Actors can find subtext and create depth in their performances by utilizing “tactics,” a concept derived from the influential theater practitioner Konstantin Stanislavsky. Read on to learn more about what acting tactics are and how you can use them in your scene work.
A “tactic” is how your character achieves their objective. Pinpointing your objective is the most important part of choosing a tactic. Once you know what your character wants, you can play around with how they pursue it. It’s the “action in the moment,” says acting coach Joseph Pearlman.
While reading the script, a simple way to nail down your objective and tactics is by using active (or “transitive”) verbs. Is your character trying to start a fight? Choose a verb such as “confront” or “antagonize.” Are they trying to woo a love interest? Go with something like “seduce” or “impress.” Make sure the verb you choose informs not just your physicality, but also the tone and subtext beneath it. “Run,” for example, only describes what you’re doing; “energize” illuminates why and how.
Here’s how to identify a tactic that works for a scene:
1. Identify your character’s need, or “super objective.”
This is your character’s main goal throughout the entire piece; their need to obtain it defines their arc. While individual objectives can change from scene to scene, the super objective remains fixed and guides your every decision. It’s a helpful North Star for whenever you need to better understand your character.
2. Define your character’s objective within the scene.
For every scene, start by asking yourself: What does my character want? More importantly, what do they want from those around them? Ryan R. Williams, founder of the L.A.-based acting school Screen Actors System, suggests finding your character’s objective with this formula:
“I want to __________ (actable verb) __________ (another character) so this person will __________ (feel or do something).”
If you’re in a solo scene, just slot yourself into the equation. Your character wants to feel differently than they do right now—how will they make it happen?
3. Use your objective to chart your tactics.
Williams suggests finding your tactics by finishing the formula like this:
“I want to __________ (actable verb) __________ (another character) so this person will __________ (feel or do something), and I am willing to __________ and _________ and__________ (list tactics here) to see that happen now!”
Again, the simplest way to start is by using actionable verbs. Your tactics must be something you can physically do and express to the audience. For example:
“I want to impress (actable verb) my boss (another character) so this person will give me a raise (feel or do something), and I am willing to boast and compliment and grandstand (list tactics here) to see that happen now!”
4. Imagine what your tactics look like in action.
Once you know your objective and tactics, think about what that means for you, both physically and emotionally, as you play out the scene. Your tactics can affect everything from your movements to expressions and posture. If your goal is to “intimidate,” maybe you’ll hold eye contact with your scene partner or invade their personal space (with permission, of course). If your objective is to “pacify,” you might speak softer or hold your hands in a defensive posture. If you chose to “lie” as a tactic, study the body language and facial expressions of people caught in a falsehood.
To take it a step further, experiment with actioning, or assigning a transitive verb to each line of dialogue you have.
When using tactics as an actor, there’s a couple of key points to keep in mind:
Objectives can change. A character’s goal doesn’t always stay consistent from beginning to end. Make sure you can identify beats, or the subtle changes—either external or internal—that occur within a scene. A new beat can alter a character’s objective, which calls for new tactics.
Experiment with several options. The beauty of tactic-based acting is that nothing is set in stone. Don’t lock yourself into any decision if it doesn’t feel right or isn’t connecting emotionally. Say, for example, you want to “amuse” another character in the scene, and that’s manifested as you juggling a few props. However, your scene partner is genuinely un-amused by juggling, and the energy of the scene is thrown off. Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board.
Let it go in the moment. As is true for any acting technique, tactics won’t work if it’s all you're thinking about while performing. The goal is to build a strong foundation through preparation, and then be totally present in the moment. “All of these devices (actioning, tactics, etc.) in acting training are meant to be pre-planted before the actor starts acting,” says Pearlman. “Thinking of tactics can definitely be useful if you’re specific about it, but only as long as the actor is willing to let it go before they start acting. Otherwise, the work starts to have the scent of training, which is never good.”
Pearlman evokes one of the greats: “Meryl Streep describes it as balling up your training and throwing it out the window before you start working,” he says.
If you’re new to using tactics, try out this list of actionable verbs and see where your imagination takes you. How would you play these words, physically and emotionally?
- To cajole
- To bully
- To seduce
- To soothe
- To incite
- To intimidate
- To mock
- To impress
- To provoke laughter
- To hurt