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The Craft

The Importance of Actions

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The Importance of Actions
Four years ago in this column, I discussed various approaches to playing actions. "Actions are important," I wrote, "because they keep us focused on doing rather than emoting." I mentioned my own struggle, long ago in scene study class, to integrate the actions that I'd scribbled in the margins of my script with the onstage, moment-to-moment reality.

An old acting-school classmate, Stephen Dym, read that column and emailed me. A New York actor, director, and coach, Dym still scribbles actions in his script, designing them, he writes, to "stimulate the senses: visual, kinetic, olfactory, and auditory." Why? "Some actors have everything accessible," he continues. "I am not one of them." His hope is that the actions he chooses will provide structure, motivate emotion, stimulate sense memories, and fill in the subtext.

Dym observes that "when things are not happening organically, when the actor is losing concentration, is outside of the experience, watching him- or herself, the way to recover…is to concentrate on playing the action." He adds, "Our brain cannot consciously do too many things at the same time. When you're concentrating on an action, it becomes impossible to watch yourself"—or to be distracted by irrelevant thoughts.

He recalled our classroom days. When he wasn't connecting naturally to the material, he'd push. And when he didn't push and instead tried to just be "natural," he might as well have been a corpse, he jokes. I understand that dilemma all too well.

Yet when he resorted to simply playing an action, our teacher would tell him, "One hundred percent better!" He'd protest, "But I didn't feel anything!"

Now he knows that actors need not try to manufacture feelings. Nor do they need to know exactly what they're feeling—just like in real life. It's the behavior that's important. "One way or the other," he says, "most acting problems can be helped by learning to create and play actions." But, he cautions, be flexible. Once you've scored your script with a menu of actions, new choices will emerge in rehearsal or performance to surprise you and provide new insight into the material.

In November, Dym was about to play the biblical patriarch Abraham in "The Good Morning America Johnny Johnson Dream Show," an Accidental Repertory Theater production in New York, written and directed by John Strasberg. So I asked my old classmate to describe how he prepared.

He says he likes to have an arsenal of actions at his disposal—line by line and even word by word—as he's learning the script. That way, the actions are integrated into the dialogue and he doesn't have to think about them consciously. Working this way, your inner thoughts become permanently associated with the words, he says. Of course, if a choice doesn't work, you find something else.

He scribbles in pencil in the margin, erasing frequently. Often, he says, an action that seems to be the opposite of the obvious meaning of the words turns out to be the best choice. He initially makes some general choices, based on careful reading of the text, and those choices are likely to change after the first rehearsal, depending on what he's getting from the other actors.

His overall objective for Abraham was to save the world, but the actions to achieve that objective had to be precise and playable (although not necessarily physically playable). In one particularly challenging section of the play, his character had to confront Hitler. Strasberg had directed him to accuse Hitler. So Dym says he looked for specific sub-actions within the verb "to accuse" that would resonate for him in meaningful and inspirational ways: "to destroy, strangle, rip his heart out." He points out that "to knife" is actually a better choice of an action than "to accuse," because it has a kinetic component: "You can stab, slice, even tickle with a knife."

He adds, "Hopefully, playing the action 'to destroy' fully will elicit emotion or at least approximate it with tone, tempo, and other physiological responses consistent with the truth of the moment. Not only am I obligated to do it right for the play and the playwright-director; I also owe it to all the victims and survivors."

After three previews, Dym wrote me again. At that point he was confident that his actions were now part of his unconscious mind and married to words. "Last night was the first time I felt I could go out there without thinking about what I am doing but simply let the play 'play me,' " he reports. He wasn't sure which of the moment-to-moment actions that he'd originally chosen were still relevant, but it didn't matter.

"I do not have to worry about acting, but simply say the words and react as they land on my partners,…and as I read their expressions/body language and listen to what they are saying, I let it affect me as it will." The only actions he continued to consciously think about were the big, overall ones, such as "to save the world." The initial homework was, as he says, "just a way, a technique, to design the inner reality."

After a few more performances, he observed that the crucial Hitler moment was still evolving. " 'To destroy' hasn't really worked," he writes. "I am still trying to simplify the moment, to distill and get down to the absolute truth." 

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