Tool # 3 ACTION VERBS or ACTIONS
Alec Baldwin in a legendary “Glengarry Glen Ross” film.From Art of Directing Actors book, by Ernest Goodman.
“Every actor, no matter how good, needs a director.” ~ Alec Baldwin
ACTION VERBS or ACTIONS are mini-objectives attached to each of the smallest elements of a scene (often referred to as BEATS).
Have you ever seen an image through a kaleidoscope? A kaleidoscope is a cylinder with mirrors containing loose, colored objects such as beads, pebbles, or bits of glass. As the viewer looks into one end, light entering from the other end creates a colorful pattern by reflecting off of the mirrors. As the tube rotates, the tumbling of the colored objects presents varying colors and patterns. A kaleidoscope generates unique pictures, creating new images with each turn. That is exactly what happens inside our souls.
Our life is a set of infinite sequences of thoughts very similar to the images in a kaleidoscope. Every minute of our life we are different. Our reactions, emotions and feelings change with each moment. Just as in reality, in theater and film once each second of life has passed, it cannot be repeated. Each flash of real life will be unique. And every take in film production will have an exclusive look.
One of Stanislavski’s old quotes is, “today, here and now!” This assumption is a cornerstone of many acting methods. Modern acting teachers have rephrased it, stating that acting is “being in the moment.” Being in the moment is a specific state of mind that an actor can achieve with years of practice. The actor focuses on the events of scene here and now, and using the art of living, she lives on the stage or film set, without copying any emotions.
The technique of ACTION VERBS or ACTIONS comes from Stanislavski. It is a revolutionary acting method, which seeks to enhance the psychological depth and emotional truth of performances. The scene must be divided into independent units. In his book, An Actor Prepares, Stanislavski makes a useful analogy: according to him, the process of dividing a scene into component units is like breaking up a cooked chicken so that it can be eaten. Similarly, the scene can be broken into separate “portions” or units in order to be investigated. Each unit has its own title, which describes what the unit is about. According to Stanislavski, each of these elements should be described with a verb rather than a noun. He warns: “You should not try to express the meaning of your objectives in terms of a noun…the objective must always be a verb.” Therefore, simply one single ACTION OR ACTION VERB can describe each unit.
Let’s explore two basic terms related to the topic of this chapter: BEATS and BEAT CHANGES.
Each film or play has a certain number of scenes. You can break each scene into tiny units, often referred to as BEATS. The scene may have only one BEAT or it may have hundreds of them. A BEAT is a tiny part of the scene with a mini-objective (ACTION VERB) attached to it. The BEAT can be a word, a sentence, or even a whole page of dialogue. Whenever a thought changes in the screenplay, your BEAT changes.
To make a point about how this process works, let’s take the following dialogue as an example. Put a bracket around each [BEAT] to mark when one BEAT ends and the next BEAT begins. How many BEATS you can find in this dialogue?
He was so fond of his horse Toby! He always used to ride him. How well he could ride! What grace there was in his figure when he pulled at the reins with all his strength! Do you remember? Toby, Toby! Tell them to give him some extra oats.
There are only three BEATS:
[He was so fond of his horse Toby! He always used to ride him. How well he could ride! What grace there was in his figure when he pulled at the reins with all his strength!] [Do you remember? Toby, Toby!] [Tell them to give him some extra oats.]
These units are divided by small turning points—the BEAT CHANGES. Often, but not always, the BEAT CHANGES are emotional events that happen in the scene.
I think the analogy of painting an oil portrait will illustrate how ACTION VERBS work. An artist paints an oil picture with elegant and precise brushstrokes. The BEAT is the smallest unit of a scene, just as a brushstroke is the smallest element of a painting. That is exactly what we, as directors, do. We assemble the whole story performed by actors beat by beat, just as the artist paints the portrait stroke by stroke. Each smallest element (beat) in the scene is like a brushstroke. It is up to the painter to choose what kind of brush he will use, and how long the brushstroke will be; it is up to director to choose what kind of ACTION VERB he will use for each beat of the scene, and how long this ACTION VERB will last.
An ACTIOIN VERB is one of the most effective methods actors use to achieve a truthful performance on the stage or film. Conversely, adverbs, judgments, adjectives, and generalizations lead to a Result-Oriented direction and the director should eliminate them quickly from his or her directing vocabulary; filter them out and avoid them. ACTION VERBS, on the other hand, lead the actor to a connection with other actors, give him a clear objective, and help to create chemistry. For example, an actor can seduce, intimidate, cajole, soften, rebuke, and so on. All of these are ACTION VERBS. This type of direction is a quick fix for actors because it helps them build chemistry by creating interactions between the characters. It also helps to create a character, defining its every facet.
If you get different performances with the same directions during each take of your film production, that means the actor is living truthfully while playing his role, experiencing each moment as if it happens in his real life. Do not ask an actor or actress to repeat a particular reaction; do not ask them to save, keep and copy emotions and feelings. It is impossible to imitate real life responses truthfully. The ACTION VERB direction helps an actor to be focused in the moment and achieve a unique performance during each take.
How Action Verbs Work to Fix a Result
To show how ACTIONS should be used let’s take a look a breakfast scene in which a wife asks her husband to go on vacation next month. He refuses. You’ve tried this piece many times and you are not satisfied by the emotional outcome of the scene. You want “more energy” from the wife; you want her “to be mean to him.”
Many directors mistakenly may ask actors to play a scene “with more energy,” or to “take it up.” All of these instructions are difficult for even experienced actors to execute. If you attempt to direct untrained actors like that you will never get honest performances. That is a recipe for serious disaster for you film or play. From the actor’s perspective, it is very difficult to imitate particular emotions truthfully while thinking about every reaction requested by directors.
When we see great, life-like performances, we never ever say, “that is good acting.” Have you ever noticed that a truthfully made scene does not look like acting? That’s because the best acting is not acting at all.
Do you think directions like, “play it with more energy,” or “be mean to him,” are playable by actors? Of course not. As I explain in Chapter 5, all of these aforementioned Result directions do not give you a hint of the truth.
Let’s see how to get “more energy” or “less energy” from an actor by using only the ACTION VERBS technique, and without asking for a result.
Your first step is to create a list of action verbs relevant to your beat or scene. Line them up, starting from the least strong to the most powerful. Your action verbs list might look something like this:
beg ~ complain ~ demand ~ warn ~ attack
These actions work better than wrong directions like “more energy” or “less energy.”
The second step is experimenting with different ACTIONS. If you want “less energy,” the verb BEG is less intense than COMPLAIN. If you want “more energy” the verb DEMAND is more powerful than COMPLAIN. The verb WARN may add more strength. ATTACK is a last resort in any conflict. You can use more action verbs in order to get different reactions. “Actioning” (that is what sometimes directors/actors call directing by actions) is a great method for creating life-like behavior. Direct your actor by using various ACTION VERBS in order to get diverse outcomes.
Let’s look at a small table to compare the method of action verbs and Result-Oriented directing:
RESULT DIRECTING ACTION VERB
+breaks connection +creates chemistry
+leads to self-consciousness +creates emotional events
+dissolves character +specifies behavior
+calls for emotions +does not call for emotions
Actor looks like an actor Actor acts like real person
As you can see, a Result-Oriented direction breaks connections between actors, dissolves the character, calls for an emotion and leads to self-consciousness. Directing with ACTION VERBS creates chemistry, emotional events, and obstacles. It does not call for a specific emotion or behavior. That’s why action verbs are our best friends.
Use ACTION VERBS instead of:
(1) Asking for emotions.
(2) An adjective.
(3) Asking for an attitude.
(4) A line reading.
(5) “Take it down” or “give more energy.”
If you practice directing, you will become aware that the process of choosing the right directions takes more thought and energy on your part than articulating precisely what attitude, adverbs or adjectives you want to see. This is because directing actors is not an easy process, and you will need a lot of practice.
Everyday application of directing tools coupled with your creativity will lead to brilliant performances, respect and recognition among actors, and eventually to your success.
For an example of how ACTIONS can be applied to a screenplay, you can find the full script breakdown of The Bear in Chapter 33, on page 185 of this book.
Simple list of ACTION VERBS
Accuse Accommodate Attack Badger
Blame Badger Bolster Bless
Belittle Beg Complain Crush Calculate Convince Cajole Coerce
Crown Cultivate Disparage Diagnose
Direct Deny Demean Destroy
Entreat Guide Hammer Humiliate
Hypnotize Mitigate Ignite Impair
Incite Impeach Inspire Lead
Limit Nail Nag Order Punish Pursue Provoke Poison
Pressure Quiz Ridicule Relieve
Revive Rag on Reprimand
Seduce Spoil Steer Surrender
Soothe Summon Suppress Still
Sober Scold Safeguard Tame Terrify Tease Torture Urge
Uplift Undermine Value Warn
About Adjectives and Adverbs
Here is the list of adjectives and adverbs usually incorrectly used by aspiring directors to describe a character’s personality or emotions:
happy excited scared aggressively
frightened outgoing funny sad
grumpy cheerful jolly carefree
quick-witted blissful lonely elated quirky warmly gently kindly
angrily awfully anxiously badly
jealously joyfully madly painfully
This list can be continued to infinity. Do not use them in your directions.
Aspiring directors tend to use adjectives and adverbs as one of their director’s tools. However, adjectives and adverbs are not our friends because they are static and subjective, they lead an actor to concentrate on himself instead of another actor, they may break connections (chemistry) between actors, and they are too general.
Watching actors who are supposed to be connected to each other but have no natural heat between them can be a tedious and unsatisfying experience for the audience. A viewer gets what you feed them. If there’s no chemistry between your actors, the audience will not feel the need to get invested in your film.
On the other hand, if there’s a strong connection (communion) between actors, your audience will definitely want to see it and will become attached emotionally. The chemistry between actors can determine the success or failure of your theater play, movie or TV show.
The best way to keep your actors connected to each other is by avoiding a Result and using proper directing tools.
- Previous Second edition of The Art of Directing Actors is published
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