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.

Feelings Aren’t Bad, They’re Just Scary

The first thing I do with all of my new acting students is introduce them to their feelings.  Even the people who seem quite emotional avoid their feelings, they just do it in a slightly different way than everyone else does.

Because feelings are an actor’s stock-in-trade, his primary tool, you have to be comfortable experiencing them.

anxietyExperiencing your feelings is different than feeling them.  Experiencing your feelings is about letting them be, sitting with them without trying to change them, for longer than you are probably comfortable doing so right now.  It’s about letting them exist without judging them.

Feelings aren’t bad, you know.  Even the negative ones – anger, frustration, sadness – aren’t bad.  They are trying to tell you something about your life, that’s all.  When a negative feeling wells up inside you, the best question to ask yourself is, “What expectation did I have that isn’t being met?”  (There are also a couple of follow-up questions to ask yourself, but that isn’t the purpose of this blog!)

But somewhere along the line, we got the idea that it isn’t good to feel our feelings, and so we opt out of them as much as we can.  Even the positive feelings.  We are only slightly more comfortable with letting ourselves feel positive feelings to the fullest than we are the negative ones.

I am always surprised when a student reveals to me, usually in the first class, that he doesn’t feel his feelings.  I use the male pronoun arbitrarily – I’ve had just as many women acknowledge this about themselves.  For me, missing out on your feelings is missing out on part of life, and knowing that I don’t feel my feelings would send me on a mission to understand why (but that’s just me.  You won’t travel that road until you’re ready to.)

It’s interesting that someone who knows he doesn’t feel his feelings would come to an acting class, but perhaps it’s his inner self sensing that he’s ready to try to do so.  Not all of the people like this who come to class stay, but the ones who do are very courageous, and they tell me the class has had an impact on their personal lives, as well as their acting.

But even the ones who don’t know they aren’t really in touch with their feelings realize it in short order.  And while it takes some time to really get comfortable with them, they also know in that moment that only by doing so can they produce acting worth watching.

shadow-peopleFeelings aren’t bad; they’re just scary.  Which is why you want to make friends with them slowly.  By gradually getting in touch with them, and by starting with the most benign feelings you can, you’ll realize that they’re just the boogeyman in the closet.  That nothing really terrible comes from feeling them; on the contrary, extraordinary good can come from feeling them, both on stage and off.

Here’s what I tell the people who are most afraid:  When I was little, I was the Good Little Girl.  I seriously believed that Perfection was possible long after I should have realized it wasn’t.  This wasn’t a stance forced on me by my parents in any way; on the contrary, it was entirely my choice.  Feelings like anger and disappointment and sadness were all things to be sucked up and ignored.  Surely no one would like me if they saw that I was capable of such terrible feelings!

But from the very beginning of my life, to the extent that one can imagine such a thing, I wanted to be an actress.  I think on some very instinctive level, I gravitated toward it because I understood, even at that tender age, that it was okay to feel all of my feelings on stage, including the “bad” ones.  It wasn’t me up there, after all – it was a character written by a playwright.  I could use all of my own emotions in service of creating a believable character without anyone judging me as wanting.  In fact, crying and screaming and being afraid – when appropriate in context – actually earned me praise.

Acting was very cathartic, because it gave me an outlet for feelings I wouldn’t release in real life.  As I got older, I realized that while those feelings I expressed on stage did indeed have their root inside the real me, no one watching had any idea what their deep, dark source was.  So I was completely free to indulge them as much as I liked!

I wonder, too, if the willingness to be so free with our feelings is one of the things that non-actors admire about us (aside from our ability to memorize all those lines!)  They know they could never be so brave, and admire those who can.

While the feelings that we feel on stage are, indeed, our own, they are conjured up not by our own experiences, but rather by what we imagine the character might feel in this particular set of circumstances.  This creates a little more freedom to let go; because the circumstances are entirely imaginary, they can’t harm us.  And when you are really working well, you become a way-station for them, not a holding tank.  By the end of the evening, if you’ve fully released them to the audience, you can make your way to that after-show party without the remnants of the tragic figure you played on stage following you home!

Stage Directions Aren’t Always Right — An Example

rainmakerThere may be no successful playwright who has written more stage directions than N. Richard Nash, the author of the wonderful romantic comedy, The Rainmaker.  (The 1956 movie starred Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster.)  The Rainmaker is chock full of emotional and physical choices, so much so that the usual measures of timing (minutes per page) can’t be used in determining the running time of the show!

Below is a portion of the scene between Lizzie, the old maid daughter of a rancher, and the Deputy Sheriff she has had her eye on for years.  Read the scene through, including the stage directions, and visualize the scene in your mind’s eye.  The directions are so extensive that I hope you can get a clear picture of how it can be played if you stick to everything in the script.

Now I’d like to show you how there are alternatives that ought to be at least considered, and by considered, I mean tried in an actual run-through of the scene.  Because you won’t know if something works or not until you try it.

I’m starting the scene at Noah’s exit, in the middle of page 67 (here’s The Rainmaker Excerpt).

File (Going to the door)  Well –

“Well” might mean, “Well, I guess I’ll be going”, but it doesn’t have to.  Perhaps it means “Well, I’m not sure what else to say.”  And even if it does indicate a departure, that’s a very good reason to not move to the door.  When a character says he’s leaving and he doesn’t leave – or he moves his upper body as if to leave, but his feet stay planted – that’s a loud and clear message that his heart is still in the room.  That’s both powerful and interesting to an audience.

Lizzie (Afraid he will leave)  if File chooses to stay where he is when he says “Well”, perhaps Lizzie isn’t afraid that he will leave after all.  And perhaps Nash is wrong when he says that Noah broke the spell between them.  Perhaps he didn’t break the spell at all, and something monumental is happening between these two.

Lizzie (Snatching for a subject that will keep him here)  If the spell still has them in its hold, then she doesn’t have to snatch.  But more importantly – the topic of his divorce is huge.  You don’t just snatch for such a sensitive topic because you want to keep someone in the room.  You offer him a slice of pie to do that.  No, the better (that is, the more dramatic choice) is for Lizzie to mention the divorce because she desperately wants to hear the details about it.  For her, the divorce is what has kept them apart.  Now is her chance to clear the air.

File:  No – I wasn’t – (Then, studying her, he changes his mind.) – but I will.

The implication is that he is still at the door, ready to leave, until he studies her and changes her mind.  Except that he doesn’t have to.  He can still be standing stock still when he says “No, I wasn’t.”  And he doesn’t necessarily change his mind, he simply decides to tell her.  And that’s a very different thing for an actor.

Lizzie (Helping him to get it said)  Kentucky?

Maybe Lizzie IS trying to help him.  Maybe she is just trying to connect with him, to indicate her understanding.  Or maybe she is covering her own nervousness about the topic but saying something, anything.  Or maybe she is puzzled by someone from so far away stealing File’s wife – how did he come to be so far west?

File (A step toward her)  Yes, she was.

Lizzie (Her hopes dashed)

If File is moving toward her, why are her hopes dashed?  When the man you love moves toward you, it’s a positive sign.  It offsets the “Yes, she was”, or at least should cause confusion.  The moment is probably stronger if he stands still and watches her while she becomes a nervous wreck.

As for Lizzie’s next lines, I almost think the start of the word “afraid” is too much.  It’s implicit in the line and is overkill if she actually says it.  If I had written the play, I would have had her stop at “That’s what I w—“, or maybe even drop the “w”.  And rather than “catches herself”, I might have said “smiles”, as in that bright smile that covers the tears.  But even if we leave the line as written, the smile still works.

Lizzie (Drearily).  Why drearily?  And on her next line, why “Agreeing – but without heart?”  What if Lizzie sincerely believes that women with black hair are the most beautiful, and her mousey brown is unattractive?

File sits when he describes the schoolteacher.  But is there any compelling reason to?  I’d have the actor try it standing, try it pacing, try it with movement that isn’t pacing, AND try it sitting.  I can’t begin to guess which choice better underlines what is going on for File emotionally until I see what impact the movement has on how he behaves and says his lines.

File (Raging)  What if the rage comes between “No I didn’t” and “Why should I?”, instead of before both sentences?

Lizzie (Astounded)   The only problem with this adjective is that the word tends to indicate something big, and the italics in her lines that follow underscore that intention.  But what if she is a combination of exasperated and astonished on “Why should you?” and then goes very quiet and intense on “Why didn’t you?”  Or the opposite:  a very quiet “Why should you?” as if she can’t believe he even asks that, it’s so absurd, followed by a loud, berating “Why didn’t you?”

Lizzie (Desperately)  What if she isn’t desperate on this, but instead challenges him with this line?

I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my point.  Nash’s choices certainly work, but so do mine.  Only by trying them can you determine which works better.  Or perhaps find a way of combining the two!

I Don’t Know If I’m Supposed to Be Submissive or Aggressive in This Scene

Agnes_of_God_GozoAt first blush, you might think that the actress who said this hasn’t got a clue about her character.  I mean, these are polar opposites, right?  They can’t possibly both be right in the same scene.

Actually, her instincts are correct.  The scene is from Agnes of God, pages 23 to 25.  It’s a scene between Agnes and the Mother Superior, two years before Agnes’ pregnancy.  Agnes has stopped eating, because she believes saintliness requires her to be skinny, and she wants to suffer as the saints do.  The Mother Superior is worried about her health and wants her to eat.  Agnes is bound by her vows to obey the Mother Superior, who is also a surrogate mother to her.  But she also feels that she has been instructed by God to lose weight, that unless she does so, he will be angry with her.  She won’t let the Mother Superior overrule God’s instructions.

The actress playing Agnes sensed that she has moments of strength and weakness in the scene, but had trouble sorting out when to use which.  Despite the fact that she had only been working with me about a month at the time, with no prior acting experience, she had learned enough that when I replied by saying, “Submissive or aggressive?  I think you’re on the right track, the only problem is that th . . .”

“They’re adjectives,” she finished for me, shaking her head, vexed at falling into the trap again.

Listen, it’s okay to come up with adjectives and emotions when you are first talking about a scene.  That’s what we respond to as human beings.  The problem comes when we can’t move past them and we use them as the primary guidance for how we play the scene.  No matter how good your instincts are, unless you can build into those emotions by discovering the character’s history and what they want most, playing the emotions will be general and superficial.  You need to clearly understand why THIS particular character is [insert adjective] at THIS particular moment in her life.

So once you’ve identified the emotions or the adjectives that seem appropriate to you, simply translate them into verbs.  As I’ve mentioned before, you do this by asking, “Why would I be submissive?”  The answer?  “Because I’m a nun, and I have to do whatever my Mother Superior says.”  The verb?  To obey.

“Why would I be aggressive?”  “Because she is trying to make me do something that I know is wrong, that God would hate.  I can’t let her force me to eat.”  The verb?  When I asked the actress to tell me what the scene was mostly about for her, she named her verb in response to the idea of being aggressive:  To escape.

These are two strong verbs in opposition.  “To obey” implies, on some level, “to stay”, which is the direct opposite of “to escape.”

When you can find contradictory motivations like these, scenes can become electric as you go back and forth between two opposing needs in one person.  On the one hand, I have to obey her, on the other hand, I have to resist her power and do what I know is right.  The conflict is no longer just between Agnes and the Mother Superior, it is also within Agnes herself.  The tension of what is going on onstage just tripled.