What’s Pushing Your Buttons?

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I've got a question for you: “What’s pushing your buttons?”

Lots of things push our buttons. (My last two husbands, for example. Just kidding.) Every day, situations and people make us happy or mad or sad. We’re human beings. Our “buttons” get pushed all the time. But, remember, your characters are human beings, too. Their buttons will also get pushed.

Most of you know that, as actors, we strive to have real reactions and to be organic and to stay in the moment. We don't want to fake it; we want to cause real reactions to spontaneously happen. It’s the difference between just playing notes over and over or making beautiful music. The magic in performing is spontaneity.

But how do you set up spontaneous, organic reactions? Let’s start with a little exercise.

First, take a moment to relax and get into your imagination zone (where we always need to go). Close your eyes. Breathe slowly in through your nose on a count of four. Hold for a count of seven. Breathe out through your mouth on a count of eight. Good. Now, go back to a time in your memories when you had a really happy moment. Picture where you were, what kind of day it was, who was with you, and how you felt.

When I do this exercise in class, I always ask my students what they experienced. People never actually tell me how they felt. Instead, they always tell me what it was that made them so happy. They tell me what it was that pushed their buttons!

Next, let’s make a game of, “What’s pushing your buttons?”

  • Choose an emotion that is the “button” you want pushed.
  • Everything that happens (the other actor, the environment, your thoughts, your clothes, the props, etc.) pushes that button.
  • Everything the other person does drives you crazy...or surprises you.

We have many buttons that can be pushed (and we also push buttons in others). But for right now, let’s concentrate on pushing just one button. This would a be great exercise if you have to get angry or cry or laugh in a scene, or need to build to a special emotional moment. Choose one emotional button, like anger, and let everything push that button until you reach the part in the scene where you start yelling. Everything you notice pushes that one button (like a kitten playing with the first moving object it sees).

You do the relaxation exercise first to get out of your head and to let go of your blocks that prevent you from getting your buttons pushed. You are setting yourself up to be in a heightened state of awareness to what is effecting you. You are trying to get as many buttons pushed as possible...constantly.

After you do a backstory and find what the buttons are in your character, you just decide that they will constantly get pushed. This will cause tiny, natural reactions—just like real life.

Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!

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Cathryn Hartt
Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt & Soul Acting Studio, is known to many as “the UN-Acting Coach.” She coaches all ages (children through adult) and all levels (from beginning through masters).
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