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




Acting is NOT a Linear Process

Most complex activities are not linear in nature.  Whether you are good at painting, cooking, or playing a sport, you gradually developed your expertise.  For instance, I am currently learning to do yoga.  Sometimes I pay attention to the positions I am trying to achieve, to make sure my form is good; sometimes I concentrate on making sure my abs are employed throughout.  Sometimes I pay attention to whether I’m inhaling and exhaling in the right places.

non linearWhen I pay attention to one aspect, I am NOT paying much attention to the others.  It’s impossible to focus on more than one thing at a time.  Whatever I focus on is probably what I feel is my weakest link at this moment.  By jumping back and forth between the aspects, I’m building expertise in all of them “at the same time”, just not simultaneously.  I keep a certain amount of parity in all areas by not developing my skill in one aspect to the exclusion of the others.

It is difficult to become great at one aspect if you don’t improve the others at the same time.  Because the aspects work together to create a single whole, you need to develop them all gradually and not leave one behind.  Imagine putting on a pair of jeans and getting your left leg in all the way up to your crotch before starting on the other leg.  You’ll find the jeans have to come down to at least your knee in order to get your right toe in the pants.

Because each new part in a play is a fresh learning experience, hopscotching from one approach to a role to another is just part of the creative process.  As long as you hit all the squares at some point and revisit them as necessary during the rehearsal process, the exact order you follow probably isn’t critical.

I start with my emotional response to the text, probably because that’s where I started when I read plays at eight years old.  That was my entrée into the life of a play, because most of my theater experience at the time was confined to reading the script, apart from an occasional school production.  Opening myself to the possible emotions my character feels is still my starting point.

Because the way I move on stage is driven largely by the emotions I feel, blocking comes after this initial emotional investigation, never before.  It doesn’t necessarily come second, though.  If I get a script before rehearsals start, I may mark the beats in my script.  I may look for the verbs for each beat, or I may just look for my verb for the entire play.  I may examine the language to see what it can tell me.  I may look for the arc of my character, or for the ebbs and flows of the play.  I may study the relationships between the characters.

All of the tools I’m introducing you to are tools you can use in whatever order suits you best, or suits a particular play best, and are probably best revisited periodically throughout rehearsals.  As long as you expose your subconscious to the opportunities these techniques provide you, the order doesn’t really matter, because your subconscious is clever enough to use them properly, no matter what order you choose.  But that’s a story for another day . . .

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”!

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 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.

Stage Movement, Part III

We use movement where you change physical location on stage for a number of reasons, but the biggest one is to provide visual interest to the audience.  There are other benefits:

  • Moving distracts your left brain so your right brain can do its job.
  • Moving underscores what is happening dramatically and emotionally in the scene.

But mostly, we’re giving the audience more to pay attention to.  It’s a storytelling technique.  If we use pauses in our speech to help build tension and interest (what’s she going to say next?), we use physical movement for a similar reason (where’s he going and what’s he going to do when he gets there?)

Physical movement of this kind is, in some ways, unnatural.  We are creatures of habit, we are.  We sit in the same chair, tread well-worn paths in the carpeting, eat the same thing for breakfast , frequent the same places week after week.  Most of us aren’t explorers; we’re observers.

I think this is part of why we’re reluctant to move much on stage.  We don’t give ourselves permission to be that free in our real lives, why should we behave any differently on stage?  But everything on stage should be a little bigger than life – even Laura in The Glass Menagerie.  Remember, this isn’t film, and you aren’t getting your close-up.  What you do has to be big enough to carry over the footlights and to the rear of the house.

glass menagerieSo you’ve got two things to fight against.  One is your own disinclination to stray out of whatever you consider to be your comfort zone.  Inertia, in other words.  The other is your fear of the unknown.  What’s it like over on the other side of the stage?  Is there a trapdoor I’ll fall through?  Will I find my way back if I go over there?

I know, this sounds silly.  And it is.  But it is also, truthfully, part of why you won’t go over there.  And like most fears, the closer you look at it, the more you realize that you’re afraid of – nothing, really.  Roaming all over the stage gives you a wonderful feeling of freedom.

So leave a trail of breadcrumbs if you need to.  But find reasons to use as much of the stage as you can as often as you can.  Not every role will permit you to do this – Laura, for instance is emotionally constrained and her physicality should reflect this (but in a bigger than life way).  But when your roles do allow it, it makes for theater that’s really interesting to watch!

See Part I here.  See Part II here.

Stage Movement, Part II

There is something oddly unnatural about being onstage when it comes to movement.  Is it our awareness of the audience and our need to “cheat” to make certain things easier to see?  How do we address the audience’s need to see what happens while making our activities on stage look natural?

One thing I’ve learned as a golfer is that you need to break technique into the smallest pieces possible.  It’s the only way to get good at them.  Trying to do multiple things at once and get good at them simultaneously is nearly impossible.  Oh, heck, let’s just call it completely impossible.

That’s why when I give you an exercise, I ask you to only pay attention to one thing at a time.  When it comes to working on your physical life, I want you to worry less about the lines and the emotion and more about the physical.  I don’t care if your monologues aren’t as emotionally successful next week.  I care about whether or not you can walk and talk at the same time.

Let’s break the physical element into two pieces:  movement that involves changing location (walking, crossing your legs, sitting down) and movement that involves using your hands to do something (pack a suitcase, drink some coffee, peel a banana).  And let’s explore those two things separately.

Your assignment for next week is to do your monologue while changing location as much as possible.  You have the whole script to put the monologue into context now; use that for your emotional life, but disregard the constraints that the script places on you physically.   We’re not staging the play, so we don’t care if we do it “right”.  We’re using the monologue as a learning tool, that’s all.

walkingChoose surroundings that give you the greatest opportunity to move around.  If there isn’t an emotional impetus to move you, choose ANY activity, no matter how inane (like moving the cups) that will give you a reason to use as much of the stage as possible.  You don’t have to keep moving if you have an emotional reason to stay still.  Just don’t stay still after the moment has passed, and don’t be self-indulgent about those moments, even if that is the right choice emotionally.

We’re looking for balance between the physical and emotional, but err in favor of movement for the purpose of this exercise.  You can always scale back if you go overboard; but if you don’t go far enough, you’ll never get there.  (The golf analogy:  you have to get it to the hole to have a shot at it going in the hole.)

See Part I here.  See Part III here.

Stage Movement, Part I

It’s difficult to walk and talk at the same time.

Don’t ask me why.  We do it all the time in real life.  But on stage?  You’d think we’ve never done it before.  God forbid you have to do anything more complicated than that.  I know actors who find it nearly impossible to do business that really requires their attention and talk at the same time.  The play comes to a screeching halt while they do the important bit of business required by the script.

Given that I read recently that once an audience gets jarred out of its reverie, it takes a good five minutes for them to get completely back into the show, this isn’t very helpful.

Granted, it’s easier for some people than it is for others, but EVERYONE needs to work at it.  Your physical life on stage must be as real as your emotional life for us to believe in you.  And yet making physical movement – even walking – look completely natural is harder than you probably realize.

pat-head-rub-bellyThis is partly because acting is sort of like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time.  You’re trying to put three new things together, things that you’ve never done in this particular way:  words, emotions, and physical activity.  That’s like juggling.  The words and the activity are complicated enough, but now you try to add multi-layered emotions to the mix?  Holy $@%&#!!!!!!

So how do we do this?  The same way you get to Carnegie Hall.

Understand that it’s like (here comes the golf analogy, Charlie) learning to play golf.  Learning to separate an egg.  Learning to use your non-dominant hand for everyday chores.  You don’t do it particularly well the first time.  Or the second.  Or the third.  But persist in doing it over and over, and you get better at.  You start to figure out when the words need to take precedence, when the emotions move front and center, and when you need to move.  And (miracle of miracles) how to do all three at once.

If you pay attention to what you’re doing, that is.  Self-awareness, on some level, is essential to improvement.  It’s about letting both your left and right brain be active at the same time.  The right brain does the acting, the left brain observes and makes choices.

This is why you need your set taped from the first rehearsal, so you know what space you have to play with.  Why you need rehearsal furniture that closely approximate the dimensions, firmness, etc., of the set pieces you’ll actually use.  Why you need rehearsal props, especially for any complicated piece of business.  The more repetition you get with physical activity, the more it looks like a real human being is on stage, not some actor. . .

See Part II here.  See Part III here.

Words ≠ Communication

The meaning of words is a very small part of how we communicate.

Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA psychology professor in the 1960s, posited that only 7% of what we communicate comes through the words themselves.  About 38% comes from other verbal clues (intonation, volume, etc.), and the rest from body language.  Obviously, language itself may be more important in some conversations than others.  If you don’t pay attention to the words in a math or science class, you may not pass the test!

However, ordinary conversation – what we use on stage – probably follows this breakdown, at least closely enough.  Whatever the numbers really are, we need to pay considerable attention to how we use our voices and our bodies if we are going to convey the story’s meaning most effectively.

In real life, we do this naturally.  Our emotions automatically result in paralinguistic choices (the verbal stuff not related to the meaning of the words) that convey our emotions.  And that which we have trouble expressing in words, we express through our bodies.  Again, without much thought about those choices.

I may not be able to find words that tell you just how much I care about you, but looking in your eyes and stroking your shoulder underscores the words, “I love you.”  If I’m having trouble getting you to understand something, I probably am not going to say, “Boy, am I frustrated that you are being so obtuse!”, but I might turn and walk away while throwing my hands up in the air, as if that will somehow signal the gods to send me the magic words I can’t find myself.

The two examples I’ve just given you are pretty common ways of expressing those emotions.  But they are hardly the only ones.soup  I might say “I love you” by putting a bowl of soup in front of you and sitting down to attentively watch you eat it.  I might deal with my frustration by taking a deep breath and looking down at the ground while I gather myself, and then force myself to speak very slowly and calmly to explain myself.

Who your character is helps to determine the choices you should make as an actor, although you’ll find that your characters will often surprise you with choices you thought were inappropriate.  The point of this post is that if you’re just going to trust the words to do the job for you, you’re throwing away opportunities to develop a richer characterization.

Most actors I work with understand that they need to use some verbal inflection, but don’t explore the full range of their voices and the meaning that can add.  And most don’t use physical movement to any real degree to convey meaning.  Movement onstage becomes practical:  I need to answer the phone, because my next lines are part of a phone conversation; I need to pick up the gift because I need to take it offstage with me when I exit; I need to sit on the couch because the script says so.

So we’re going to intentionally explore these tools in class, so that you can learn how to bring them to bear in the next play you do!

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.