part Henry V, part Titus, part Richard III, part Wolverine, and part Captain America.
    • I want Mr./Mrs. Macbeth to be in an awesome/sexy marriage of equals.
    • I want Macbeth’s heart to break when he gets the news that his Soul Mate/love-of-his-life is dead.
  • If Banquo and Macbeth DON’T love each other like the war-scarred, blood brothers they are in the text, who cares about the descent into jealousy/doubt/murder?
  • I want Duncan to be a great king that [sic] everybody loves, including/especially Macbeth.
  • But I also want a deserving Malcolm rather than a nerdy weakling that we all think would make a horrible king.

I want three-dimensional characters that [sic] allow us to care about them.”

Warren concludes his notes with this:

“We can be great at playing the darkness, creating the supernatural, and grossing out the audience, but if we’re not great at finding the love, telling the story, and giving the audience characters to care about, then nothing else matters.”

If you don’t find the love, then nothing else matters.  No one cares.

Look at the words Warren uses:  big, truly, madly, deeply, rips, warrior, awesome, sexy, Soul Mate, love-of-his-life, blood brothers.  There is nothing indecisive about his directions to the actors.  He is as committed to what he sees in the play as his actors are in the performance of it.

And notice, please, that there is love between all the characters, not just between two people who are sleeping together.  There are different kinds of love, and you must always search for how you love the other characters in the play, and make that love as strong as possible.

The Triumverate of No-Nos: Unbelievability

bme_group1“I don’t believe it” is what I say to actors when they aren’t properly connected to the material, their character, or the moment in which they find themselves.  Much like the models in the photo above.

It’s a catchall phrase I use to describe everything that doesn’t fall into any other category.  Yes, you aren’t believable when you anticipate what you’re going to get from your scene partner, but I’m talking about a different sort of believability.

When I use this phrase, it just means that the moment to which I refer isn’t anything I am mistaking for real life.  It is artificial on some level.

I typically use this phrase to refer to a single speech or line that isn’t working.  If an entire scene is unbelievable, that’s another matter.  Then it’s time to revisit the given circumstances, the verbs, the character’s motivation, or some other large scale problem.  No, in my parlance, “I don’t believe it” generally means that the actor has just withdrawn from the reality of the scene for a moment or two.

Usually he’s being superficial, relying on externals and line readings rather than connecting to what is going on inside of his character.

Even good actors are susceptible to this.  We dig our way into our characters and get to those real moments over time.  We are inclined to focus on the more difficult moments and let the easier ones slide, and sometimes we forget to go back and work on them.  It takes a lot of energy to stay focused and connected to the material without abatement, so it’s easy to take a moment to “rest” and coast for a line or two.

I regularly vet my own work for such moments, listening to myself in rehearsals.  “Does that really sound believable?  How can I make it even more natural?”  (A topic for another day.)

I use the phrase “I don’t believe it” when I direct, because I find it generally does the trick.  I’m simply giving the actor feedback on how it looks from the audience.  It is up to him to figure out why what he’s doing isn’t working.  My comment sends him back to the drawing board, and the modifications he makes usually pull him further into the material.  Maybe he makes it work in the first attempt, maybe he needs a few tries to get it to a stage where it IS believable, but a good, intelligent actor can figure it out on his own, once I’ve alerted him to the problem.

Surprisingly, even new actors respond very well to this approach.

The intention behind this comment is critical, however.  If you’re a director who wants to employ this technique, please pay close attention to what follows!

“I don’t believe it” isn’t a criticism – that is, it isn’t a negative.  I am not ridiculing what he’s doing in any way.  On the contrary – I deliver it as a really supportive, respectful comment.  It’s nothing personal; it’s factual.  It just means “you aren’t there yet, keep trying.”

When I say it to an actor, the implication is that he can certainly get to his destination, he just hasn’t arrived yet.  Sometimes an actor will respond, telling me what it is that he is trying to do, and I may say, “I think those are good choices.  They just aren’t coming through in what you’re doing, that’s all.”

If an actor continues to have trouble, I will try to tell him why it isn’t believable.  Depending on the actor, I may do this with the initial comment.  I’ve worked with actors for whom the simple identification of “this moment works, this one doesn’t” is sufficient.  But less trained actors may need to know why it isn’t working.  “I don’t believe it, because I don’t think you’ve really heard what she said.”  Etc.

It’s not just about saying the lines.  If it’s not believable, it doesn’t work.


The Triumverate of No-Nos: Telegraphing

morse_telegraph_keyTelegraphing is when we know what you’re doing or feeling before it is appropriate for us to know.  We know what’s coming next, it’s because you’ve sent out a signal ahead of time.  It’s a form of anticipation, but rather than anticipating your scene partner’s next line, you’re anticipating the play itself.  You’ve jumped into the next beat or one even further down the line.   You aren’t building toward anything naturally, because you’ve already arrived.

It’s when you and your boyfriend are having an argument, and you know that the scene is going to end with the two of you breaking up.  Instead of fighting to save the relationship, which is the action of the scene, you let the climax – when he storms out of the apartment – inform everything that comes before.  You’ve either stopped fighting for the relationship long before the end actually comes or else the nature of your fight is colored by the fact that you know the relationship is doomed to failure.

Not only does this eliminate the dramatic interest of the scene, but you’re cheating your character.  Your character doesn’t know the break-up is coming until the moment it actually happens.  Even if it seems to her that it’s moving in that direction, that the argument is escalating in a way that it hasn’t before, that things are being said that are hard to take back, the moment he says he’s leaving and not coming back should still hit you like a ton of bricks.  Reality, no matter how predictable, is nonetheless shocking in its event.

Spending a week at the bedside of someone who is dying doesn’t take away from the impact of the moment of his death.

When we say that we need to play the scene “moment by moment”, this is what we’re talking about.  It’s all about “staying in the moment”, but the phrase “moment by moment” reminds us to not get ahead of ourselves, to let the story unfold in a way that surprises not just the audience, but the characters we play as well.

If you’re human, you know just how unpredictable life is.  “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”  How many times have you rehearsed a difficult moment in your life – confronting someone who has been creating a problem for you – only to find that all the things you planned to say get thrown out when the person you’re talking to throws you a curve?

Perhaps what you should do is give some consideration to how your character thinks the scene is going to play out, and compare that expectation with the reality.  Where do differences exist?  If you can spot the differences, you can discover when your character is surprised or has to take another approach to get what she wants (new beat, new tactic, new verb).

There is No Such Thing as a Transition on Stage

transition-managementMany actors interpret the idea of “receiving” from another actor to mean that they actually have to “process” the information or emotion that they get before the can respond, or react, to it.  This misinterpretation has led to the development of the actor’s “transition”.  As in, “Can you pause just slightly before you say that last line, because it will be easier for me to make the transition?”

This is bogus.  People don’t make “transitions” from one emotion to another.  Actors shouldn’t either.

This is a good time to go back and re-read my post on “Why It is (Ultimately) Easier to Act Verbs than Emotions.”  But let me carry the comments in that post just a little bit further.

If you touch a pan that has just come out of the oven, you won’t need to “transition” before you yelp in pain.  If you get a phone call that tells you that your immediate family was just killed in a ten car pileup on the freeway, you won’t need to process anything before you begin to wail.  The winner of a beauty pageant doesn’t wait to hear her full name called before she looks astonished at her good fortune, she just hears “Miss Ari . . .” and she knows they mean her.

So the heavy-handed transitions that we sometimes see on stage, when the actor moves from happy to shocked to fury in the five seconds following the delivery of bad news, are never believable to an audience because they seem like what they are:  unnatural delayed reactions.

An actor who claims he needs a transition has plotted his emotions (“I’m happy to this line, then I get surprised when she says this, which makes me angry.”)  He isn’t connected to his own emotional life overlaid by the character’s life story and situation.  He’s playing externals.  And when you play externals, charting the “transition” from “happy” to “angry” takes more than the split second it takes in real life.  It takes a few seconds, because we’re not reacting to the events of the scene, nor are we reacting to what we are getting emotionally from the other characters.  We are painting by numbers.

These are the same actors who like to throw in a few extra words in a challenging moment, because those words give them the time they need to make their “transition.”

But if you play the verbs – that is, if you just try to get what you want, and if someone throws a roadblock in your way that makes you have to change how you’re trying to get what you want, and that roadblock gets you angry or frustrated because you think you’re being perfectly reasonable, or you have a brilliant new approach you’re sure will work that makes you proud or delighted, or you have to laugh at how ridiculous your “opponent” is being – well, that “transition” will happen naturally.  You won’t have to pre-plan it or force it.  It will just show up on its own, and it will be better than anything you could possibly have planned in advance.

If you are struggling with a moment in a scene, and it feels laborious to move from one emotion to another, so you temporarily forget this post and say to your director, “Gosh, I am having such a hard time making this transition!” – there is really only one cause and one solution.

The thing that is causing your difficulty is that you aren’t connected to your character and what he really wants – you’re floating on the surface, like oil on water.  In other words, you’re faking it on some level.  Stop faking it, get yourself in touch with what is really going on for you emotionally in this scene and go after what you want, and the transition will become effortless.

Why are you faking it?  Either because you haven’t yet learned how to connect yourself to your emotional life, or because whatever is going on with your character, emotionally speaking, is something that is making you very uncomfortable.  You’d rather not dig into it.  But digging is the only way to give the audience a moment worth watching.