I am constantly seeking ways to become a better director and to get more out of the actors I work with. All the while keeping an eye out for tools that actors can bring to bear without any real “training” requirements. I want to uncover methods of achieving this that I can implement as quickly as possible with maximum potential reward.
The one that has grabbed my attention for delivering the most bang for your buck in terms of benefit vs time invested is ACTIONING. It ticks a number of boxes that, as an amateur director, I look for when engaging with a new idea.
The concept is relatively simple to understand
The acquisition of knowledge around the subject is easily digestible
The application of the skill is uncomplicated in its most basic form (although, this doesn’t mean it’s not going to be hard at times).
It, therefore, stands out as an impressive resource to have at your disposal as an actor or a director. And one that, once “leant” , is applicable in nearly all scenarios where an actor on a stage wants to drive a story forward and present a dynamic, nuanced, and engaging character to an audience.
So where did it begin? Well the creation of this idea is deeply embedded in the history of Acting Theory and the methods through which stories have been presented to audiences over the years. In the centuries preceding its birth, acting theory and performance styles had been through many different cycles. How far back we should go is subjective I guess, but the Elizabethan era, with its clear theatrical conventions, feels as good a place as any to start from. This style of performance, or should I say performative approach, made going to the theatre an invigorating and emotional experience. Plays were exaggerated displays with over-the-top movements and gestures. Speech patterns were heightened for dramatic effect, and they used conventions such as the aside, prologues, epilogues, and puns, to make connections between the characters and the audience.
Out of these 16th-century performances of heightened stakes and over the top drama grew a more focused style, concentrating on the individual actor's imagination, emotion, and appreciation of nature. Later known first as Pre-Romanticism which was swiftly followed by Romanticism, they focused on inner reflection, as opposed to the external realities of the audience. But with various political and legal changes across Europe and the creation of a middle class (the history of which I do not have enough knowledge or time to unravel here, but is heavily shaped by revolutions in places like France), we saw the birth of Naturalism, Symbolism and then Realism in the 19th century.
These shifts caused audiences to begin to be less attracted to the fantasy and foppery of before and they desired a truer representation of the world around them. For those working within theatre, the changes had an impact on all parts of the process. Writers, directors, actors, and other creatives involved in productions all began to re-evaluate the impact of their work, out of which, displays of real people in their natural environments become more prevalent.
In the midst of all this Stanislavski, an amateur actor in Russia began creating a new acting system or “Method”. And although he was by no means the only person or institution working on new, more modern, ideas within theatre, his concepts were the direct predecessor of the idea I’m considering in this blog. Because with the emergence of Stanislavski and his peers, we began to see deeper and more nuanced ideas evolving around acting and directing. The main components of which fall under his ideas around Given Circumstance, Objectives, and Goals (or Super Objectives). It is the combination of these that form the foundation of British director Max Stafford Clark's concept of Actioning from the 1970’s.
Right, so that's the very basic back story from someone who isn’t in any way an art historian. But hopefully, you get the general idea of how this concept was born. I also hope that by running through that history you get a feel for the necessity in modern theatre for there to be tools that help us get deeper under the skin of our characters, ensuring we make them relevant to our audiences and their lives.
Ok, so let's explore the idea itself in a little more detail. I’d like to begin by attempting to offer up a definition of some of the terminology, as I appreciate some of you may never have heard about it.
First off, let’s tackle the key grammatical language or parts of speech that we’ll need to interact with when getting to grips with the process.
In order to do that lets note down what it is that we’re planning to achieve by using this tool.
“Actioning is the use of transitive verbs to succinctly describe what your character is actually doing to another character”.
And it's the doing that’s important. It needs to be a transitive verb that helps your character achieve their objective.
So what is a transitive verb? Well, a transitive verb is a word that is used with an object (a noun, phrase, or pronoun) that refers to the person or thing that is affected by the action of the verb. So the transitive verb (the action that is tied to you and your character) has to describe a thought/intention directed at the other character involved in the interaction.
Always present tense, active, and transitional - from you to the person you are speaking to with.
You can identify a transitive verb by placing the word between I and You and see if you have a sentence that makes sense.
I disturb you
I ignore you
If you have to use any other words in the sentence to make it work, then your original word is not transitive.
I laugh at you
I offer a part to you
The basic premise of Actioning is to help with a deeper dissection of a script. And in doing so, create accurate and consequential communication. Accurate and consequential communication between the actors on the stage and between the actors and the audience.
What does accurate and consequential communication mean and why does it matter? Often actors fall into the trap of conjuring up a singular vocal pattern throughout a play and jumping from one big emotional outpouring to the next. Even if you are just using Actioning as a rehearsal technique, it forces you to be more specific and give each thought or line a new intention. By pinpointing an emotional response and an outcome as you head into each line your interactions become much more salient and relevant in the moment.
It gives you a window into nuance that you may have missed. These actions will also draw out varied and ever-changing tonal qualities in your acting style. At first glance we may believe we’ll easily be able to respond to each new stimulus as and when it’s presented in the text. But the truth is we quickly fall back on the larger more tangible emotional responses/themes of a scene and miss the rise and fall of a natural interaction. And even when we find or feel the rhythm our characters are experiencing, the benefit of Actioning still shines through when making the world of your play consistent and joined up. That is to say, it acts as the bridge between a surface-level rendering of a character and a deeper interrogation of the text and characters on stage.
For you, as an actor or director, it will hopefully also provide a tool to construct a vibrant character when factors relating to their environment and personal traits are beyond your influence. It will allow you to map out, objectively, their specific intentions moment to moment, while also revealing their emotional journey in a more natural way.
It should also help shape your character's emotional responses by predetermining your initial approach to a thought, anchoring you to the text while also giving you the freedom to shape your action and reaction to the interactions you’re having. After that each character should adapt and develop as you get new information from your fellow actors, the director, and the text.
No concept or tool is without its potential flaws and detractors. Actioning is no different and there are a number of potential shortfalls that I’ll look to address below.
Having read around the subject in a fairly comprehensive manner, the first issue always seems to be that the process is time consuming and requires a fair amount of effort to put into practice.
This I can’t disagree with. But I also know that none of us believes that we can just learn the lines and jump straight into a performance of a show. The truth is, when we don’t do the work, the work is general, it sits on the surface of something deeper and the audience can feel it.
There is all sorts of work to be done when creating a show. Throughout the process all departments need to be working through their own methods and rituals in order to bring their best work to the table. What I’m proposing is that Actioning becomes one of your rituals. That it slots in with your character development work and helps create the framework which you plan to play on. You may not knowingly be putting a framework in place (which in and of itself is something you should look into) but one is certainly being constructed. It’s when you test that framework you’ll either excel or come up short and all too often in amateur theatre you’ll see vague and disconnected acting that's not anchored to the text because actioning hasn’t formed part of the construction process.
Another problem that comes up is that actors feel Actioning restricts their active responses or more specifically their characters natural reactions to stimuli. The question posed is normally something along the lines of how, when all the actors are using Actioning, can any of them offer a truthful response to what's happening right in front of them if the RE-action has been decided in advance.
While this is, in essence, true, the skill of an actor comes in the improvising of interactions and this doesn't change just because you’ve actioned your script. You will always know what's coming next as you will have the script as reference. You will be (or might have already) learning your lines in the early stages of rehearsals. Given that you have every interaction and the characters response well in advance of the moment it unfolds live, means you can’t help but be formulating ideas around how your character will react. Actioning gives you the freedom to do this while also offering structure. It allows you to let go of something, into the hands of a reliable process, which will free you up to expend your valuable energy somewhere else. By its very nature it’s only labelling your own natural instincts and is always subject to change. If in the moment you want to follow an impulse, always defer to that impulse. The job of the actor and director is to breathe new life into the words of a past event and make them live for a new audience every night.
So I hope Actioning fuels your imagination rather than constraining it to predetermined outcomes. It should aid your instincts and should never be implemented in isolation. Objectives, character arcs, goals, circumstances, the actors/characters “voice”, are all important as additional sources of information.
Methodology/structured approach to actioning…
At the heart of this concept is the very practical act of annotating the lines of a script with relevant transitive verbs. The placing of an action against every interaction. For every line, in every scene, throughout the whole play.
In order to do this effectively you need to study the text and your character within it. There’s no doubt going to be work you’re already doing to uncover the deep dark depths of your character and I’ve developed my own personal method (the Character V.O.I.C.E and Character Questionnaires) to do this. You’ll have your own and that's great. Just be sure that you are trying to understand what your character wants. Work out their objectives. Discover their morals, their fundamental beliefs and have found the truth of their endeavours. Once you feel you’ve really got under their skin and are seeing things through their eyes you should now begin to work on the text itself.
First things first, break up the text into thoughts. You can use full stops as a good guideline, but sometimes thoughts last over a few sentences. Follow your instincts. Just remember we’re looking for moments in the text, or units of the text, that you can identify as individual emotions and intentions.
Keep them personal and specific. It has to be clear and make sense to you. Consider what exactly your character wants from the other actor in front of them? And what is it they are actually doing to get it? You must know what you want before you’ll understand the action you’ll take to get it.
Now find the overriding objective of each unit of text (usually easily made reference to with a simple noun), then define the action you plan to undertake to achieve this objective (the transitive verb). You’ll need to have a list of transitive verbs to call on otherwise you will just keep returning to the same old verbs and you’ll get frustrated quickly. Think hard about what you’re saying, and why you’re saying it. A good question to ask yourself is, “what do I want”, followed by “how am I fighting to get what you want”. Be creative and take your time to work out which transitive verbs excite you most as an actor, all the while making sure you use words that you understand and can interpret.
Once in rehearsals try to play every line with the action specified. Get it up on its feet. If it’s feeling forced or not working, pick up your script and try a new action. Really aim to be specific and to play the nuance of the action you’ve chosen. Always remember to try one action at a time. That way you can assess whether a particular word works better than another. If you like, say the transitive verb out loud before reading each line. My bet is you’ll be very surprised how different your acting choices are when you jump between words you thought were similar.
Finally, (and this is a general rule for any tool you’re using) be instinctive, be flexible and be open to improvising. The overall aim of implementing Actioning is to offer new clarity to the construction of the scenes. To layer more nuance onto the work you have done to create your characters, not to add confusion.