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.



My Top Ten Most Useful Acting Posts

All right, they may not be my Top Ten.  I’ve written about 200 posts in the past two years, and I haven’t gone through each of them.  But I’ve noticed in the last couple of months that everyone in the world is suddenly obsessed with the difference between impersonation and acting, a post I wrote a year ago.  Now, it’s a good post, but it is hardly the most important one I’ve written, and it certainly isn’t a very practical one.  I wrote it in response to a student’s question, so it was sort of a diversion from what I typically write about.  (I love these diversions! – so keep asking questions.  But that doesn’t always make them the most useful posts I have.  Having said that, two of the posts I’m about to list were answers to questions.)

The impersonation post was visited again today, which made me think:  if I could direct readers to a handful of posts, which ones would I want them to read the most?  So here’s my quick-and-dirty list, in no particular order.  And oh — it’s eleven, not ten, simply because I miscounted and don’t want to eliminate any of them!

(By the way, I’ve noticed that some of the links from one post to the next aren’t working again.  No idea why this happens, but it seems to periodically.  I’ll get to fixing them soon, I hope.  In the meantime, you can search for the posts to get the right links!)

Line Readings, and Why They Don’t Work

The Learning Process, Part III (The Fastest Route)

Acting as Storytelling:  It’s About Competition

Equus, Part III:  The First Five Minutes

Actor’s Etiquette:  Deliberate Practice

The Subconscious Effect, or Why You Can’t Do Any Acting Until You’re Off Book

What Are Play Rehearsals For, Part III

Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs

Verbs & Beats – Moonlight & Magnolias

Playing the Verbs, Part III – Raising the Stakes

An Example of Why Verbs Make a Difference



More About Verbs

Tampa - Selecting Beats & Verbs

Real Table Work — Selecting the Beats and Choosing Verbs

I recently spent a day with a community theater outside of Tampa, a very rewarding day with twelve actors who were so open to what I was sharing with them.  It was a joy to work with them.  As often happens, I have stayed in touch via email with one of the actors.  One of the perqs of hiring me to give your group a workshop is that in addition to the low per-person cost, I’m happy to respond to questions via email at any time after the workshop is over.  The workshop is typically about planting seeds, not harvesting them, and so it can take a little time to really reap the harvest.  I’m happy to keep helping to nudge the process along from a distance!

When a student raises an issue that I think others will benefit from, I respond to them via this blog.  So I’d like to share some of what Linda and I have been talking about, because I think there is broad application in how she is working through the newness of choosing and playing verbs.

First, remember that while Big Verbs (which cover the play or an act) are often global, broad stroke needs/wants, the Little Verbs — those which govern your moment-to-moment work — are very simple, practical things.  They may be in service of that Big Verb/Goal in some small way, or they may be in reaction to what another character is “giving” you.  But they are very concrete in terms of action.

Beats can be as short as one word or as long as a page (more often, 3-8 lines).  That means that your verb for the beat is just what gets you through the next 20 – 40 seconds.  It’s not at all global/high-level.  It’s strictly about “what do I need to do right this very minute to get what I ultimately want to achieve in this scene?”  Sometimes it takes a lot of little actions to achieve our goals.  Pay attention to what is going on right this very minute, and you’ll find some interesting things you didn’t realize were there.  I’ll give some practical examples of this in the next post.

But Linda found helpful something that I haven’t precisely highlighted before.  Scenes are a give-and-take between actors.  You and I may have very different goals in the same scene.  I may want you to help me prepare dinner for company, and you may want me to finance your new business idea.  Sometimes we’ll talk about food, sometimes you’ll try to sell me on yet another hair-brained idea.  Remember the tug-of-war analogy I used to describe conflict?  We can also use it to talk about who is controlling the situation at any given moment.  This will impact which verbs you choose.

I may want to talk about cooking, but your agenda can derail my own.  I will sometimes respond to what I am getting from you and temporarily put aside my own concerns, but I’m going to bring up what I want to talk about as soon as I can do it easily.  My need to talk about my own stuff may contribute an urgency to how I bring it up, or I may or may not listen very well to what you’re saying.  A close reading of the text should make its influence on what I do and say relatively apparent.

In other words, not everything I do and say in a scene is necessarily directly connected to my Big Verb.  Sometimes I am just responding to your need.  Think of it as tossing a ball back and forth.  When you hold the ball, you are controlling the scene.  When you toss it back to me, I take control.

Who is driving the scene at any given moment matters.  By driving, I mean, whose topic of conversation is being discussed?  Whose needs are we focusing on the most?  If we’re talking about the weather because you just came in the house complaining that you had to park halfway down the street because the snowplows have done a poor job of clearing and much of the on-street parking is unusable as a result, and I change the subject to talk about how I can’t find a dress for the office holiday party, then you were driving the first beat, and I am driving the second one.  I’m listening to you complain in Beat One, and you’re listening to me complain in Beat Two (alright, not the most scintillating dialogue or interesting plot.  But you get the idea.)

Understanding who is driving the beat helps you to connect with your scene partner, because you have a clearer sense of the fact that this moment in the scene isn’t really about you, it’s about you listening to and responding to someone else’s need.  In real life, we do this switching back and forth with ease and regularity.  So should it be on stage.

Of course, in a really well-written play, the best scenes will be where we are at odds over the same thing (that is, in conflict!)  When that happens, it is possible that no one character is really driving the scene — we are both fighting tooth and nail for what we want.  Identifying these moments can help us to focus more clearly on where and how the other character keeps throwing obstacles in our path.

But here’s the really wonderful thing that Linda wrote in her last email, which tells me that she is starting to understand the role verbs play and why they give such power to an actor:

“Your approach adds a more dynamic and complex layer to portraying a character.  Because what that character might be thinking or feeling is not in a vacuum; it’s in relation to another person or situation and it’s not static and, like much in life, it may be in conflict with ‘the other’.  It’s why verbs, not adjectives, tell the story.  So, yesterday when I was mulling over what you had written, I said to myself, ‘your emphasis is on how the character is thinking, wanting, doing, feeling, reacting, controlling, manipulating, etc (all verbs!), in relation to another person who is doing all those things as well.  [The emphasis is mine.]  It’s almost as though the actor is transmitting how that character’s mind operates and reacts in any given moment.  Which creates tension and excitement.  And even in glorious harmony with another person, it’s a result of working through all of the above.'”

The very fact that she is speaking the words I’ve boldfaced above indicates that she is starting to really understand how verbs work.  In her previous email, verbs showed themselves occasionally, but often in weak form, and sometimes not at all.  Of the seven verbs she’s used here, the last two are the kinds of verbs you want to choose.  They are actions you can play.  “I want to control my situation.”  “I want to control what you do with your life.”  “I want to manipulate you into doing what I want while thinking it is all your idea.”  Underscore your beat with those very powerful verbs and phrases, and you’re cooking with gas, as my mother used to say.

Once you can begin to use verbs on any level to describe what is going on with your character, you are on the path toward using verbs, and it is very difficult to turn around and go back to using adjectives.  Nor will you want to!

Liking Bad Characters: Doubt, Part 1

Doubt 2“You want me to like this terrible person I am playing?”

Actually, that’s precisely what I want you to do.  Impossible thought it may seem.

In order to get to “like”, you first have to understand her.  I’ve talked about this some in other places, but let’s look at it specifically in terms of people who do terrible things to others.

The director of Doubt (see When Your Character is Very, Very Bad) clearly thinks Sr. Aloysius does terrible things to others.  Let’s look at why she does so.

As always, it comes down to her verb.  At first blush, especially if you don’t like her, Sr. Aloysius’ verb seems to be “to get rid of Father Flynn” or “to expose him as a deviant”.  Of these two choices, the former has more validity to me.  While she certainly wants him to confess, repent, and reform, her bigger concern seems to get him out of the church (as a priest, anyway).

It’s not enough to say “to get rid of Father Flynn” – you have to follow it up with “why?”  She could want to get rid of him because she thinks he is a discredit to the priesthood, because she can’t stand to look at him (his long fingernails turn her stomach), or because she thinks he is taking the parish in a dangerous direction.  All three of those things do come into play in her feelings, I think, and are part of what helps to build a layered interpretation of Sr. Aloysius.

None of them get to the heart of the matter, however, which is this:  She wants to protect Donald Muller and every other boy in her charge from Father Flynn’s predation.

“To protect her charges from rape” is a more positive spin on the situation than “to get rid of Father Flynn” isn’t it?  It’s also more positive than “to get rid of an immoral priest” or “to stop a rapist”.

Why?  Because protecting someone is a positive act; getting rid of, or stopping, someone has a negative tone to it.

If we go with “get rid of Father Flynn”, then if he is guilty of her charges, we’re okay with her actions, even if we don’t necessarily innocent of like her way of going about it.  But if he is innocent of her charges, then her actions are vindictive.  It’s an either/or proposition.  We either approve of her (even if we don’t necessarily like her) or we hate her.

But if we go with “to protect her charges from rape”, we will find her at least somewhat likable (and not merely approve of her) whether Father Flynn is innocent or guilty, because she is motivated by something good – the desire to advocate for and protect all children in her care.

The fact that she is willing to “move away from God” (her words) in order to achieve her goal is, for a religious, a sacrifice of some consequence.  This reveals how high the stakes are for her.  She will do anything to protect innocent children from being defiled and abused.

Does this make her more likable and understandable to you?  I hope so.

Next time, I’ll take you a little deeper into how this choice of verb affects your portrayal of Sr. Aloysius, and how the script supports this perspective.

Playing the Verbs: Personalizing What You Find

IndividualityLet’s go back to Part 5 of Script Analysis:  Other People’s Money.

In it, I found a verb for Bea:  To save the jobs of men who work at the plant and have no other viable means of employment.  This is a powerful choice, and factors into not just the scene with Garfinkle, but into everything Bea does once she becomes aware of the nature of Garfinkle’s interest in the company.

But it’s still just words, just an intellectual choice.  Choosing the verbs is one thing; playing them is another.

So how do you play them?

First, be religiously sticking to Getting What You Want and ignoring the emotional nature of the scene.  Try to save the jobs, and the emotions will take care of themselves.

Second, try to Save the Jobs as if your life depends upon it, because in a play, it always does.

Third, find a way to personalize it.  Earnestly trying to save jobs will get you half the way there, but it won’t dig into your heart, and that is where we want the work to be.

In this case, I created sob stories for three of the men at the plant.  It’s not enough to say “1200 men will lose their jobs if something isn’t done.”  Generalizations don’t touch your heart.  Specifics do.  I also had ideas of what they each looked like, sounded like, how they behaved at the plant.  Who was the jovial guy who was always getting attention, and who was the quiet man who observed everything and would give you the shirt off his back if he thought you needed it.  I imagined the annual company picnic in July and all that Bea did to plan it each year, and the pleasure she took in watching the kids play and the families enjoy each other.

I thought about how it is a small enough community and the plant large enough that Bea is apt to run into the men and their wives outside of business hours at the gas station, the supermarket, church.  How she sends get-well, happy birthday, and sympathy cards when appropriate.  How she marveled at how much little Sammy has grown since she saw him last.  How involved she is in the lives of everyone at the plant.

This is the kind of backstory that helps my performance, but I didn’t start constructing it at the start of rehearsals.  I didn’t work on it until I realized, somewhat deeper into rehearsals than I should have realized, that Bea’s verb didn’t have to do with Jorgy.  Yes, she doesn’t want him to lose his job, either, but she knows he is financially secure.  It’s the machinist and the foreman she is really worried about.

MachinistsThere was a workbench at the very back center of the stage, behind the flats, and it had a blue light on it, to allow actors to safely move from one wing to the other.  As I sat in the wing waiting for the scene that begins on page 66, I’d look over to the workbench and imagine that I could see my three guys – Frank, Joe, and Mitch – working out a problem together, laughing and enjoying each other’s company, unaware that there is a fight underway to take their jobs from them.

That minute of imagining got me in touch with the heart of what Bea is feeling and allowed me to bring an emotional level out on stage that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.  (Because I forgot to do it one night, and it showed in my performance!)  It’s all an act of imagination – I usually favor the Stella Adler/Sanford Meisner “What if” approach to the Lee Strasberg “emotional memory” approach – but imagine well and imagine specifically, and the results can be powerful.

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.

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.

An Example of Why Verbs Make a Difference

wallflowerOne of my students is rehearsing a play that requires her character to be at a dance.  I happened to see a few minutes of rehearsal, and noticed that she kept looking to the floor, which is a choice I try to encourage actors to not use to excess.  Audiences like to see your eyes.

She explained that she was looking at the floor because she was waiting for someone to ask her to dance.  In other words, she had chosen to have her character be bashful and demure, and so refusing to make eye contact with any men, to put any pressure on them to ask her to dance, or to invite them to do so with her eyes seemed to be the way to go.

Except that it doesn’t work, and not only because the audience can’t see her eyes.

It doesn’t work, because bashful and demure are adjectives.

But wait! I hear you say.  She said she is waiting for someone to ask her to dance!  “Wait” is a verb!

It is.  But it’s a pretty dull verb to watch on stage.  As actors, you need to choose active verbs, and verbs that have some strong needs driving them.  There isn’t a lot of strong need behind the verb “to wait”.

The direction the actress is heading is fine.  Let’s see if we can translate what her instinct is telling her into something that is more active that will create more interest in the scene.

I think back to my junior high dances, and what it was like to wait for some boy to work up the courage to ask me to dance.  None of the girls wanted to be categorized as wallflowers; we all wanted to be dancing all night long, but this was back when it wouldn’t have occurred to us to ask a boy to dance.  So we waited.  But “waiting” wasn’t actually what we were doing.  We were praying someone would take us away from the wall, to prove to everyone else that we were desirable.  And to prove to ourselves that we were.

There was a lot of emotional energy coursing through us, and that’s a strong thing to bring on stage.  A desperate need to be wanted.  So instead of looking at the ground shyly (an adverb), she can be looking around for someone to ask her to dance.  Maybe smiling at someone who glances her way, issuing a shy invitation.  Or darting her eyes away when she’s afraid a handsome man noticed her staring at him, sure that he couldn’t be interested in her.

Let’s take it a little further.  What if the character doesn’t want just a dance – she wants a boyfriend?  She clearly doesn’t have one, or he’d be dancing with her.  So she’s standing at the wall, desperate to be taken away from it so that no one feels sorry for her, and desperate to have a boyfriend who will be a regular Saturday night date and keep her out of these situations.  Someone she can bring to parties and family dinners.

So now she’s scanning the crowd, not just looking for someone who might be interested in her, but also looking for someone she could care for.  Now she has a reason to be a bit braver in smiling at the men who really catch her eye, and looking away when the men who she doesn’t want to dance with look her way.

Let’s take it even a little bit further.  We want to ramp up what’s at stake for her as high as possible.  Never settle for something short of the peak.  Always push it up the mountain as high as you can.

What if she isn’t just looking for a boyfriend, but she’s looking for a husband?  Not just any husband.  Her dream man.  The man she will adore until the day she dies.  The man whose children she wants to bear.

What if our young lady is on a quest for nothing less than True Love?

Love is a powerful choice.  If you can, always, ALWAYS choose it.

What if our young lady has spent too many years alone, and can’t bear it anymore?  She’s tired of waiting for the right man; she wants him to enter her life NOW.  Maybe she needs something good to happen in her life, and she thinks the right man will bring about that change.  Maybe she is desperate to have a child, but isn’t willing to settle for a child by just any man.  He has to be the right one.

Suddenly, there’s a lot at stake for the young lady at the dance.  Suddenly she’s no longer just waiting for something to happen TO her, she is taking action herself.  She has come to the dance for the express purpose of finding her Knight in Shining Armor.  Everything is on the line for her at this dance, and so whatever she does, and whatever she says, is going to be driven by this need to find True Love.

To find True Love is the objective; the strategy is to meet him at the dance; the tactics may be to pray, to flirt, to invite, to smile, to encourage, to identify potential lovers, to avoid men she knows are wrong for her.  Etc.

wallflower 2Can you see how much stronger a choice this is than the choice to look at the ground because that’s what women might do in this situation?  Looking at the ground is an external action that is grounded in nothing specific.  Bashful and demure are general terms.  Until you can get at why this particular character is bashful and demure, you can’t do anything with it, and looking at the ground is going to appear to the audience as what it is – a superficial choice.

But take the motivation of wanting to find True Love and add to it an obstacle that is keeping her from finding it – her own insecurity, her own shyness and awkwardness in social situations, her own conviction that no man can love her that deeply because she doesn’t deserve that sort of love – and now you REALLY have something to work with.  Now, you can toggle throughout the scene between desperately wanting love and fearing you’ll never find it because you aren’t good enough.  Maybe you cast your eyes to the floor now and then, maybe you don’t.  But whatever you do, the audience will feel the power of both your need and fear.

THAT’S good acting.