Using the Tools of an Actor

Using the Tools of an Actor

By Robin Catesby
Stage & Screen Moderator

©2001, Robin Catesby 

Ever read a novel that had you so engrossed that all outside life ceased while you turned the pages?  Chances are, compelling characters had a lot to do with it, and chances are, those characters were created by an author who was using (whether they were aware of it or not) the tools of an actor. 

When you create a character, what are the first things you ask yourself about that character?  What's his name?  Age? Occupation?  Marital status?  Favorite color?  Favorite food? I've seen character questionnaires 50 questions long filled with these sorts of queries.  The kind of questions you might see in a pre-teen pen-pal service.  They are helpful in filling in some details, but do they even remotely get to the core of that character's being? 

Let's take a look at how an actor creates a character –- from the inside out. 

When an actor is given a scene to play he will typically ask a particular set of questions to help him understand how to approach the text.  

Who am I?

Where am I coming from?

What do I want?

What's in the way of what I want?

What do I do to get what I want? 

Serious method actors might write lengthy character analyses covering just those first two questions.  The latter three should be answered in direct statements using active verbs.  This is key to understanding basic scene work.  Within every moment of every scene, each character should know what they want (their objective), what's in the way of what they want (their obstacle) and what they do to get what they want (their action).  The motivation -- the drive to achieve a goal -- is crucial.  Without motivation the scene falls flat.   

In Jeffrey Sweet's excellent book The Dramatist's Toolkit, he states that every scene within a good script should be a negotiation between characters.  A negotiation can only happen, however, if the goals of the characters clash.  Give all your characters the same goal and there's nothing to negotiate.   

A fiction writer should approach his material the same way.  Even the simple action of one character greeting another can include opposing goals.  

It's important to think in terms of goals rather than results.  There's a huge difference between the two.  Bad directors often direct scenes using "result" direction.  Instead of working with character motivations, they'll simply say "be happy" or "be afraid."  Acting is not about being, it's about doing.  An actor following such "result" direction will end up with a poorly developed, cliché-ridden performance.  On the other hand, when a director is a "process director" and gives the actors motivations (to intimidate, to seduce, etc…) the resulting performance will be more nuanced, more complete.    

For writers, think of this process as describing behavior vs. describing emotion.  A "result" writer might tell us "Janine was still nervous when she hung up the phone."  A "process" writer might say "Janine set the phone down, then shuffled her stack of recipe cards for a fourth time, and a fifth."  As with any acting performance, the specific behavior is far more interesting than the general emotion. 

Those specifics -- the physicality of the character's behavior -- will come out in rehearsal, organically, through exploration. 

As a writer, you can work this way too.  Put yourself in the shoes of your character and ask yourself that important question, "What do I want?"  Then act it out.  Get up if you need to.  Use props.  Borrow a friend.  Concentrate not on the result but on your character's goal.  Ask yourself, too, "What's in the way of what I want?" and "What do I do to get what I want?"   In acting it out, you might discover that getting what you want is harder than you expected.  Or easier.  If it's too easy, make it harder.  Raise the stakes, increase the obstacles.   If you can't think of any obstacles, chances are the scene isn't going to be all that interesting.  The obstacles need not be huge, but they should be present, and they should lead to negotiation. 

If you're a dramatic writer and you're still not convinced that giving actors an emotion to play is unnecessary, here's a little secret: You know those directions in parentheses that often show up before lines of dialogue?  The ones that say (dejectedly) or (with extreme anger)?  The ones Shakespeare never used?  Those are called parentheticals, and many actors and directors take a big black sharpie pen to their scripts at first rehearsal and cross them right out.  Actors don't want to be told how to deliver their lines, directors don't want to be told how to direct the lines, and writers must write so that they can trust their audience to figure the scene out solely from the dialogue and the action.   

In fiction, parentheticals and "result direction" are equivalent to an excess of adverbs.  If you find a spot in your prose where your character is doing too much emoting with too little in the way of actual described behavior, just think of Jon Lovitz' character Master Thespian, and remember that your reader would probably prefer to see someone with the skill of Jodie Foster or Kevin Spacey in the role.

Another useful take on this subject is the acting term "play the adjustment."  Say you've got a character who is lost in an exceptionally cold terrain.  How would you describe that setting and the character's reactions to the setting?  I remember a beginning acting class once where a student tried to "play cold" by standing in one spot and shivering uncontrollably.  A second student then stood, pulled his collar up around his face, attempted to warm his hands with his breath and stomped one foot on top of the other to keep his toes from freezing.  That is playing the adjustment -- looking for specific reactions to the circumstances, rather than thinking "I'm hungry" and then rubbing your tummy and licking your lips.   

Where do you find these adjustments?  How do you know what actions will ring true for your audience?  That's where another tool of the method actor comes into play: sense memory.   Sense memory involves the ability to conjure up an emotional moment from your past and use the specific sensations you felt at that point to recreate a similar emotional experience on stage.  If you are in a scene that requires great fear, remember a fearful moment from your past and delve into the details.  What was your breath doing?  Your heart?  Your throat? Your skin?  With each step of the remembering, work to recreate -- tighten your throat, shorten your breath.  The emotion will follow. 

Before anything is set in stone, you should allow some time to explore.  In theater, the best rehearsal processes are the ones with room to play -- room to improvise and discover nuances and unexpected moments of humor or tension.  This improvisational work can't happen if you've got a director who continually micromanages the process and stops the flow.  The same goes for writing.  You know what the scene is about, so turn off your editor and play.  Discard those parentheticals and concentrate on actions and adjustments. 

Here are two improvisational exercises to get the juices going. Try these with a friend and a tape recorder.    

1)     Decide on your goals and obstacles for the scene, then, on 3x5 cards, write out a list of tactics.  The tactics should be written as active verbs -- verbs that create movement in the scene: To seduce, to reject, to pressure, to needle, to destroy, and so on.  Write as many active verbs as you can think of, even if they don't seem relevant to your scene goals.  Now, shuffle the cards into two stacks and begin the scene, each of you playing the top tactic on your stack.  If that tactic fails to take you to your goal, try the next one, and the next and the next and so on.   Some tactics may be completely outrageous; some may seem out of character, but no worries.  The point of the improvisation is to explore all of the possibilities, no matter how strange.  You never know what wonders may evolve. 

2)     If you've got two actor friends handy, here's another one to try: Give each actor a goal for the scene but tell them the goal in private so the other actor doesn't hear it.  Now, ask the actors to play the scene, attempting to obtain their goals, but -- here's the trick -- they cannot overtly say what their goals are.  All motivation must be subtextual or expressed through action rather than words.   What this exercise does is help open up all of the different ways a character might go about getting what they want.  Rarely are those ways ever going to be overt.  Even more rarely is a character going to constantly announce their goal to their fellows in a scene. 

While these are excellent exercises for the dramatic writer, they are also quite useful for writer of novels and short stories.  Note that this whole process revolves around actions and active verbs.  No adverbs in sight.  If you've begun a fiction draft and are choosing the details to add to your dialogue, remember how an actor would approach it.  You are the actor.  These are your actions. 

 Any story, whether on the stage or on the page, is made up of a series of moments.  On stage, if each moment rings true and each moment builds off of and leads to the next, then the actors, using the tools I've described above, become lost in the "now" of the moment.  All life outside the reality of the play ceases to exist.  As a writer, it's your job to do the same for your audience, and, if you use the tools of an actor, that job might become just a bit easier.