Verbs and Beats — Moonlight and Magnolias

The Face-Off

The Face-Off

I’m posting an excerpt from my Beat/Verb List for “Moonlight and Magnolias”, by Ron Hutchinson.  It’s the only one I seem to have hung onto.  I directed this play, so I’ve included verbs for all of the characters in the beat.  My comments, for your benefit, are in red.

Beat 14 – “Fleming shows up” (Since they’ve been waiting for him, it’s more meaningful than saying “Fleming enters.”  Looking at it now, I wonder why I didn’t include the word “finally”!)

Major:          Fleming (to find out what Selznick wants and get the hell out of here) (As a director, I like to know who “owns” each beat.  I find the “Major” verb first, because that is the one I want to be sure the audience “gets”, and the character who deserves the most attention in the beat.  But if you’ve got a “Minor” verb in the beat, you still want to play it for all its worth.  It’s minor only in the grand scheme of things; not for your character.)
Minor:          Selznick (to tell Fleming what’s going on)
Minor:          Hecht (to fill in the missing pieces)
Minor:          Poppenghul (to do her job)

Beat 15 – “You fired the screenplay?” (This is a line from the play)

Major:          Selznick (to get Fleming on board)
Minor:          Fleming (to make sure he understands what’s going on) (I hate to use words like “make sure”, but I get lazy sometimes about finding a different way of expressing it.  I’m confident that I can play this choice with intensity, so I don’t worry about it.  But you might want to look for a more active choice.)
Minor:          Hecht (to fill in the missing pieces) (Your character’s verb might not change every beat.  Only one character’s verb MUST change.   If no one’s changes, you haven’t got a new beat.)

Beat 16 – “The Face-off” (This adds a physical element to the beat which I may or may not use in performance, but the sense of it should be in the beat when played.)

Major:          Hecht (to defend his abilities)
Minor:          Fleming (to convince Selznick it won’t work)
Minor:          Selznick (to keep the peace)

Beat 17 – “But I digress”

Major:          Hecht (to crack a joke)

Beat 18 – “The rest of the story”

Major:          Selznick (to tell the rest of GWTW)
Minor:          Fleming (to help tell the story)
Minor:          Hecht (to get the story beats)

Beat 19 – “Hecht Rebels, Part I” (Hecht rebels on several occasions throughout the play.  Originally, this was just called “Hecht Rebels” – until I came across the second occasion!)

Major:          Hecht (to convince Selznick he can’t make a movie of GWTW)
Minor:          Selznick (to convince Hecht that he’s wrong)
Minor:          Fleming (to keep things moving)

Beat 20 – “Pulling out the big guns” (This is a ratcheting up of Beat 19, and has an imagery that adds something for me, just as the “The Face-off” did.)

Major:          Hecht (to convince Selznick he’s crazy and will destroy himself)
Minor:          Selznick (to get Hecht to work)
Minor:          Fleming (to get Hecht to work)

Beat 21 – “How can any sane person make sense of it?” (This is NOT a line from the play, but it captures Hecht’s position in this beat.)

Major:          Hecht (to convince Selznick he can’t make a movie of GWTW)
Minor:          Selznick (to get Hecht to work)
Minor:          Fleming (to get Hecht to work)

Why (and How) I Use Verbs

verbs (1)I wasn’t introduced to verbs as a dramatic concept as an actress.  When I was learning to act, we talked about “motivations” and “objectives” without distilling it to the very simple idea that these multi-syllabic high concepts can be put into verbs.

No, I encountered verbs much later, in playwriting class.  It occurred to me then that they had use for actors, but I wasn’t acting at the time.  Another decade, probably, passed before the use of verbs infiltrated the acting community in a meaningful way.  (Like everything else, acting has its “fashions”.)

As an instinctive actress, talking about objectives was sufficient for me; I was playing verbs without having any idea that was what I was doing.  But in recent years, I have taken to sitting down with my script before rehearsals start, whether I am directing or acting, and doing some intentional verb work.

First, I break the scene into beats, which I mark with a pencil in case I want to change my mind later.

Then I give each beat a name that says something to me about what happens in that beat.  It’s an outline of the play, basically.  It’s my big picture feel for the play, and it helps me to get a stronger sense of the flow of the play, as well as to cement the structure in my head.  Knowing, generally speaking, what happens next is essential if you are going to help “save the day” when someone forgets his line.

It also can help me to spot what is humorous and what is not.  If I’m in a comedy, it helps me to clearly identify when the dramatic moment starts and ends, and vice versa if I’m in a drama.  In a drama, I’m always looking to find ways to lighten the piece, and clarifying which beats are humorous allows me to extend the humorous moment throughout the entire beat, rather than just using it on the punchline.

And then I go back to Beat One and identify my verbs, beat by beat.  It can be laborious work, if I have a large role.  But as instinctive as I am, I find it does a few things for me:

  • It helps me to get more specific about my verbs.  When a general verb shows up on my list (“to find out”), I know to go looking for a more interesting version (“to inquire”; “to demand to know”; “to cross-examine”; “to probe”; “to dig”).
  • It helps me to make distinctions between beats that have similar verbs.  If I have “to find out” on three different beats in the same scene, I know I need three different verbs for each, and I head for the thesaurus.
  • It helps me spot my own stereotypes.  We all have them, but it can be hard to see them ourselves.  It allows me to take a third-person position and evaluate my own choices with a certain amount of objectivity.  I’m not afraid to call my own choices “trite” when I do this.
  • It helps me to identify the areas of the script I’m apt to have difficulty with.  If I have trouble choosing a verb, I know I don’t understand that beat well enough.  I may not solve the riddle of this particular beat today, but it now has a red flag on it, and I know I need to give it special attention throughout rehearsals.
  • It helps me to see patterns.  If I have the same general verb several times in one scene, I know I’m probably dealing with something that needs to escalate.  I might notice the scene is framed by similar beats.  It also helps me to see patterns across the full play, e.g. a repetition or a reversal in the second act of something that happened in the first.
  • It helps me to know who is the aggressor in the scene, or if we change positions during it.  If I’m the weaker character, it might help me to identify the moment when I start to develop a spine.  It doesn’t just happen on the line when I explode in my own defense.  It has probably started several beats before that explosion, and I need to know when that is.
  • It helps me to identify things about my character that are revealed later in the play but which need to be foreshadowed in the first scenes.
  • I’ll usually notice who is the “star” of the beat, if there is one.  Even if I’m playing the lead and all the action of the play centers on me (e.g., Woman in Mind, Trudy Blue), it doesn’t mean the attention should always be on me.  It’s important to know when to defer the limelight to the other character.  Among other things, this will affect the blocking of the beat.

For me, this is pretty intense, conscious detective work, and it may easily take me four hours if I have a leading role, but I have a strong sense that its benefits are worth the time.  This is also the one thing I commit to writing when I act.  (I know actors who write formal and extensive biographies of their characters, but I’ve never found that useful for myself.)

Beyond this, I don’t do much with the verbs.  I trust that my subconscious has gotten the message and will do what needs to be done.  While you’re learning how to use verbs, you may need to play at least some them a little more consciously, while you’re getting the hang of it.  Don’t worry if you don’t manage to hit every single verb during the course of a single run-through.  It can be difficult to make all those switches effectively.  If you manage to get 25% of them the first time, that’s probably pretty good.  Over the course of several run-throughs, you’ll be able to hit the most important ones.  But don’t worry if you don’t intentionally play every single verb you’ve identified.  That’s normal.

I have a good memory, and I’ll probably remember the verbs in some haphazard fashion during rehearsals.  By that I mean that I’ll sense that a scene isn’t going as well as it should, that I’m being superficial or monotonous, and I’ll remember to think in terms of verbs.  (Because the beat divisions are marked in my script, they remind me on a semi-subliminal level of when things change on stage.)

If I’m really struggling with a section of the play a month into rehearsals, I’ll ask the director if we can run it a few times, and I’ll do some very conscious work with tools at this point.  It is likely that I’ll play with verbs a bit on at least one of the run-throughs, or perhaps several as I ratchet up the intensity of my choices.

Harnessing Your Subconscious: Using Tools to Build Layers

LayersWhen you use a tool, you are putting down a layer of your character.  Tools need not be things you carry into your performance.  They usually aren’t.  I wouldn’t, for instance, suggest using the Open Door Reading tool in front of an audience.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a very useful way of exploring the character at certain points in rehearsals.  (I’ll talk about when to use these tools another time.)

This is a very different way of looking at rehearsals than you may be accustomed to.  Many actors I encounter in community theater see rehearsals as a means of reaching a finished performance.  Nailing down choices as soon as possible is the order of the day.

That’s natural.  We want to give a good performance, and we’d like to believe that it’s like putting together a barbecue grill.  You take the parts out of the box and lay them out, so you can be sure you have them all.  You follow the instructions, step by step.  And voilà, you have a barbecue grill that looks like the one in the store!

Acting isn’t like that.  You aren’t painting by numbers here.  You’re creating a characterization that is unique to you.  And every time you do a new play, you start from scratch.  You may develop skills to do this better and faster over time, but even when you become a technically proficient actor, you are still starting from scratch with a new play:  a character you know nothing about in a circumstance which is entirely new to you.

Acting is always a learning process.

Tools are ways to explore the character in all its diversity.  If used properly, they don’t require you to think excessively.  As with any new activity, you have to employ your conscious brain a bit more as you learn the technique, but the better you get at the technique, the less you’ll need to think about it. So please don’t look at the tools as handcuffs that will bind your creativity.  They actually free your creativity.

You don’t have to use all the tools I give you.  I suggest you try them with a certain amount of conscientiousness, simply so that you can understand what they are addressing and decide for yourself if they have anything to offer you.  You may not use them consistently over the course of your acting life; I don’t.  And you may find ways to achieve what they give you that are more effective for you as an individual.  However, doing them as I explain them and repeating them until you’re sure you understand them is a good way to understand the issues involved.

As Davina noted in class, it’s hard to speed up a scene when you’re still focusing on playing your verbs.  It’s hard to focus on playing your verbs when you are trying to receive emotional content from your partner.  It’s hard to do any of them when you are trying to remember your lines.

That’s okay.  That’s how it works.  Remember, your conscious brain doesn’t multi-task well enough to handle this, and in any case, trying to do them all at once means you don’t do any of them particularly well – at this early stage in rehearsals.  And by early stage, I’m talking about the first half of the rehearsal period.  Maybe even the first two-thirds.

“But I know this line should be said this way!”  No, you don’t.  You think you do.  But you’re forcing something on it.  Even if it IS the right choice, you shouldn’t force it.

If you are a very instinctive actor, as I am, it is easy to “know” early on what is right for your character, but the truth is you are only in the ballpark, not on base yet.  It is also true that you will not be correct 100% of the time.  Even if you have fabulous instincts, a good 10-20% of the time there is a much better choice out there waiting for you to discover it.  But if you stick with your “but I know this is right!” ego attitude, you’ll never discover it.

You can always come back to your “right” choice.  But if you’ve explored your other options, you’ll be sure it really is “right”!

To read Layering a Character, go here.

Harnessing Your Subconscious: Layering a Character

Okay, back to the acting tools.  At long last.

The recipe for this yummy lasagne can be found at

The tools I am introducing you to are simply ways to input good, focused, intentional data into the computer that is your subconscious.  Practical ways of using the open/closed modes of creativity.  Your subconscious, brilliant synthesizer that it is, discards what doesn’t work and keeps what does.  You don’t have to tell it what to keep most of the time, not that it would really understand anyway.  It just knows what works in context.

Give it plenty of data, and it will know what works in the puzzle that is your character and what doesn’t.

But remember, it does understand frequency.  It equates frequency with desire, and it considers your desires to be more important than what works.  So if you do a scene the same way every time, it will accept your choice.  It will try to compensate as much as it can for any choices that don’t work, but it has limited abilities in this regard, just as it does with your golf swing.  Make a lousy golf swing, and your subconscious can’t make it perfect.  It will just help to give you better results than you would have gotten if your subconscious hadn’t interfered on your behalf.

So how do you run a scene over and over in rehearsals without encountering the frequency problem?

Simple.  You keep coming at the scene from different angles.  You intentionally avoid doing it the same way every time during the first half of the rehearsal period.

If you can successfully “stay in the moment” – which, as I’ve said elsewhere, is much harder to do than you probably imagine – then by definition, what you’re doing will always be different.  But “staying in the moment” in the first rehearsals isn’t enough.  Later, yes.  But early on?  No.

A really interesting, creative, complex characterization is composed of “layers”.  When we talk about people being complicated, we liken them to onions.  Every time you peel away another layer, you find some different and unexpected aspect to their character underneath.

lasagne 4As an actor, you build a character in reverse, by putting down layer after layer.  You’re taking an unfinished piece of furniture and doing some complex faux finish work.  You sand it, you prime it, you sand again, you paint, you wipe, you paint again, you distress it, etc.  But you put down those layers one at a time.  You examine different aspects of your character’s relationships, needs, worries, desires, etc., individually – with your conscious brain (aided by your subconscious) – but you let your subconscious put the layers together.

When you are examining the components of a given layer, you are free to ignore the other layers.  When you are able to do this, you are giving high quality, focused attention to whatever you’re working on.  Whatever you’re ignoring this time, you’ll pay attention to some other time!

To read Using Tools to Build Layers, go here.



Thoughts About the Open Door Reading

Open DoorIt’s difficult to do initially.  It’s uncomfortable.  It’s unnatural.  We don’t listen particularly well in real life.  As soon as someone starts to talk, we start forming our response.  We’re only half paying attention to them.  We’re busy figuring out what to say and looking for a pause we can enter to speak our opinion.

The Open Door Reading, however, encourages you to pay attention to your partner.  If you resist the temptation to look at your script (so that you’ll be “ready” when it’s “your turn”), you have nothing to do but pay attention to what your scene partner is sending you.  After all, you haven’t memorized your lines yet, so you can’t prepare them if you aren’t looking at the script.  Since you don’t have the freedom to improvise a response, you just have to wait until you can look at the script.  So you might as well use that time to notice what your partner is doing and saying and to let it affect you.

Taking time is an essential part of the equation.  If you shortcut any of the steps I listed in the post on how to do the Open Door Reading, you will not experience what the exercise can do for you.  Only by allowing silence and trying to not fill it intentionally will you create space that emotion can flow into.  Only by allowing silence can you begin to receive what you are getting from your scene partner rather than putting up walls and anticipating what you are going to get.

And once it is time for you to talk, if you resist the temptation to look at your speech in its entirety, to notice its arc and to prepare for the powerful line at the end by setting up the lines at the beginning in the “right” way, you’ll give more attention to words and phrases that you otherwise might dismiss as being unimportant, instead of being open to the possibility that they are, in fact, important in unexpected ways.

Our instinct to make the scene “flow”, and to make it understandable to anyone listening is fairly strong, so it requires a good deal of self-discipline initially to stick to the plodding process as I described it here.  Because it is plodding.  Stilted.  Boring.  Occasionally hard to follow.  Tedious.  Long.  But since at this point, you don’t HAVE an audience that cares about it flowing or being understandable, you can ignore your instinct and use the exercise to discover what it has to teach you about this particular play.

Because that’s the point.  The exercise is only about what you, the actor, gets out of it.  It’s not for the director or an audience.  There are no rights or wrongs in terms of what shows up for you.  It’s simply information.  Data for you to consider down the road in rehearsals.  To use or not use, as you see fit.  But like a statistician, you need to collect all the available data before you start evaluating it.

Hopefully, you will have moments in the Open Door Reading when emotions show up with unexpected force, and frighten or surprise or delight you.  Equally hopefully, these moments will convince you that there might be something to this process.

Most people need a teacher watching them the first few times they use the Open Door Reading technique.  Without that, most actors will cheat.  Not intentionally.  They just don’t realize that they aren’t being faithful to the process.  A teacher can help you get the most out of the experience, which in turn helps you to recognize when you’re doing it properly down the road, with another scene from another play!

The Open Door Reading — How to Do It

WelcomeI’m going to call this exercise we are doing in class the Open Door Reading.  Meisner calls it the Working Reading, and other teachers may have other descriptions for a similar process.  But I like calling it the Open Door Reading, because I hope it better communicates that we are using the reading simply to open an inner door to emotional possibilities.

First, let me reiterate the practice:

Keep the script in your lap or on the table in front of you.

Look down at the script and gather as many words as you can remember, or perhaps just a short complete phrase.  Don’t read ahead in your script to remind yourself of where the scene is going.  Just gather the words you can remember, and look up at your scene partner.

Take two seconds before you speak to contemplate the words you are about to say.  This doesn’t have to be an active, intentional contemplation.  Just let them sit in your head before you let them out of your mouth.

Say the words to your partner.  Don’t try to force anything on them in terms of how you say them.  If there seems to be a clear intention behind them, go ahead and use it.  If you just say them as ordinary, boring words, with no particular opinion about them, that’s fine, too.  There is no right or wrong about what comes out, as long as it isn’t forced.  If you’re uncertain what to “do” with them on any level, just say them simply.  “Do” something with them only if it feels right and true.

Continue to look at your partner for three seconds after you have finished speaking.  Watch your words “land” on your partner and notice if your partner has any reaction to them.  Notice how you feel about what you’ve just said.  Sometimes what you say will make emotions come up in you.  Sometimes knowing what you’re about to say makes those emotions bubble.  Sometimes nothing will seem to happen.  It doesn’t matter.  Just let whatever happens, happen.

Look down at your script and gather the next bunch of words in your head.  Repeat the above steps, until you have completed your speech.

Once you have reached the end of your speech, continue to look at your partner.  He will eventually figure out that you aren’t going to say anything more.  Let him figure it out in his own time.  He may be processing emotions, so don’t rush him.  He’ll eventually get to his lines.

Don’t look at your script while your partner is talking.  Keep your attention focused on him.  Receive whatever he sends your way:  the words, the way he says them, the way he looks at you.  Receive it with curiosity and openness.  Don’t evaluate it.  Just try to receive it without opinion or judgment.  Don’t modify it in any way.

Let whatever you receive work on you.  Don’t rush it.  Don’t force it.  Don’t raise an eyebrow because you think raising your eyebrow will be very effective in performance (it’s one of the things you noticed when you first read the play, and you know the audience will laugh when you do.)  If your eyebrow raises on its own, that’s fine.  But don’t make it do that.

When you receive whatever your partner is sending you, you may find emotions bubbling up in you that seem inappropriate.  Something tickles your funny bone, but it is ticking the actor’s funny bone, not the character’s.  Or so you think.  That’s okay.  If you feel like laughing, laugh.  Don’t censor what happens because it is “wrong” for the scene.  You’ve got weeks of rehearsal stretching ahead of you, and plenty of time to censor as you need to.  Right now, don’t censor anything.  Let any emotion that rises up in you out, no matter how uncomfortable or embarrassing or “wrong”.

It is difficult, at first, to identify when you are letting emotions flow naturally and when you are intentionally gravitating toward what you instinctively feel is right for the scene.  That’s okay.  Just keep trying to keep your brain from being too active, to not let it share its opinions, and just let your heart talk instead.

Just feel what is happening in you.  Hold the door opening to your feelings, and welcome them to the party.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.

When your partner clearly has no intention of saying anything more, assume that it is your turn.  Look down at your script, and go back to the beginning of this list.  Keep repeating the process until you reach the end of the scene.

See The Hardest Part of Acting here.  See Act Without Expectation here.

The Actor: The Playwright’s Co-Creator

Last week Paul identified the actor as a “co-creator” with the playwright.  I’d like to take that a step further and say that the playwright tells a story with words, while the actors tell that same story with emotions.  The actors illuminate the playwright’s story by attaching emotions to what are otherwise two-dimensional sentences, and thereby give real meaning to the play.  The job of the director is to edit the options the actors present him with so that the choices they make create the strongest, most interesting story possible.

In other words, it’s not just about saying the words.  Anyone can do that.

As long as you make choices that don’t violate the script’s text, the choices are valid and fairly represent what you have to bring to the work as a creative artist.  You and I will give entirely different performances as the same character simply because we each have our own unique perspective, and that perspective tends to guide our choices.

However, we also have to recognize that our perspective is just one of many billions of perspectives, and that our characters may not share them.  What we think we know about our character isn’t necessarily right.  We are inclined to make many decisions about our characters within the first few readings of the play, but those are always made within the context of our unique perspective.  When we do, we usually shut the door on the more interesting and creative choices.

I’ve lived with my husband for 19 years.  He continues to surprise me, no matter how well I think I know him.  How can I possibly think I can understand a character I just met, about whom I only have 70 pages of dialogue as clues, in less than a week?

That’s why I won’t tell you what play your monologue is from yet.  If I do, you’ll start making assumptions about your characters.  As long as you know nothing about the play – including your character’s name – it’s easier to be open-minded.  And so I can use this early time – I think you’ll start working with scenes from full plays that I will let you read in Week 5 – to demonstrate how many more interesting options you have when you suspend judgment, as well as to introduce ways of using space and time to unleash the power of your subconscious.  My guess is that none of you use your subconscious as much as you can, and that is where true creativity lies.

I hope these tools will prove to be very helpful when you start working on 5 minute scenes (standard length for scene study).  The rest of the tools I hope to share with you, I’ll introduce within the context of those scenes.

For those of you who were at tonight’s class (9/17), here’s the assignment for next week.  If you weren’t with us tonight, you can prepare the second part of the assignment below if you have the time, but you don’t have to prepare it, either.  If you only do the homework from the 9/10 class the next time you come, that’s just fine.

I realize that we didn’t do anything with your “memory” homework tonight, due to time.  We may get to them next week.  Or maybe not.  However, you’ll find that if you keep practicing with finding new memories, you’ll become more familiar with what it feels like to search for memories, the right words, things that are difficult to say, etc.  If you know what it feels like for YOU to search for them, you can transfer that experience to your character.  When the same sensations come up for you as the character searching for the details of a memory as come up for you when you do the exercise, you know you’ve hit paydirt.

So, it’s a two part assignment:

  1. Work on your monologue in light of the experiments we did with it in class.  Feel free to try as many different approaches as you can imagine, just to see what the effect is.  Remember, you’ve got no way of knowing what the “right” choice is, so just examine your options.  Try the options that seem to be completely wrong, and see if you find anything good in there.  Finally, choose an activity that supports whatever choices you do end up making, and do both at the same time.  Run it at least three times to see what happens depending on how much attention you give to your activity.  Bring the props for your activity with you to the next class.
  2. Identify the “important” lines in your monologue vs. the “unimportant” ones.  By “important”, I mean plot points, big emotional moments, when your character makes an unsignaled left turn, etc.  By unimportant, I mean the lines that if the audience doesn’t hear, it’ll be okay.  Do this with pencil initially, until you’re happy with your choices.  Then you can highlight them if you like.  This will give you a monologue that looks like a tiger standing on its head.
    Once you’ve made your choices, practice walking around the stage on your unimportant lines, and standing still on your important ones.  You’ll do this in class as well.

And then it’s on to an active monologue (not a memory monologue).  From there, we’ll progress to really clever two person scenes that will hopefully change how you listen on stage.  Which is probably the hardest acting technique issue there is!