How Action Enhances the Play

Most physical action used in plays is not indicated in the script.

Yes, sometimes there are stage directions that appear in parentheses.  Some scripts have more of this than others.  These days, playwrights steer away from including any stage directions unless they are absolutely necessary to understanding what is going on in a scene.  For instance, if a character says “Here”, and then pulls a packet of unmarked bills from his jacket pocket, and the other character says “Thanks”, you’d have no reason to know that it’s a bribe and not a throat lozenge unless the playwright tells you.  But directions such as “sits” or “stands” are rare in today’s scripts.  The playwright understands that it often doesn’t matter exactly when the sitting or standing happens, and that if it does, a good actor will be able to figure it out without assistance.

But even in older scripts where stage directions are sprinkled in here and there (and sometimes these are not the playwright’s opinions but merely the stage manager’s recording of what was done in the original production, which you should not consider to be sacrosanct), there is much that isn’t included.  It’s your job as an actor to add physical movement that underscores, enhances, or adds to the fun of the play.

If you’ve ever read a Shakespeare play, you’ll know that aside from entrances and exits, there isn’t much recorded in the script in terms of movement.  Watch a good production, however, and you’ll find lots of action, especially in the comedies.  I just saw the London production of Twelfe Night with Mark Rylance and a host of exquisite actors at the Belasco Theatre in New York, and it was full of marvelous physical bits that made us all laugh.  Here’s a few photos to give you an idea of what is possible when you let your imagination loose and express yourself through more than words (you can also check out Youtube for the American Conservatory Theatre’s commedia del’arte production of The Taming of the Shrew — links in the right column — for some very physical Shakespeare!):



Twelfe Night




Comedic Action

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was just going through photos of the first play I directed on St. Croix , a one-act play called “When Men Are Scarce” for Caribbean Community Theatre in 2006.  I no longer remember the name of the playwright, but it was a play from the early 1960s — very Doris Day-ish.  Certainly before the Sexual Revolution!

While very dated, it was a well-constructed play.  We did our best to overcome its age, and we turned it into very physical comedy.  I told the cast that it was, in effect, an episode of “I Love Lucy”, with the brunette in the photo (wose name I’ve forgotten, sorry) playing Lucy, the blonde (Lisa Vaughan) playing Ethel, Mariah Mays playing Ricky, and Emily Van Buren playing Fred.

At the time, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets were still in vogue.  So our mantra became “What Would Lucy Do?”  (I gave the cast WWLD bracelets on closing night.)

Some of the physical action of the play was indicated in the script, although not in the quantity or detail that we ended up using.  “Ricky” and “Fred” dressed the set up to look like a romantic dinner had happened.  (We had a lot of props!)  Some of it wasn’t in the script at all:  “Lucy” trying various ways to build a “step” so she can come in through the fire escape window, or pushing the menswear under the loveseat with her foot while pretending the coats aren’t really there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe real fun of doing this show, for me, was finding ways to really push the envelope and pack the stage with comedic action.  Don’t settle for token activity if you can find a way to enrich the visual with movement, especially if you can use the movement to underscore the emotional context of the scene (which you generally can.)

And when you’re playing comedy, remember that virtually all comedy is physical.  Even verbal jousting, like Noel Coward, is much funnier when you add the physical to it.  Don’t let the punchlines do all the work.  If you do, you are cheating both yourself and your audience.

Check out the Facebook page for more photos from “When Men Are Scarce”!

Why you need to practice onstage physical movements. A lot.

Activities are typically more complicated than movement.  For instance, I can get comfortable with crossing the stage fairly easily.  But if once I get there, I need to pour myself a scotch and soda on the rocks and drink it – well, that’s considerably more complex.

Not only are there many more moving parts, so to speak, I actually have to pay some attention to the activity.  I have to make sure the ice gets into the glass, not on the floor.  I have to be careful that the soda in the Schweppes bottle doesn’t spray all over when I open it.  I need to be sure not to pour too much “scotch”, unless my character is intent on getting drunk, in which case I need to be sure I do pour too much.  And I need to not overfill the glass and make a mess of things.

If I have a limited number of lines in which to accomplish this, I’ve got quite a challenge in front of me.  In other words, I better practice this early and often.

scotchFirst I have to get comfortable with the action itself.  I’m not in my own home, so I have to get familiar with where things are.  If I’m using ice tongs, I’d better practice moving ice with them so that I can do it quickly and without mishap.  I don’t drink scotch and soda, so I have to learn what the right level for the scotch is in the glass I’ll be using.  I have to practice with both bottles, so I learn how quickly I can expect the liquid to pour.  Do I have to unscrew a top?  How long does that take, and should I have the top almost completely unscrewed as part of the pre-set?

In other words, I need to remove the mystery of the actions.  Even activities that I am ostensibly doing for the first time need to be thoroughly explored, so that I know how to imitate the first-time experience.

Once I’m comfortable with the action, I need to add the words to it.  This will throw all my well-practiced actions into chaos!  I won’t say the lines right, and I won’t do the activity properly.  I’ll be a mess, in other words.  But as I continue to practice, the two – words and action – will start to blend naturally.  I’ll come to understand how the rhythm of my lines fit with the rhythm of the action.  Where I can pause to give my full attention to the action, and when I can momentarily stop the action to make a dramatic point with the words.

But all this explains – I hope – why you need to start experimenting with anything physical, whether it be a change in location or a physical activity, as early in the rehearsal process as possible.

Physical Activities, Part III

Before you choose your activity for a scene, it’s a good idea to examine all the possibilities.  Let’s say your character enters the house at 6:00, arriving home from his job at the bank.  He might change out of his suit, because he wants to be more comfortable.  He might unpack the groceries he picked up on his way home, because then they’re out of his way.  He might look through the mail, because he wants to see if there is anything important he needs to deal with.  He might pour a drink and sit down to finish the crossword puzzle he started on his morning commute, because he only has three more words to fill in and he likes to finish every puzzle he starts.  He might begin to prepare dinner, because he’s hungry or because it’s his night to cook.

Man Preparing a SaladThere are other alternatives, too, but you get the point.  Don’t worry so much at this early stage about what this particular character would do.  You just met this character, and quite frankly, you have no reason to be certain yet about his activity when he enters the scene unless the playwright has provided him with one.

So explore every possibility of what someone might do when he comes home from work, even the options that you are “sure” at this early stage don’t suit your character.  Thinking through and discarding the “wrong” options can sometimes lead you to the right one.

Whatever your banker does, he probably has a good idea of what he’s going to do when he gets home before he opens the door.  And unless something happens to stop him from doing it, that’s what he’s going to do.  He’s not going to make a big production out of it.  He’s just going to do it, as simply and naturally as possible.

When he walks in the door, he doesn’t yet realize that something dramatic happened while he was at work that is going to change his life.  He doesn’t know that his wife got the news that she is being transferred to a job 1,000 miles away.  That the rabbit died.  That his wife’s sister left her husband and has moved in with them.  Or that his son got in trouble at school for lifting a girl’s dress.

He’ll find all that out in the middle of chopping vegetables for the salad.  Maybe he finishes making the salad, maybe he doesn’t.  Maybe he tries to continue cooking, but finally gives up and makes a peanut butter sandwich (which he better not actually eat unless he has no lines for a page or two!)  But he’s got a viable activity to keep him busy while his world caves in!

See Part I here.  See Part II here.

Physical Activities, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Part I here.  See Part III here.

Physical Activities, Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Part II here.  See Part III here.

The Actor’s Job – More Than You Think

Acting is about action.  We forget this sometimes.  Playwrights can only provide the basic structure of the play:  the plot and the dialogue.  Don’t get me wrong – without the playwright, the actor has nothing to do, and the playwright’s contribution is paramount.  Thank goodness we have some good playwrights!

But without the actor, they are just words on a page.  To bring life to those words, we actors need to add not only the emotional life, but physical action.  Saying our character’s lines is actually third in the list of responsibilities.  After all, silent films were very successful for many years, and only the words that couldn’t be conveyed any other way ever showed up on the screencards.

Our job, whether we are in films or on stage, remains the same:  add the emotions and the action.  Hence, our logo:

21724617This is tougher than it sounds.  As both John and Nora have found, human beings are afraid of our emotions and distance ourselves from them as much as possible.  Actors, on the other hand, need to plunge into them.  That’s pretty terrifying.

That’s why we used the memory exercise.  It’s a way of introducing yourself to your own emotions and to make friends with them.  If you keep exploring your own feelings through distant, unimportant memories (because those are quite important enough, and much safer), you’ll become more comfortable with letting them show up on stage, too.

As for action – well, most actors focus on the words and resist moving.  I’m not quite sure why that is, but it’s pretty universal.  Only a minority of actors are inclined to move instinctively early in their careers.  If no one has encouraged you to explore stage action in any depth, you can do twenty shows and still be confining yourself to a space the size of a telephone booth.  (Remember those?)

But action is one of the most important and valuable tools an actor has.  Action is inextricably linked to your emotions, but if you’re not accustomed to using it, the exercises we’ve been doing – by creating “business” with your activity and learning to use the space available to you on stage by walking on your “unimportant” lines – are designed to draw your attention to the role both business and movement play in your acting.

We’ve made some arbitrary choices in using them – but going to the extremes is a way of focusing on what you otherwise avoid.  Once we get into actual scene work, you’ll find the link between action and emotion that make both easier to do.