—'Hamlet,' Act 3, Scene 2
I discovered the above quotation 30 years ago in speech class and have been using it ever since. It is always pertinent to the work. Action is the key difference between a moment working and not. Suit the word to it. The moment fleshes itself out, feels right, and most of all affects the scene positively. It doesn't matter if it's a play, a film, or even a voiceover job; the action must always be suited to the word and vice versa.
Objectives Lead to Actions
How does one go about finding the action? To begin with, you must discover the objective. This is the overarching need of the character: What does he or she want in the play? It's an overriding need that propels the character forward. Consider Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire." He simply wants things his own way. He needs to have his way because that is who he is. Read the play and you will understand. The fact that he doesn't get his way is where the conflict comes in. Or take Stella, his wife. Her objective is to make everything okay, to make everyone comfortable. These are two examples of an objective. A character can have only one primary objective or through-line. The objective is like an umbrella governing all the action beneath it.
Finding the action is the most important part of the work. It requires evaluation and analysis. First break a scene into beats. Each beat is a change of subject matter. Once you identify the beats, find an action for each one.
Begin by asking if there is a physical action related to the text. Let's examine the simple question "How are you?" Rarely are we just asking how the other person is. What does the character want? What is he or she trying to achieve? Suppose your beloved has just survived a physical attack. "How are you?" could mean you're comforting him or her, so the physical action is the same as the emotional one. Are you running for the first-aid kit? Are you placing a chair for him or her to sit down on? Either could be meant as an act of comfort. But if you just broke your lover's arm and you're trying to intimidate him or her, then the question takes on a whole new meaning.
How does your character need the other person to feel? Notice I say "need." Need goes deep. A lot of people want to be actors; very few need it. That's the difference between a person who makes a tremendous sacrifice and skips many social outings and comforts of life in order to concentrate on a monologue or scene and one who doesn't. To miss dinner and drinks and take a dance class instead. To give up the TV for the script. The person who needs to work as an actor is the one who eventually will. If a need is driving you, it will emanate from your being. It radiates outward in all directions. Of course, it's also important to do your homework. Need without craft is indulgence.
Too many actors just read the lines with a particular quality—softly perhaps, or angrily or sadly. But remember, you can't play a quality. It's general, something that acting must never be. Acting—and action—must always be specific. Make the other person interested in you. Seduce. That is action.
Take adverbs out of your vocabulary and replace them with verbs. Possibilities include "to entice," "to frighten," "to inspire," "to scrutinize." The choice must be connected with the objective. Use logic: Is this what Stella would do to make everything okay? Is it what Stanley would do to get his way?
Make Positive Choices
Additionally, when you're deciding on a choice, it should be the most positive choice possible under the circumstances. Why? Because you always derive more energy from a positive choice. It creates feelings inside you of hope and possibility. Even when Medea kills her children, she believes that what she is doing is justified. Hamlet hopes he will do his father justice in the end. A positive choice elicits from the actor more feelings of love and life, of longing and striving. Negative choices tend to back you into a corner. Even the villainous Richard III believes he deserves the crown. Iago's justification for his actions is that he was passed over for promotion. Write your motivations down in the margin next to your dialogue. Play with different choices for your character, then dive in head first. Action means using the heart and not the head; there is no thinking involved. It is about creating truth, meeting a crisis. Only then can you suit it to the word.
Why suit it to the word? Because all drama—whether on stage, TV, or film—uses language to convey the meaning of character. Meaning and feeling are the actor's responsibility. We must use the words, combined with the action, to create feeling in the audience. Acting is a system of objectives and actions applied through the self, then executed with dangerous abandon. Use yourself and discover how action is a part of your everyday life. Observe the self and enjoy it. And remember to always make positive choices in life as well. Say yes to life and watch yourself.
To watch yourself is to grow, to watch others is to mature, and both are necessary. You must watch your habits, your capacities as a human being, to learn to do things that require effort. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The great man (or woman) does what he cannot do." He means that you must always push yourself. Study the body of a stranger in a coffee shop. How is that person feeling? What is the nature of the discussion he or she is engaged in? Is that person in pain or feeling wonderful? But one thing is key: Do not judge. Judgment is not for artists and certainly not for actors. Watch, observe, study, and try to assimilate what another's objective and action might be, without making a judgment. That is not our job.
Shakespeare instructs us to "o'erstep not the modesty of nature." Artists and performers must observe nature—what is around us—and mirror it. Not copy it; mirror it. To copy is easy; to mirror is more difficult. Mirroring involves empathy and compassion. Copying is superficial, while mirroring is detailed and thorough. We are all in action each day. Study your fellow man to see if what you are doing in the scene is in nature or not. Find the action. At least you will have made a choice.
Thomas G. Waites will participate in the master class "Warming Up Your Cold Readings" at Actorfest NY on Sat., Oct. 2. For more information, go to www.actorfest.com.