Acting as Storytelling: It’s About Competition

scoreboardSome people thrive on competition.  I know golfers who don’t want to play until they have a bet with another golfer.  The dollar amount of the bet is irrelevant, but there has to be some money on the line.

Me, I play against myself and the golf course.  I don’t enjoy competition for its own sake.  I don’t mind winning, but I don’t hate losing, either.  For me, it’s the process I enjoy, not the final outcome.

The characters we play on stage have to care about competition.  This isn’t a game for them; it’s their lives.  Whether a character wins or loses the job, the girl, the trial, his life (literally), it matters deeply.  This means that wins should be celebrated and losses mourned.

If you’ve been told you’re in the final three for the job you interviewed for, that’s a win!  If you get a “Thanks anyway, good luck with your career” letter, it’s a loss.

If she agrees to go out with you, that’s a win!  If he tells you that he’s dating her, it’s a loss.

If your attorney catches a prosecution witness in a lie, that’s a win!  If a witness testifying against you seems highly credible, that’s a loss.

These probably seem self-evident to you.  I hope you respond appropriately when they happen to your character, although I’m guessing you could throw yourself into it a little bit more (it’s the stakes problem, which I’ll talk about a little more some other time).  But do you also celebrate the little wins and losses that are scattered throughout the play?

The little digs you make at your rival for the girl’s affections that get under his skin?  His offhand references to things he knows about her that seem to convey an intimacy you don’t share with her?  The unexpected compliment from a co-worker?  Your mother’s subtle criticism of your cleaning habits?  The rich woman’s condescension when she hands you her credit card?  The young mother’s gratitude when you help her gather her dropped groceries?

Our lives – and our characters’ lives – are filled with tiny moments of grace and pain, and we feel the joys and disappointments related to them in the brief moments that they happen.  Sometimes they linger, but often they are as fleeting as a sparrow.

However, because plays are about dramatic moments in our lives when we are desperately trying to get our heart’s desire, any wins and losses, no matter how tiny, matter.  If they impact our ability to get what we want, they matter.  A lot.  This means that your character has to register them on some level.

Sometimes those will be big moments of exaltation or pain.  Sometimes they will be smaller ones we try to subdue for some reason.  Sometimes they will just be pinpricks that spur us on to keep pursuing what we want.  But we need to feel them, because – guess what? – they drive what happens in the next moment.  They influence what we do next.

I don’t want to bore you with the repetition, but this is one of the Big Keys of acting:  Everything we do is in response to something that happens.  Because the script is written for us, it’s easy to get complacent and just say the lines.  To really make your performance believable, however, you must make clear connections between what you are doing and what is happening to you, and one of the ways of doing this is by keeping track of the score – points you win, and points scored against you.  It not only heightens the drama, it also makes the experience more fun for the audience, because they’ll keep score, too.

Registering your wins and losses doesn’t mean exaggerated response a la Marcel Marceau (for those of you too young to remember him, he was a mime, and you can see him in the video below.)  If you decide, “This is where I should be surprised” or “When he says this, it angers me”, your reaction is apt to be too big.  It’s like hitting your audience with a hammer when a slight tap will do.  (Like mime, physical comedy often uses exaggerated responses, but most other actIng that you’ll do needs to be more realistic.)  Instead, leave yourself open to receive what your scene partner sends you in that moment and let it land on you and provoke a reaction without preplanning it.  That creates a moment so alive that you sweep the audience into your world!:



Acting as Storytelling: Picking Your Fights

Sword Fight Sir Toby and AntoniaStorytelling, for an actor, is the intentional choice of how you present what you are doing in order to maximize its dramatic effect.  This is the first of don’t know how many parts.  I’ll write about specific ways to think in terms of story presentation when it seems appropriate.

If drama is conflict and conflict is a fight, you need to understand what kind of battle you’re in.  Is it a boxing match or a chess match?  A swordfight or arm wrestling?  Ping pong or tennis?

The nature of each of these battles is going to be slightly different.  Ping pong is very quick; tennis is slower and involves more slight of hand.  Arm wrestling is continuous energy trying to force your will on your opponent and resisting his; a chess game allows you to reconsider your strategy at any point.  A swordfight can be a swashbuckling Three Musketeers’ event, or it can be Olympic fencing, where a touch in the right spot wins you a point.

The kind of battle you’re fighting determines the sort of strategies you can use.  In tennis, for instance, you can slice the ball at the last minute, so your opponent doesn’t see it coming.  You can lob it over his head.  You can gently drop the ball just over the net or smash it down on your opponent’s side of the court so that it jumps so high it is impossible for him to touch it.

Can you see how you might use this analogy in a play?  Let’s say you’re playing a scene where you have discovered something about your “enemy”, but he doesn’t know you know it until the end of the scene.  You might choose a drop shot as your way of delivering the “Oh, and by the way, I know this about you” line, or you might play it as an overhead smash exit line.

tennisIf the smash seems to be the obvious choice, that’s exactly why you should still try the drop shot.  When the unexpected happens on stage and it works, you have some exciting theater going on.  Don’t assume that you know what works until you’ve tried it.

Who’s getting the points in the battle you are waging in a scene?  Or in the entire play, for that matter?  The score matters in theater, as much as it does in sports.  The audience doesn’t have a scoreboard to follow, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t scoring points, or being scored against.

You’ve got to be aware of when you are attacking and when you are retreating.  When you feel stymied or trapped, and when you feel sure you are about to win.  When you’ve scored points and when points are scored against you.

Why do you need to know this?  Well, I think I’ll save that for next time . . .

Why Conflict is Always a Fight

tug-o-war1If you have enough at stake, it’s always going to be a fight.  (If you don’t have enough at stake, you don’t have a play worth performing.)

“Fight” is the operative word.

Conflict is not verbal debate.  It is emotional tug of war.  It is you trying to get what you want in any given moment, what will make you happy.  Sometimes you get it, and sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes you think you’re getting it, only to have the other side give a big yank, tumbling you to the ground.

The person you are in conflict with may simply not want to give you what you want.  Your boss may not want to give you a raise; your distant father may withhold the love you desperately need.

Or the conflict may revolve around conflicting desires, like whether to cremate mom or bury her at sea.  You may want us to move across country so you can accept a transfer, I may want us to stay here so I can care for my aging parents.

Or the conflict may revolve around us wanting the same thing:  that last piece of cake; the Ming vase; the same man.

It’s important that you identify what it is that you are fighting for so that you can go to war for it.  And as in all wars (the play as a whole), there are battles (scenes).  You don’t have to win all the battles to win the war.  You just have to win the last battle.  So sometimes you’re pushing forward and occupying enemy territory.  And sometimes you’re retreating.

It is the swing from “Now I have the upperhand” to “Oops, I didn’t see that coming, what the heck am I gonna do now?” that makes plays and movies thrilling to watch.  If you do nothing but win in every circumstance that you encounter, we’ll lose interest.  However, if you face challenges and we aren’t sure how you’ll overcome them, we’ll pay attention.  It’s Boy Meets Girl, Boy Gets Girl, Boy Loses Girl that we want to see.  If the course of true love runs smooth, then who cares?

Think of The Odyssey.  Yes, Odysseus overcomes every challenge and difficulty that comes his way and finally reaches home again, but each time a challenge arises, we’re not at all sure what’s going to happen or how he’ll succeed this time.

Good storytelling bounces back and forth between success and failure for its protagonist.  If a play is a “war”, there are battles and retreats; skirmishes and bloodbaths; reconnoitering and entrenchments; strategy sessions and re-evaluations.  The flux between these elements builds and releases tensions.  Quiet scenes allow the audience to rest and recover between dramatic moments.

The playwright is responsible for creating storytelling that fluctuates in terms of “where the power is” – that is, who is winning and who is losing at any given moment.  But it is your job, as the actor in the play, to recognize the fluxes and to honor and highlight them appropriately.



How Stage Conflict Works

coupeHow does conflict work, from an actor’s point of view?

I want something.  I want that raise.  And I want it badly (remember, we need to raise the stakes as high as possible.)  I want the raise, because I can’t afford a new car without one.  I have a 50 minute commute every day; my car is essential to my life.  It has been in the shop three times in the last two months, and the cost of repairs are draining me.  The older the car gets, the more fuel it seems to burn, and it wasn’t very fuel efficient to start with.  Plus, this is the seventh used car I’ve owned.  Every car I’ve ever had has come to me scratched, stained, and worn.  For once in my life, I want a car I’m not ashamed to take a date out in.  I want a car that I think better represents me to the woman I hope to marry.  And there is a car that I just saw in a commercial, and then the guy down the street got one, and I fell in love with it.  With everything about it.  The exterior lines, the interior features.  And the color.  They are making it in my favorite color.

I need this car desperately.

So where’s the conflict?  It’s all the obstacles, the roadblocks that get in my way and conspire to keep me from my heart’s desire, that little coupe with my name on it.

The first obstacle is my own bank account.  No matter how I try to work the numbers, I can’t find a way to scrape up a deposit that will also give me manageable monthly payments.   I just don’t have the money.

So I try to get a loan from my family members.  They all turn me down, for one reason or another.

I try buying a lottery ticket, but I don’t win.

I look for a part-time job, but either I can’t find one, or the ones I find won’t pay me enough to help me buy the car by the deadline I’ve set for myself.

So I’ve got to ask my boss for a raise, but I’ve never asked for a raise before.  I don’t know how to go about it.  So I ask my friends for advice on what to say.

They tell me, and now I rehearse what to say to my boss.  And I set up a meeting with him.  But I get cold feet and cancel.

My friends encourage me to try again.  So I reschedule the meeting, and this time I show up.  I stammer out the words.  And my boss says no, he doesn’t think I deserve a raise.

Now I’m angry, because he was so dismissive of me.  I go home and create some charts and other evidence showing that I have saved the company more money than I am asking for.  I ask my boss for another meeting and present my argument.  My boss agrees to give me a raise.

In the above scenario, everything in italics are tactics that I use to try to get what I want.  In boldface are the obstacles I run into that make me change my tactics.  Underlined are what happens when something I do is successful (that is, when I get whatever it is I am striving for with the associated tactic.)

So it isn’t just a matter of playing your verbs.  Another part of the equation is the obstacle you run into, the roadblock that makes you change direction, makes you change verbs.

In other words, you don’t change verbs just for the hell of it, for variety.  You change verbs because you are forced to.  In your character’s estimation, whatever he is doing isn’t working to his satisfaction, and so he tries something else.  But the reason he decides it isn’t working has everything to do with the other person and how he feels about what they do and say.

That means that receiving the message – “I’m not giving you what you want, buddy” – is critical.  You can’t change your tactics without recognizing that your scene partner isn’t cooperating.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, because it’s one of the only things that really matters in acting:  Everything you do, and every single word you utter, has a reason for existing.  It is caused by something that happens that you are forced to deal with in that moment.  Nothing is arbitrary in plays (and very rarely in life).  Everything is a reaction to something else.



Three Kinds of Conflict

A character can be in conflict with three different things:

  • Himself
  • Someone else
  • A group

Internal conflict happens all the time.  I want to accept a job promotion that involves a transfer, but that means moving to Los Angeles, and I hate southern California.

I need to tell you that I want a divorce, but I’m scared to.  Or I’m not yet sure I really want one.

I want to go to my high school reunion, but I’m nervous about seeing my high school sweetheart again.

n-COUPLE-FIGHTING-large570Relationship conflict also happens all the time.  I want to take the promotion, but my wife doesn’t want to leave her family, all of whom live near us on the East Coast.  I am torn between my desire for success and challenge and my love for my wife (internal conflict), but I am also fighting with her about it.  I say living on the West Coast would be better for us as a family; she believes the opposite.

I’m in conflict with my boss, because I think I deserve a raise and he doesn’t.

I’m in conflict with my landlord, who still hasn’t fixed the door to my apartment.

Conflict with groups can run the gamut.  Family, church, state, community, club, business, society, Martians.

I’m a nun, and I’m in conflict with the Catholic Church, because I believe women should be able to be ordained priests.

I’m opposed to a new development project my township has approved.

I’m a whistleblower and I’ve been fired from my job for bringing environmental violations committed by my company to the public’s attention.

praying nunCombine all three kinds of conflict, and you start to create very powerful drama.  As a nun, I have an obligation to obey the Church, so I am torn between my devotion to God and my vows and my deep beliefs about the priesthood.  The priest in charge of my diocese is very vocal about his belief in apostolic succession and against ordaining women, and the fact that I am one of the leaders in this movement creates a lot of personal conflict between us, and not just about this one issue.  And, of course, I am in conflict with the Church as a whole, as a “corporate body”.

So examine the play you’re working on to understand the conflicts within it.  Who is on who’s side?  Where do you agree with others, and where do you disagree?  Who is sitting on the fence whose support you might need?  How do you feel about those who are for you are and those who are ag’in you?

Remember that you might both agree and disagree with someone.  You might think your sister needs to solve a problem, but disagree with how she is going about it.

Drama is Conflict

renoirThis may seem to go without saying, but actors sometimes forget this.

A good scene has two characters in conflict about something.  About whether or not Mom should be cremated or buried at sea.  About who should get the Renoir knock-off and who gets the Ming vase.  About whether we should order in Chinese or pizza while we argue about it.

Both characters want something, but what they want is in conflict.  That is, if you want to cremate Mom and I think she should be buried at sea, one of us doesn’t get what we want if the other one does.  (Unless we agree to cremate her and spread her ashes at sea.)  If I want both the Renoir and the Ming, and so do you, one of us will be unhappy if we get neither, and both of us will be unhappy if I get the Renoir and you get the Ming.  And if I hate Chinese food and you insist on ordering it, then I’m going to grouse through dinner.

The fact that not getting what we want in a scene is going to make us profoundly unhappy is what helps to heighten the drama (remember those “stakes” we talked about.)  And so we fight for what we want, for what we believe, in this moment, is the thing we need in order to be happy.

It really is that basic.  Our lives are driven by the need to be happy.  Eating the last piece of chocolate cake will make me happy.   Getting a raise will make me happy, because now I’ll be able to buy a new car, one that is reliable, fuel efficient, and beautiful, none of which can be used to describe my current car.  Marrying the man of my dreams will make me happy.  Getting revenge on the co-worker who screwed me out of that promotion will make me happy.

Or so I think.  I might discover that revenge isn’t what I hoped it was.  Or that it backfires on me in some disastrous way.  But at the moment that I am seeking revenge, I am positive that it alone will make me happy.

ming vaseBut in art, as in real life, happiness is rarely handed to us on a silver platter.  As in my “dead mother” scenario, two people often have contradictory desires, and that makes us go to war over what we want.

If there is no conflict, there is nothing to watch.  It’s boring, and we don’t care.  So it is up to you as an actor to find the conflict, and to make the most of it.  The more you fight for what you want, the more we want to watch you do it.


What the Heck Is This Play About?

[This is the first post on the subject of Script Analysis.  It’s a topic I’ll deal with in depth in a month or three, but my current students have need of this right now, so I’m tossing it into the middle of the Creativity series.]

A-Few-Good-MenAs an actor, you have to know this before you can begin to do justice to your role.

Playwrights don’t write plays because the local theater needs a script.  They write because they have something to say that sheds a tiny bit of light – no answers, necessarily, just light – on some aspect of human existence.

You need to figure out why the playwright felt driven to write this particular play.  The answer is going to directly affect the choices you make as an actor.  If you’re going to be a good storyteller – and that’s all an actor really is, a storyteller – then you’d better know what the story you’re telling is about.

The fancy English Lit term for this is “theme.”  I’ve always hated this word.  Never understood it in school, despite asking multiple teachers to explain it.  Whatever words they were using to describe it were too esoteric for me.

I began to get a handle on it during playwriting classes, and finally grasped it fully when I started to direct.  Identifying and articulating the theme and choosing a vision that honors the playwright’s reason for writing the play is the first responsibility of the director.

Why not just wait for the first rehearsal, when the director will share his understanding and vision with you?

First, because it’s lazy.  Understanding the reason for the play in your bones is going to help you produce better work than if you just sign your name to the director’s vision statement.  Yes, you need to understand and subscribe to what he tells you, but you’ll have more luck doing so if you do your own homework.

Second, because not every director is going to share his vision with you, particularly in amateur theater.  Not every amateur director realizes that having a vision and sharing it with his cast is his responsibility.  If he doesn’t, you better find the answer yourself if you hope to turn in a credible performance.

So what’s a “theme?”

It’s what the play is about, not what happens in the play.  What happens in the play is the plot:  Felix Unger gets kicked out by his wife, he moves in with his friend Oscar, they fight and drive each other nuts, but ultimately learn to get along.  (The play in question is Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, in case you aren’t familiar with it.)

Playwrights use the plot as a means of talking about the issues that matter to them.  Underneath the plot, they are really dealing with high concepts.  Start by going after them.  You can do this by asking yourself, “What is Simon concerned with in this play?  What part of life is he examining?”

Answer:  Loneliness and friendship.  Some other examples?

     King Lear:  Greed, ego, and love.
     Romeo and Juliet:  Love and hate.
     Amadeus:  Talent, desire, envy, and grace.
     A Few Good Men:  Loyalty, honor, justice, and humanity.

You might choose different words to describe these plays, but I hope you get the idea.

If you go no further than identifying the high concepts, you’ve got something valuable to work with.  If you’re in The Odd Couple, you need to look at your role in terms of loneliness and friendship.  What are the moments when loneliness is a part of your existence?  When do you have friendship or are striving to get it?

By looking for the connections between the high concepts and the action or dialogue in the play, you can subtly “underline” them for the audience, which is good storytelling.  Pass everything that happens during the play through the filter of “loneliness” and “friendship”, and the playwright’s message should come through loud and clear.

You can’t possibly do this effectively unless you know what the play is about.

The theme is more than just the high concepts.  The playwright has an opinion about those concepts.  How you interpret the opinion is your vision.  Different people, because they have different personalities and backgrounds, may interpret the playwright’s opinion in slightly or materially different ways.  This is why vision is the director’s choice.  We all have to be on the same page, and the director is the one to choose that page.

So how you string the high concepts together matters.  For The Odd Couple, I might say, “Friendship is the only antidote to loneliness.”

For A Few Good Men, I might say, “When loyalty to corporate bodies harms an individual, it is no longer honorable.”  Or I might say, “Everyone deserves justice, irrespective of rank or prestige.”  Or, “We must never forget that the military is made up of human beings.”  In the first instance, I am emphasizing loyalty and honor.  In the second, justice and equality.  In the third, humanity and compassion.  Whichever alternative I choose determines what I want to most emphasize in my portrayal of whatever character I am playing.  Productions using different visions will, of necessity, have different feels and different impacts.

Which is why the first, most important step in Script Analysis is to know why the playwright wrote the play.  Or at least, why you think he did.

Justifying the Text, Part II

If I get angry in a scene with you, is whatever you’re doing sufficient to make me start yelling at you?  Yes, there’s probably something going on internally in me that is feeding that anger.  But it is likely that you were the straw that broke the camel’s back, that either something you said, or the way you said it, or a combination of both, made the dam burst for me.

The first option is taken care of by the playwright.  It is your job to add something to it by the way you say the line.  Because leaving the responsibility for provoking me entirely in the lap of the playwright isn’t the best choice.


Let’s say a play is two hours long.  If you’ve never tried to write a play, you may not realize how short a period of time this is.  time bombIt may seem to you that there is a lot that happens in the play, and there probably is.  But it is also likely that the play was much longer in its original version, and the playwright had to take a stern red pencil to it.  The editing process removes all the extraneous stuff, all the wonderful but unfortunately unnecessary pieces, from the play.  A good playwright will leave in only the essential moments, the essential words, that which most strongly moves the story forward.

Given that all that is left in the final script is “essential”, it is important that we, as actors, make sure that the audience gets every bit of it to the fullest extent possible.  Remember, the audience is meeting these characters and this situation for the first time.  They have no history with the characters, but have to learn the important facts of their lives and temperaments very quickly.  They continue to receive new information about the characters throughout the play, and need to integrate it in to what they have already learned.  This is a lot of work.  The playwright and actors work in conjunction to make it as easy as possible for the audience to navigate this new world.

Remember how only 7% of the meaning of conversation is conveyed by the words?  If the actor doesn’t put in the emotional subtext, the audience will never get everything out of the play they are meant to get.

This means focusing their attention to maximize what they receive.  It means being very clear about what we deliver to them.  A muddy performance doesn’t do anyone – the playwright, the audience, or you – any favors.

Clarity doesn’t mean simplicity.  Elegance, yes, but we are aiming for complex, interesting characterizations, not simple ones.  Making broad strokes at the obvious may make why I am crying or yelling abundantly clear, but it doesn’t necessarily make it believable.

See Part I here.  See Part III here.

Physical Activities, Part II

Choosing an activity for a scene is a very practical matter.

Think about your real life.  It’s full of activity, and all of it is practical on some level.

You go to work, because you want to get paid, and you do whatever you need to do to get the job done that day.  You eat because you’re hungry or because you have a dinner date with someone.  You read the newspaper because you want to be informed.  You go shopping because a lightbulb burned out and you need a new one.  mailboxYou pick up the mail because you haven’t been to the post office in a week, because you have to buy stamps anyway so you can pay your electric bill, or because you’re waiting for a package and you hope it came in today.

What do these things have in common?  The word “because.”

In other words, you always have a reason for anything you do.

Your characters are driven to do things on stage for the same reason.  Their lives are not governed strictly by the dramatic events of the play.  The rest of their lives continues unabated, just as it does in ours.  If someone close to you is hospitalized, the grass doesn’t stop growing, the dogs don’t stop needing to take walks so they can pee, and the refrigerator doesn’t refill itself on its own.

Much of the activity that should be taking place on stage is NOT written in the script.  If it bears directly on the events of the play, it will.  For instance, if your character’s company is treating its employees unfairly and the employees decide to strike, your character may be making picket signs in the next scene, and the dialogue might refer to that.  The dialogue might not refer to it, but you might choose to make signs as your activity anyway, because it makes sense in the context of the play.  But if you chose to make dinner during the scene, that might work just fine, too.

Whatever you choose as your activity for a scene, it must make sense to the audience.  This doesn’t mean it can’t be unusual or unexpected.  But if your hardworking banker husband comes home from work and, without ditching his suit, starts to do ballet warmups using the back of the couch as a barre – that’s an unusual choice that the script better justify on some level.  If it seems entirely uncharacteristic, given what the playwright has written and how the actor chooses to play the role before and after working the barre, then a different choice that the audience will accept is in order.

See Part I here.  See Part III here.

Physical Activities, Part I

The other kind of physical action you can use on stage is what is called “business”, but let’s stay away from the theatrical term for the moment, and call it an “activity” instead.

Every actor should have an activity in every scene, if possible.

Sometimes it isn’t.  If you are a guest in the house of someone you don’t know well, you may not be able to do anything other than sip your coffee.  Repairing your lipstick may not be appropriate for your well-mannered character.  If you’re having dinner in a restaurant, your activities will mostly be limited by what is on the table at any moment.  Fixing your contact will be distracting to the audience, who will worry that you, the actor, are in real pain.

But in most cases, actors should have an activity.  Guess why they call us actors?

toysWhile a change in physical location can be driven strictly by your emotions, it often is part of an activity.  If I’m picking up the kids’ toys because my mother-in-law is coming over, I’m moving around the living room, but it is in service of the activity of picking up the kids’ toys.

What happens as a result of choosing an activity, no matter how disconnected it may seem from the actual drama of the scene?

  • It makes what happens in the script seem more like real life.
  • Like a change in physical location, it adds visual interest to the audience.  The stage isn’t film, but post-MTV audiences like to watch motion while they listen.  Watching someone do something with purpose is much more interesting than watching someone sit around talking.  Some scripts have scenes that seem to be about people sitting around talking.  When you are cast in a play like that, you must put on your thinking cap and invent things to do.
  • What you choose for an activity says something about who your character is.

Chosen correctly, your activity can also underscore what happens dramatically in the scene.  For the moment, however, let’s leave that responsibility in the director’s lap.

But the grand prize of using an activity onstage?  It puts you in touch with your emotional life without you having to do anything intentionally.   This alone is worth the price of admission!

See Part II here.  See Part III here.