Using Subtext to Underscore a Scene

quarterSometimes the text and the subtext are in perfect alignment, and what you say should be taken at face value.  Sometimes “How are you today?” has no hidden meaning behind it.  It’s just something we say in greeting one another.

But they often aren’t aligned.  Sometimes we say one thing and mean another.  Sometimes we feel one thing but pretend we don’t.  Your job, as an actor, is to figure out when there is something hidden, as well as when there isn’t.

Who among us, in our real lives, says everything we think?  How often are we truly honest about what we feel?  And even if we are, how much of what we say is about what we feel?

Very little.  We talk for other reasons.  To gain information, to persuade, to explain, to think through, to debate, to wonder, to entertain, etc.

A single scene in a play may have multiple beats representing Small Verbs (tactics) you use to pursue the Medium Verb that covers the entire scene.  Occasionally, you’ll get more than one Medium Verb in a lengthy scene.  (Your Big Verb for the entire play will remain consistent throughout, however.)

I said that your subtext is both emotions and needs (verbs).  The needs aren’t the Small Verbs, which are simply how you go about getting what it is you want.  Needs are the bigger verbs, both the Big Verb that governs the entire play, and the Medium Verbs that govern scenes.  Added to those needs are any of the emotions that you may be feeling.  That’s your subtext.

Any time what you say and do is not perfectly matched with what you feel or what you want, you’re dealing with subtext.  If you are in touch with those hidden elements, the audience will sense them.  Your given circumstances provide the subtext at the start of the scene, but new information or events can provoke new but unspoken emotions in you that you didn’t have when the scene began, changing or adding to your subtext.

The subtext will typically cover more just the single lines I used as examples in the last post – it will cover one or more beats.

beg-dogFor instance, if I want you to do me a favor, I may not come right out and ask for it.  I need the favor, but I’m afraid it’s something you won’t want to do, and I feel badly about asking for it.  So perhaps I ask you a few questions first, because I want to figure out if it’s really going to be inconvenient for you to do the favor for me.  Perhaps it means driving out of your way, and I want to be sure you have a car in good working condition, and the time to do it in between picking up the dry cleaning and getting your hair cut.

These aren’t idle questions; they are directly related to the matter of asking you to take care of four 8-year-old girls who are having a tea party as their playdate.  How I ask the questions is going to be different than it would be if I was just curious about what you are doing on Friday.  If you start telling me you’re getting your hair and nails done because of a special event you’re going to that evening, I may start feeling guilty about the fact that I’m going to ask you to do me this favor on what is probably a full day for you.  And when you change the subject, I’m going to have to figure out a way to get back to the topic of just what your schedule looks like, so I can determine whether or not I’m going to ask you to do me the favor or find someone else to do it.

I may offer information about my own scheduling problems – the doctor appointment that suddenly became available on Friday, so I don’t have to wait until next week to find out what this strange lump in my body is.  I may share with you my worry that I have the same cancer that killed my mother.  Now I’m giving you a reason to want to help me when I finally get around to asking you the favor.

In other words, on my side of the conversation, it’s ALL about asking you a favor.  THAT’S the subtext of the whole thing.  I don’t ask the favor until the end of the second page, but those two pages are all about asking you a favor.

But again – don’t make the mistake of trying to play the emotional subtext.  Playing emotions for their own sake doesn’t work, whether you’re dealing with text or subtext.  It’s too heavy-handed and not grounded in real desire.

tea partyThis is where the verbs come into play.  They allow you to play the subtext, which includes your emotional state (an altogether different thing from the emotions that may flicker through you during the scene), with subtlety.  I’m not playing guilt, need, fear, envy.  I don’t have to figure out which line is the line to show my guilt on, which line to show my fear on.  I just understand my circumstances:  I am scared that I have a cancerous tumor, and need to visit the doctor on Friday to calm my fears.  My daughter has been planning the tea party for three weeks, and the mothers of the other girls are counting on having the afternoon free and have already made other plans that take them out of town.  You’ve got your own life and your husband is being honored by the Kiwanis Club tonight, and I feel guilty about asking for valuable time to do something that is bound to be stressful.  But I really need this favor, and I’ve asked three other people, all of whom have turned me down.  I really need my friend’s help.

If I understand my circumstances fully, then all I have to do is concentrate on playing my verb – getting you to do me this favor – and everything else, including my emotional life, is largely going to take care of itself in all the right ways.

To read What is Subtext?, go here.

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What Is Subtext?

[We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming on Creativity to bring you two posts on Subtext.]

Subtext is what your character isn’t saying.  Not in words, anyway.

ASL_SignerThe playwright provides you with dialogue.  The dialogue is the text. It’s what we are willing to have other people hear.  Sometimes we tell the truth when we talk.  Sometimes we deliberately lie (or fudge the edges). Sometimes we tell what we think is the truth even though it isn’t.  We aren’t ready to face the truth yet, and so we’re lying to ourselves as well as to everyone else.

You don’t have to “play” the text.  The words do that quite nicely without much help from you.  Playing the text is sort of like a fourth grader pointing out where the moon is when he sings about it, and holding his hand over his heart when he sings above love.  It’s unnecessary “sign language”.

What an actor brings to the play is what’s going on INSIDE the character, the stuff he doesn’t say out loud.  The playwright provides clues to that, which are often subtle.  It’s up to you to identify and highlight them for the audience, and to do so not just when those verbal clues arise in the script, but throughout the scene.

In other words, if you get an inkling halfway through a scene that your character is in love with the other person in the scene, you don’t just start giving evidence of that on the line that makes you understand that fact.  You didn’t just start to fall in love when the revealing words come out of your mouth.  You’ve been in love with the other character from the beginning of the scene, in all likelihood.  It is part of the subtext of the scene that will color everything that you say and do.

So how do we find the subtext?

Subtext is both emotions and need: the stuff you carry into the scene and what you’re trying to get out of it.  Your needs are expressed in the verbs you choose.  Your emotions, along with your general nature (your personality and history) help to determine how you go about filling your needs; that is, how you pursue your verbs.

Ask yourself why you say each of your lines.  If you don’t know the answer, read a bit more carefully.  They aren’t just words on the page; they are pieces of information that, put together, create a life. Read them to make sense of the insensible.

But don’t settle for the easy answers to the questions, answers that just rephrase the line you’re working with.

For instance, if an actor has a line that is a question – “What did you mean by that?” – and I ask why he says it, he might tell me, “Because I want to know what she means.”  Well, of course – but WHY does he want to know what she means? Will he be insulted if she means A, or hurt if she means B?  Or is he simply confused by what she’s said – does it seem to him that she is talking about something entirely different than what he thought they were talking about?  And does that worry him?

Look for what we can call the “secondary why”, which has to do with the subtext of the line, and now you are moving closer to understanding what is going on with your character.  Notice that in the examples above, what I am finding is emotional.  I’ve given you an example that is out of context intentionally, so you can see the link to the emotions: insulted, hurt, worried.

Remember, it’s okay to spot the emotion in a scene, as long as you don’t stop there.  Don’t try to play the emotion, but instead just let it inform the scene by influencing how you go about pursuing your verb.  Your emotional state is part of what is called the given circumstances of the scene.  The given circumstances are all the things that have led you to this moment in time (“given”, because the playwright has chosen them).  Understand them and play your verbs, and any new emotions that arise in the scene will take care of themselves.

headacheNow let’s put a question in context and get both the emotions and the verbs.  Let’s say you ask your “husband” in the play, “How are you today?”  Yes, you want to know how he is.  But you have a deeper reason for asking it.  He had a migraine headache last night – you’re hoping it is gone, because you hate to see him in pain.  Or you’re hoping it is gone, because you’re hosting a dinner party tonight, and if he has a headache, it will be a difficult night.

In the first case, you are feeling love and concern for his well-being.  Your verb might be “to take care of him.”  In the second case, you might be worried and just a little overwhelmed.  Your verb might be “to have a successful party.”

Or perhaps you had a fight last night, and you’re testing the waters, to find out if he’s still mad at you.  Or perhaps you want to ask him a favor, to let your parents stay with you for two weeks when they visit next month.  He’s not fond of your father, so you want to make sure he’s in a good mood when you ask him.

In the first case, you might be uncertain and hopeful, and your verb is “to reconcile with him.”  In the second case, you might be feeling anxious and needy, and your verb is “to convince him to let your parents visit.”  (Maybe I have that wrong – maybe you’re uncertain and needy, and anxious and hopeful!)

All of these possibilities are the subtext, the meaning that lies underneath the very simple words, “How are you today?” Read the script over and over again until you find the meaning that is hiding between the lines.

To read Using Subtext to Underscore a Scene, go here.  To read An Example of Why Verbs Make a Difference, go here.

A Character’s Interior Struggle

Equus doraAnne is working on the Dora Strang monologue from Equus, featured in a couple of earlier posts.  I’ll be referring back to it at some point for an expansion of what I’m talking about in this post; today I just want to speak personally to Anne about something we discussed last night.  I am posting it generally because I think others might get a little something out of it, too.

At one point, Anne used the word “unemotional” to describe Dora, and I suggested that in general, it’s not a useful word because it’s boring to watch, but that there is a way to use it that can be effective.  And we went on to talk about the scene in other terms.

You backed off the word, Anne, because you realized it’s an adjective.  I told you that adjectives and emotions are perfectly okay to identify – in fact, they are very good to identify for two reasons.  One is that they typically lead you to Tone, which is an important but sophisticated element we’ll talk about way down the road.  The other is that they are your first clue in script analysis, which is what we’re dealing with at the moment.  We’ve talked about finding your feelings in a scene, relating to your partner, and identifying your beats and playing your verbs.  But as you all discovered last night, your verbs are only part of the equation.  HOW you play them depends on who your character is.  Without having a clear and comprehensive understanding of your character, it is easy to go wrong.

This is one reason why playing adjectives is so dangerous.  You can completely miss out on what is really driving your character if you approach it this way.

So let’s get back to Dora and the word “unemotional”.

“Unemotional”, like all adjectives, is too general to play.  WHY someone is unemotional makes it specific, which in turn makes it interesting.

Am I unemotional because I think it is inappropriate to be emotional in certain contexts, like at work or with people I’ve just met?  Because I was taught as a child that showing emotion results in punishment in my family?  And was that punishment corporal or simply a withholding of love?

Am I unemotional because I’m afraid that people won’t like me if I show them who I really am and what I really feel?  Because I don’t like the “bad” emotions I feel, like anger and envy and so I try to pretend that they aren’t there, or at least make sure that other people don’t see them?  And maybe it’s easier to shut down all of my emotions rather than risk that my anger slip out when I’m not watching myself?

Am I unemotional with Alan because I don’t believe in coddling a child?  The real world is a cold place, better that I should teach him how to function within it!

When I answer these questions, I come up with some basic needs for my character:  a need to be the consummate professional in business and to be perceived as well-mannered by all I meet.  A need to protect myself from punishment from others or to gain their love by being the Good Little Girl.  A need to be liked.  A need to be good, to not be bad, to get into heaven.  A need to give my son the best tools I know for dealing with the world.

These needs drive HOW I do things; that is, they drive HOW I play my verbs.  The mother who doesn’t want to coddle her son is a different woman than the one who doesn’t like her own “bad” emotions.  Although human needs are rarely so simplistic, and so you might find a variety of elements behind Dora’s “unemotional” nature that come into play at different moments.

But the thing all of these alternatives have in common is the need to repress emotions.  Human beings are emotional by nature.  We are all born with them.  Someone who is “unemotional” is working hard to repress them.  And THAT’S what you play as an actor.  You don’t play “unemotional”, because it’s uninteresting to watch.  But someone repressing specific emotions when they rise up in her?  That’s a very active and compelling choice.

When your character is drunk, you don’t play “drunk”.  You play trying desperately to seem sober.

In other words, when you’re on stage, you have to show the audience the Yin and the Yang.  We don’t know what you are repressing unless you let it leak out just the tiniest bit.  In fact, we may not even know you ARE repressing it if you don’t let it leak out.  We may just think you aren’t a particularly good or interesting actor, without understanding why.

Remember, we just met this character, and we have a very limited time with her.  In a case like Dora, who is a supporting character in the play, we may only spend 15 minutes with her.  We don’t have the luxury of learning over time that she represses her emotions, or why.  You need to convey that to us quickly and comprehensively.  And you do that by showing us both the emotions and the repression of them.

This sort of inner struggle – to not love someone you think is wrong for you, to do what you know is right despite your fears, to maintain control of your anger when you have been pushed over the edge by your young child or your boss – is fascinating to watch on stage, and the basis of many moments in dramatic works.

Also, even “unemotional” people have events in their lives that are so traumatic that it creates a windstorm of emotions inside of them that even they cannot repress.  This is such a moment for Dora.  Despite protecting herself for years, she is the proverbial fat that has been flung into the fire.  It is NOT business as usual.  (Plays rarely are.)  Which makes it even more interesting to watch.  What happens to a woman who is losing the battle to hide behind her usual façade?

Directors Use Adjectives, Actors Use Verbs

(A slight detour from the tools’ posts, which are still a work-in-progress…)

HELLO in eight different languagesLet’s say you’re still making this transition, trying to learn how to avoid thinking in terms of angry, innocent, deceitful.  You’ve studied the script, you’ve marked your beats, you’ve found your verbs, and by God, you really are trying to play them for all they’re worth!

Then you’re at rehearsal one night, and the director says to you, “You used to be angrier in this scene.”  Or, “Could you be a little more confused when she asks you that?”  Or, “I think the scene would work better if you were more excited when she comes home.”

It’s almost like offering an alcoholic a cocktail, only with much less serious repercussions.  But there’s a strong temptation to comply.  You want to please your director, and he must know better than you do, that’s why he’s in charge!  You may not even realize that he’s putting you back on Adjective Road, so eager are you to “get it right.”

But there is something worth noting:  your director has a different job to do than you do, and adjectives/adverbs are part of the language he is apt to speak.  He may not even be aware of this adjective/verb thing.  He’s going to continue to use adjectives, and you know what?  That’s just fine.

Because you can translate them into verbs.Translate Computer Key In Blue Showing Online Translator

Why does he use adjectives and adverbs if they aren’t part of a good actor’s language?  Because he’s not an actor.  Because it’s a quick way to communicate what he wants; verbs take longer to find.  Because even though it’s live theater, his view is almost cinematic, and so he is dealing on some level with images, sounds, emotions.  Large brush strokes.  And because he naively thinks that he is getting to the heart of the matter and being helpful.

So if he asks you for anger, or confusion, or excitement, he’s not really telling you how to do your job.  He’s just telling you what he wants to experience viscerally.  He may not even know what he means, exactly; but he’ll know it when he sees it from you.

It’s not his job to learn an actor’s verbs; it’s your job to translate his instructions into terms that are meaningful for you.

So maybe “angry” becomes, “I want to make you accept me as I am!”  Maybe “confused” becomes, “I want to understand how this happened.”  Maybe “excited” becomes, “I want to get married tomorrow, not next week!”

You may need to take a minute in rehearsal to make this translation, which goes something like this:

“Angry?  Angry.  Why would I be angry in this part of the scene?  What is it that I want that I’m not getting, and why does not getting it upset me so?  How can I raise my stakes in this scene, so that not getting what I want really pisses me off?”

When you have a verb you can actively play that will help you produce anger, you can move forward with the rehearsal.  But if you allow yourself to revert to using adjectives just to please your director now, that choice will have a negative impact on your performance, and that won’t please your director later.  You’re just postponing that difficult discussion for another day down the road, when he realizes that you aren’t making the progress with the scene that he had hoped for.  And believe me, he’s not going to realize that he hamstrung you back at the rehearsal where he asked you to play angry.

Take the time you need to make the translation and then to consider how this adjustment might affect the scene.  Then play the scene again, with the adjustment.

I’ve never met a director who objects when an actor asks for a minute or two to make an adjustment.  Don’t feel that you can’t ask for time.  In the long run, you are helping the production and saving it time.  Trust that.

To read Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs, go here.  To read Why Playing Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier Than Acting Emotions, go here.

Acting Beats, Part III

This is sort of cheating, because it isn’t actually a new post, to speak of.  Well, I may have a new post on the subject later this week, once I’ve had a chance to mull things over a bit.  But this post is mostly just a detour sign.

I happened to check the blog’s stats this morning, to see which posts have been visited the most.  And the two posts on Acting Beats are right up there.  Not a surprise.  I know a lot of actors either don’t really know what the term means, although they’ve heard it used, because I have actors who aren’t new to acting ask me what it means.  But even if you at least sort of understand the meaning of “Beat” in the context of acting, I think a lot of people are confused as to why we even care where a beat starts and ends, or what it covers.  And so beats become an English Lit discussion more than being a practical tool that you can use to improve your performance.

So I’ve tried, in some small way, to cover this issue in the various posts on both beats and verbs.  And my verb posts have gotten a bit of attention, too, but since actors don’t throw around the word “verb” quite as much as they do the word “beat” (although perhaps they should), I’m not sure that everyone realizes the two are connected.  And so people who want to read about Acting Beats find Parts I and II, but don’t necessarily find what is really Part III:  my post on “Why Playing Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier than Acting Emotions.”

So if you haven’t read that post yet — which assigns verbs to the example used in Part II, and has a few other things to say about the matter as well — you can read it by clicking here.

How to Learn to Play the Verbs

Choosing the verbs is one thing; even if you struggle with it initially, you’ll find it easier the more you do it.  It’s a big change in perspective from playing the emotions you find in adjectives and adverbs, but once you learn to stand in that other position, the verbs will start to come to you more naturally.

Actually PLAYING the verbs is a different challenge.  It is very easy to give the verb lip-service, but fall back into the comfort zone of simply being angry, or whatever emotion seems to dominate the scene.

As with all new activities, you need to isolate it so that you can focus on it.  So take the first beat of your scene or monologue, and work that beat all by itself, focusing strictly on the verb you have chosen for the beat.  Don’t keep going into the next beat, just play the one beat till it ends and stop there.  Since the next beat has a different verb, we want to keep it separate.  Try to blend them before you’ve explored what each verb means, and you’ll muddy the waters.

canto_basic_ms5All you want to do with each beat is to try to get what it is that you want.  Forget everything else.  If you want to persuade someone of something, then do your damnedest to persuade them.  If you want to seduce your scene partner, do.  Don’t worry about “being seductive”.  Just try to get her to kiss you.

Repeat the beat as often as you need to until you are sure that you are as in touch with your need to persuade or seduce the other actor as you can possibly be.  Then set that beat aside and move to the next one.

Rinse and repeat.

NOTE:  Remember, as I noted in my post, “The Hardest Part of Acting”  – it is very difficult to be sure that you are playing the verbs and doing this exercise properly without a teacher observing the work.  I’m explaining the process we are working with in class, but it is only through classwork that you’ll really know when you are doing it correctly.

My own first experience of this process was that it was tedious.  Boring.  Not *FUN*! the way acting is “supposed” to be.  Focusing all of my energy on what was going on in this one beat was incredibly unrewarding.  My scene partner, who was also new to the process, felt similarly underwhelmed, but we were both committed to working the scene as we had been instructed.  So we marked our beats and did the first one.  Four times.  We looked at each other and said, “What do you think?”  “I don’t know.  Shall we move to the next beat?”  “Okay.”

We did the next beat four times.  “All right with you?”  “All right with me.”  “Okay, let’s do the next beat.”  And so on.

At the end of it, we looked at each other.  “What do you think?”  “I don’t know.  Are we doing this right?”  “I have no idea.”

Our next rehearsal, we put the scene together, but still focused intently on each beat’s requirements as we went through them.  At the end of the night, we looked at each other.  “What do you think?  Are we ready?”  “I have no idea.  I mean, we’ve done what she asked, but I don’t know if it’s working.”  “Well, let’s take it to class and have her tell us what we’ve missed.”

So we did.  We played the scene as we’d rehearsed it, focusing on one line at a time, one beat at a time.  It was as incredibly boring and ordinary as it had been in rehearsal.

But we rocked the house.  That scene, because of the way we rehearsed it, remains some of the best acting I’ve ever done.

When you put your focus on what you want – that is, your verb – you put great power into what you’re doing.  This enlivens the scene and makes your scene partner step up her game to meet what you’re doing.  That focus clarifies for the audience what is going on and energizes everyone in the theater.

And a nice little side benefit you’ll get from this exercise is that it helps you to stay in the moment and not anticipate what is coming next!

See Playing the Verbs Part II here.  See Playing the Verbs Part III here.  See Why Playing the Emotions Doesn’t Work here.  See Why Playing the Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier than Acting Emotions here.  See Choosing Verbs here.  See Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs here.

Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs

Big Verbs encompass the whole play and reflect your character’s overall goal, objective, or motivation.  (These are three different terms for the same thing.)  Big Verbs are about what your character wants that he thinks will make him happy.  In a well-written play, it is the thing that he wants most in the world; it is, at that particular moment in time, the single thing he thinks will make him happiest.

Semi-Big Verbs encompass large chunks of the play, such as an act or a scene, and are typically the strategy that your character employs to get what he wants.

Little Verbs cover the individual beats of the play and are the tactics that your character uses to achieve his goal.  They are strategy in action.

blanche duboisLet’s look at Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire:  Blanche has lost her job and home and has fled to New Orleans to find sanctuary with her sister.  Her Big Verb, her want, is to find basic security – a roof over her head and food to eat.  Her Semi-Big Verbs are her strategies for getting that:  to charm her brother-in-law into letting her stay; to get her sister to align herself with Blanche’s cause; and to marry Mitch.  These are broad stroke strategies she has to achieve her goal of finding a home.

How she goes about impressing Stanley, co-opting Stella, and marrying Mitch are the Little Verbs, the tactics she uses.  For instance, with Mitch, she flirts, she flatters him, she seduces him, she evades him, she lies to him, she begs him, etc.  Each time she meets with resistance, she changes tactics.  She may change tactics because she is trying to approach him from a variety of angles.  But each Little Verb is what drives each of the smaller beats of the play, all in service of getting Mitch to marry her, which will achieve her goal of finding a home.

If you can put yourself into Blanche’s shoes and believe, for the space of the play, that have lost your job and your home through shameful circumstances, you won’t have to think too much about what you feel in these scenes.  All you have to do is fight like hell to find a way to get a roof over your head.  If Mitch seems like both manna from heaven and your last chance, and you do your best to get him to the altar, the emotions will take care of themselves just fine!

As for Dora in Equus, “to justify slapping Alan” is her Semi-Big Verb for the scene, and all the other verbs for each beat are Little Verbs.  Dora is in conflict with the doctor, who saw her slap Alan and whom she thinks blames her for Alan’s plight, but she is also in conflict with herself.  Her inner guilt makes her swing between attacking the doctor when she doesn’t want to admit her complicity and acknowledging that same complicity in moments when she can no longer deny it.  Inner conflict is a very powerful force on stage.  So the “roadblocks” she runs into that make her change tactics are both what she receives from the doctor while she is speaking (a raised eyebrow, or a stoic refusal to be taken in by her explanations) as well as her own fear of acknowledging that she may have contributed to Alan’s crime by how she raised him.

See Playing the Verbs Part II here.  See Playing the Verbs Part III here.  See Why Playing the Emotions Doesn’t Work here.  See Why Playing the Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier than Acting Emotions here.  See Choosing Verbs here.  See How to Learn to Play the Verbs here.

Choosing Verbs

Choosing verbs can be challenging.  We tend to go for nouns, not verbs.  We’ll throw the verb “to be” in there so that it seems like a verb, but it’s actually a passive verb serving the noun.  We move from “I want happiness” to “I want to be happy”, but it’s really just a noun in disguise.  Your acting is better served, instead, by choosing active verbs.

Let’s take a common motivation in plays:  “I want love” or “I want you to love me”.  Passively stated, right?  loveI want this thing called love to come to me.  But remember, acting is about action.  It’s about characters actively pursuing what they want.  So we have to state this desire to be loved in a more active way.  Here are some examples:

Child’s love:  If a parent is withholding their love, we will typically turn cartwheels to get it.  “I want to prove myself worthy of your love.”  “I want to make you finally tell me that you love me.”  “I want to show you that I am lovable.”

Romantic love:  “I want to win your heart.”  “I want to fix our marriage.”  “I want to make you stop having an affair and love me instead.”

Parental love:  “I want to make my son proud of me.”  “I want to protect you.”  “I want to give my child all the things I never had.”

Notice that for some of these, I have used the verb “to make”.  Instead of saying “I want my son to be proud of me”, I say “I want to make my son be proud of me.”  The former puts the focus on the son’s feelings; the latter puts it on what I will do to make my son proud of me.  Perhaps I will stand up for what I believe at great personal cost because to do so will make my son proud of me.  Perhaps I will work hard to achieve something in order to win my son’s admiration.  But it isn’t about my son feeling proud of me; it’s about what I do to create that feeling in him.

If asking yourself what you want leaves you feeling baffled, try thinking in terms of “why am I saying this?”  None of us talk just to talk.  Even those who seem to do so have a reason – silence is scary because it means dealing with your feelings is a common one.  So what you want to figure out is “what is your character hoping to achieve by saying what he does?”

Sometimes you’ll find several beats within a scene that seem to have the same verb.  If so, it’s a good idea to try to find synonyms so that each beat has a different verb, giving it a slightly different tone.  Often, choosing verbs that allow you to escalate is useful.  For instance, you might go from Explain to Persuade to Convince to SellFlirt to Tempt to SeduceAsk to Barter to Offer to Buy to Beg.  Inquire to Probe to Push for an Answer to Demand.

The verbs that may jump to mind first will probably be ordinary ones, like explain or understand or ask.  If you can change them to more specific verbs (like Probe, instead of Ask), your acting will become more powerful and interesting.

See Playing the Verbs Part II here.  See Playing the Verbs Part III here.  See Why Playing the Emotions Doesn’t Work here.  See Why Playing the Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier than Acting Emotions here.  See Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs here.  See How to Learn to Play the Verbs here.

Why Playing Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier Than Acting Emotions

When you choose what you want, which is always expressed as a verb (“I want to . . .”), you’ll find there are Big Verbs and Little Verbs.  The Big Verbs govern what your character wants in the entire play, or in an act, or in a scene.  The Little Verbs govern what your character wants in a single Beat.

Let’s go back to Dora’s monologue in Equus.  I’m going to choose “To justify my actions with regard to Alan to the doctor and to myself” as the Big Verb for the monologue (and the scene from which it comes).  As for the Little Verbs for each of the beats I identified in a previous post, they are in boldface below and precede the dialogue in the beat:

(To establish why you don’t understand my situation)  Look, Doctor:  you don’t have to live with this.  Alan is one patient to you:  one out of many.  He’s my son.  /  (To explain what this is doing to us)  I lie awake every night thinking about it.  Frank lies there beside me.  I can hear him.  Neither of us sleeps all night. /  (To complain about your unfair attack)  You come to us and say, who forbids television?  Who does what behind whose back? – as if we’re criminals.  /  (To defend myself)  Let me tell you something.  We’re not criminals.  We’ve done nothing wrong.  We loved Alan.  We gave him the best love we could.  /  (To concede we aren’t perfect)  All right, we quarrel sometimes – all parents quarrel – we always make it up.  /  (To defend my husband)  My husband is a good man.  He’s an upright man, religion or no religion.  He cares for his home, for the world, and for his boy.  Alan had love and care and treats, and as much fun as any boy in the world.  /  (To demonstrate that I am not a stupid woman)  I know about loveless homes:  I was a teacher.  Our home wasn’t loveless.  I know about privacy too – not invading a child’s privacy.  /  (To concede that my husband may have contributed in some small way)  All right, Frank may be at fault there – he digs into him too much – but nothing in excess.  He’s not a bully. . . /   (To blame Alan)  No, doctor.  Whatever’s happened has happened because of Alan.  Alan is himself.  Every soul is itself.  If you added up everything we ever did to him, from his first day on earth to this, you wouldn’t find why he did this terrible thing – because that’s him; not just all of our things added up.  /  (To make you understand)  Do you understand what I’m saying?  I want you to understand, because I lie awake and awake thinking it out, and I want you to know that I deny it absolutely what he’s doing now, staring at me, attacking me for what he’s done, for what he is! /  (To blame the real culprit – the Devil – and thereby back off of blaming my son)  You’ve got your words, and I’ve got mine.  You call it a complex, I suppose.  But if you knew God, Doctor, you would know about the Devil.  You’d know the Devil isn’t made by what mummy says and daddy says.  The Devil’s there.  It’s an old-fashioned word, but a true thing . . . /  (To apologize)  I’ll go.  What I did in there was inexcusable.  I only know he was my little Alan, and then the Devil came.

Why is this more helpful than playing emotions?  Certainly there is some anger in this piece, but if you choose to play the anger, you’ll be inclined to be angry throughout the monologue.  Once you look at the individual beats and their verbs, however, you can see why anger doesn’t work well throughout.  Just think of these beats in terms of aggressive/defensive, and you’ll find they seesaw between these two positions.  The aggressive verbs?  Establish, complain, demonstrate, blame.  The defensive verbs?  Explain, concede, make you understand, apologize.

The verb “defend” can be either aggressive or defensive, depending on how you choose to play it.

Once you understand that Dora uses a variety of aggressive and defensive tactics to justify slapping her son, it is easier to see how the emotions she feels throughout the speech are in constant motion, conflicting with and contradicting each other.  This inner torment can be fascinating to watch.  We never know what to expect from Dora.  We like her one moment, pity her the next, hate her in the third, sympathize in the fourth.  The whirlwind of emotions that pass through her keep our attention, keep us thinking about this extraordinary story Shaffer has presented us with, trying to sort out the moral and ethical questions it raises, to figure out who’s the “bad” guy.

seesawThe seesawing happens so quickly and often that even if we could accurately identify an emotion per beat (and “anger” doesn’t work for all of the aggressive verbs), it isn’t a practical approach.  To make a conscious switch from one emotion to another takes too long and is unbelievable to watch.  It’s your conscious brain making the switch, not your subconscious; in real life, it is always the subconscious which is in charge of your emotions, and your subconscious makes all such switches in an instant.

Try to make the switch with your conscious brain, and the audience will see the wheels turning in your head.  That’s all it takes for them to stop believing in you.

If you stop worrying about whether you are using the right emotion (should I be angry? Irritated? Defensive?) and simply try to accomplish your verb, the right emotion will come along all by itself.  (Assuming, that is, that you’ve left the door to your emotions open.)

Let’s take the first beat to see how this works:  “To establish why you don’t understand my situation.”  Or maybe I decide to rephrase that, to replace “establish” with “explain”.  Or to use “To put you in your place.”  Feel free to try on different phrases, like you’re trying on different shoes, until you find a phrase that really resonates for you and feels “right”.

Whichever phrase you end up with, I can imagine any number of emotions that might come up as a result, and they are the adjectives and adverbs we are inclined to act.  Angry.  Resentful.  Frustrated.  Hurt.  Exasperated.  Sarcastic.  Superior.  I can also imagine two or more of these co-existing during the beat, depending on exactly what verb I choose.  But the magical thing about playing the verb is that I don’t have to pay much attention to the emotions or figure out which is the “right” one.  “Explain” and “establish” are going to bring up slightly different emotions without me having to pre-plan anything.  “Putting you in your place” will naturally bring up a very different set.

Playing verbs is infinitely easier to do than playing emotions and adjectives.  I don’t have to choose the “right” sort of anger (and anger, as with all emotions, comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.)  All I have to do is try to explain something.  Or defend my position.  Or concede a point.  Or blame someone else.  Which is very simple and straightforward.

See Playing the Verbs Part II here.  See Playing the Verbs Part III here.  See Why Playing the Emotions Doesn’t Work here.  See Choosing Verbs here.  See Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs here.  See How to Learn to Play the Verbs here.

Playing the Verbs, Part III — Raising the Stakes

One of the keys to good acting is figuring out what your character wants, slavishly sticking to trying to get it, and not worrying too much about how you feel.  If you really know what you want, why you want it, and everything hangs on your getting it, then most everything else is going to fall into place without you having to work too hard.

Let’s go back to our party; notice that each option begins with the word “because”.

“I want to make sure this party comes off perfectly, because I will feel embarrassed if it isn’t successful” or “because if I can’t control my world, I won’t feel safe and will freak out” or “because if it is successful, I will get the job I want more than anything in the world, the one that will both set  me up for the rest of my life and make me happy to go to work every day.”

What do I want?  To give a perfect party.  Why do I want it?  “Because . . .”

As for “everything hangs on your getting it”, this is about what we call “stakes”.  Every character has something at stake, which means that whether or not they succeed at something MATTERS.  I mean REALLY, REALLY MATTERS.

Whether I am fourth or fifth in line doesn’t matter much if I’m making a bank deposit, I’ve got time to kill, and there is plenty of money already in the bank to pay my bills without bouncing a check.  If my family is starving and there are only four loaves of bread left at the bakery, it does matter.

Whether I am hired for a job doesn’t matter much if I’m already employed and simply looking to move up the ladder, but it matters a ton if I’ve been out of work for eight months, my unemployment has run out, and I have a child who needs a life-saving operation.

Whether a man asks me out for a date doesn’t matter much if I just think he’s cute; but if I have fallen head-over-heels in love with him and want to bear his children, it matters a great deal.

poker chipIn each of these cases, I can RAISE THE STAKES for my character by choosing the second alternative or something like it.  The higher the stakes for your character, the better.  When everything seems to hang on whether or not you what you want more than anything in the world, it’s fun theater to watch!

A good way to do this is to think in terms of Life and Death circumstances, at least figuratively.  The higher you can build your house of cards, the more things you can hang on whether or not you succeed, the more it becomes a tightrope act.  And the audience is on the edge of its seat.

Let’s take the first “I am bossy, because”, which is to avoid embarrassment.  This is good, but the stakes aren’t high enough to be as interesting and dramatic as possible.  We can amp up “embarrassed” by changing the word to “mortified”.  But even this isn’t enough.  To really make this work, you have to understand WHY your character is mortified.  Does her self-esteem depend on appearing to be perfect?  Has she never failed at anything?  Does she feel inferior to all her invitees, and “knows” they will judge her as being inadequate if the party isn’t perfect?

Whatever you choose, make the consequences of failing to get what you want as dire as possible.  If this party isn’t successful, will she be ostracized by the group?  Is the party for her husband’s coworkers, and her husband will be furious and withhold his love if they don’t walk away impressed?  Or better yet, is their marriage on the rocks and depends on this party being a success?  Will her husband file for divorce if someone leaves the party unhappy?

Or does his getting a promotion depend on her impressing the boss with her social skills, and they need his promotion to buy their apartment, which has just gone co-op?  Or to pay for private school for their children?  Or to bail her mother out of jail?

Sometimes the playwright will clearly define what your character wants and why he wants it so badly, but more often than not, it is written “between the lines” and is part of the subtext.  If the playwright doesn’t explicitly tell you either the desire or the reason for it, then you are free to choose whatever you like.  Just be sure that nothing in your choice conflicts with any of the information the playwright does give you.  Your choices must always make perfect sense in the context of the play.  But make clear choices that give you something to go after and a compelling reason to do just that!

See Part I here.  See Part II here.  See Why Playing the Emotions Doesn’t Work here.  See Why Playing the Verbs is (Ultimately) Easier than Acting Emotions here.  See Choosing Verbs here.  See Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs here.  See How to Learn to Play the Verbs here.  See An Example of Why Verbs Make a Difference here.