Using Verbs to Color Your Acting

One of the techniques I use in my Intro to Theatre Arts class is one that I’ve drawn from several different sources. It’s the idea of using an action verb to help describe what a person is supposed to do in a scene.

First, I will tell the actors to think of an action verb that epitomizes a character’s action in a particular scene. Invariably, the first word which comes out of the actor’s mouth is not a verb. It’s usually an adjective. “Happy” they will say. I’ll reply that it isn’t an action verb.

Adjectives usually come first because people usually think descriptively, not actively. They will say angry, sad, upset, etc… and while those words might adequately describe the tone of the scene they do not guide the actor in what they should DO. And acting is DOING.  Act, action, actor.  I think we see the A-C-T connection.

Usually my young actors will say, “Oh yeah, that’s not a verb.” Then I force them to choose a verb.

Next step, go to a thesaurus and look at all the synonyms for that word. Is there one that is more precious, that better colors the scene or the action that one wants to accomplish?

Lastly, try it out. Do the scene with that action verb in your mind. If the word was “deflect,” they have to add the actions, expressions (verbally and non-verbally) which represent “deflect.”  This forces them to chose a direction. They may find that they’ve found the perfect verb, or they may find they need to go back to the thesaurus and try something else.

This is a great little technique to give the actors some direction and make them think through their actions in a more precise and detailed manner.

Give it a try and let me know if it works.

The Sasse Food Challenge: How to Motivate Actors

It’s become somewhat of a ritual for me over the past few years: The Sasse Food Challenge.

It’s a way to, hopefully, motivate my actors to memorize their lines by the date I want them memorized.

On the day of the challenge, if they ALL know their lines, approximately 95% or so, then I will invite them to my house to cook for them. I’ll cook something special like my gourmet pizzas (stuffed crust with toasted garlic and homemade spicy sausage, for example) or Mexican (homemade Enchiladas with my own salsa and pickled peppers.)

Usually food speaks greatly to them. In my many years of offering the challenge, my group only missed the challenge twice. It doesn’t get them off the hook – they still need to memorize their lines, but it does take away a great and fun time of bonding with the cast.

Monday is our challenge this week. They had previously did very well in memorizing Act I, but tomorrow is Act II, and if they can nail it, they’ll have their food on April 10.

We’ll also play some drama games and enjoy some good dessert. I hope they make it. Not because they’ll know their lines on time, but because I like to cook for them. It’s enjoyable,  and I always look forward to it.

So that’s how I motivate my actors. What do you do?

Take a Few Days Off to Settle Your Brain (or not)

I have absolutely no scientific data to back up the following claim. But for me, it seems to work this way. Sometimes, when you take a little time away from something, it (whatever it is) seems to gel better in one’s brain.

My tangible example is when I lived in Vietnam, and I spent month after month trying to learn Vietnamese. Then I would leave for the states for a couple months in the summer, wondering if I would end up forgetting what I just spent a whole year learning. What I found was just the opposite. I returned from 2 months of not thinking about Vietnamese at all to suddenly feeling like I knew it better than when I left. It seems illogical.

I chalk it up to perception. The time allowed my brain to settle what I had already learned, so when I re-arrived in the country, I felt happy that I didn’t forget everything. It seemed easy to jump back into it. I always felt encouraged and ready to go, happy to start my learning again, refreshed to take it to the next level.

I was reminded of these feelings recently as I decided to give my drama team 5 days off even as our big show approaches. We had complete run-throughs this past Monday and Tuesday, and then we took a break for the long Thanksgiving weekend, as our next scheduled practice is a double one on Monday.

Before we left after our Tuesday rehearsal, I told them this: there are two kinds of actors (I was really just making this up even though I think it’s true) 1. the kind where a few days away from the memorized lines will actually help settle everything  on the brain. If that’s you, go and enjoy your break and be ready to work on Monday. 2. The other kind is the actor who continually needs to remind himself or herself of the lines. Even a couple days away from practice will make you forget some. If that’s you, keep working the lines daily and be ready for  Monday, I said.

I guess I will know on Monday what kind of actors I have and whether the break will hurt or help them. Either way, we have a show in a week. Let’s hope they are like me when I was in Vietnam.

The Biggest Mistake of Young Actors

The biggest (or one of the biggest) mistakes of young actors is not spending nearly enough time inside the script.

I’ve directed a lot of young actors over the past eight years, and it never ceases to happen that as a show nears performance, I hear one actor say, “Oh, so that’s what that means!” They finally realize that they’ve been saying memorized lines which actually mean nothing to them. This is a grave mistake.

Acting coach Howard Fine says that an actor shouldn’t ever say a line without first having a reason from inside of them to say the line. If they are saying lines without purpose, it’s either because they haven’t explored the depth of meaning in the script or they haven’t personalized the script with their own experiences and skills that the actor brings with them.

So here are a few steps young actors can take to overcome these mistakes and create a well-rounded, meaningful character:

1) Read the script. Again. And Again. Before you do anything else, read it repeatedly. I love how Howard Fine says “Before you work on the script, let the script work on you.” That’s an excellent way to put it. Let the words sink in. Try to understand the setting and context. Let the character define him or herself to you before starting to memorize lines.

2) Stop thinking acting is all about memorizing lines. Anyone can memorize lines, but not many can act well. Ask yourself why this character has these lines before you start to say them.

3) Don’t be afraid to ask for help and clarification. Many people think they sound stupid when asking for clarification of a word or historical reference. No actor can understand everything immediately, but you should immediately know if you understand something or not. And if you don’t, ask? Ask a fellow actor? Ask your director?

4) Remember that the writer’s words were chosen for a purpose. Don’t change them! I had a situation where someone was performing one of the skits that I had written. After they finished, I said that I didn’t remember the ending being that way. He replied, “Well, the ending just wasn’t working for me, so I changed that part.” Shoot me with an arrow, quick! You, as an actor, HAVE to make the ending work. This shows me that the actor did not do his proper homework and didn’t understand the implications in the script. This is a wonderfully easy way to complete deflate a production.

If you put the proper time into the script, your acting will be rewarded. Your character will be more believable because you, yourself, believe in the actions you are doing on stage. And when you understand your actions and believe in them, the audience will believe in you too.

That’s our goal.

Casting: The Worst Job in Theatre

I direct plays at the high school level. Why I haven’t “hired” someone to do my casting for me I’ll never know. In this type of setting, there’s nothing worse.

Pitting my own regular actor against my own regular actor. When we do large second semester productions, it’s like putting family member against family member when my tight-knit drama group, The RLT Players, audition against each other.

It’s excruciating.

I just came back from a call-back where I had to choose between two young, talented actors – one being my daughter. (I know, I know. I should have recused myself. But as director, I do want to have a say.) Oh well, I’ll take the blame no matter what happens. That’s the nature of a casting director.

I can’t imagine a person wanting a job where their main goal is crush people’s dreams. Granted, you get a lot of thank you’s along the way, but you turn down far more than are ever accepted.

You know what I do? I tend to think everyone needs to have a role, so I do my best to get as many people as possible involved. The musical we are doing this coming year, “A Tad of Trouble,” has 12 characters. Well, I’ve added four understudies, then I’m adding an angel chorus of 10 or so and then through some dancers in the mix and we are going to be hitting about 30 people or so – a record for one of my productions.

But no matter how many people I make happy, there are some who will never be satisfied.

That’s a good thing. An actor should never be content with a role until they get the role they want. Use that angst and dissatisfaction to fuel the future. Hurl those insults at the casting director (I can take it, even though I’m a nice person and don’t like it).

Now can I put all this behind me and produce a new show.

Let the fun begin, because there was nothing fun about casting.

The Necessity of Bad Rehearsals

There is no such thing as a bad rehearsal if progress was made.

My drama group had a three hour practice this morning, gearing up for our show less than three weeks away. Unfortunately, due to a variety of circumstances, we worked on our last two pieces for the FIRST time today. Not ideal at all!

For the first two hours we sloshed through my musical “A Woman at War”, first working on the singing (yes, some people didn’t know the lines or melodies yet), and choreography. (Yes,it was extremely sloppy.) But at the end of the second hour, we actually made it through the entire 10 minute musical without stopping. It was pretty much a disaster.

Hour three was spent on a little piece called “What was it like?” that keeps asking questions about the past. Here’s an excerpt:

What was it like to be asked to go to the back of the bus because of the color of your skin? 

What was it like to have the Star of David embroidered on your sleeve? 

What was it like to see the paratroopers come – to watch them drift from the sky just so a girl who was different could go to school? 

What was it like? I wasn’t there. I didn’t experience it. But it was real. And it shaped our world.

A different person is speaking each of the lines while someone else is acting it out. Over top of it is a beautiful original piece of music written by Hui Min Tang which is wonderfully evocative, and really brings out meaning in the words and actions. While all of this is going on, two dancers will be doing an interpretive dance as well. It’s our final piece and should be quite meaningful if we can put it together.

Today it was horrible.

But by the end of the second hour, we made it through the three and a half minute piece, and while it was still cringe-worthy, we made it through the three and a half minute piece.

So the bottom line is this:

  • You have to start somewhere.
  • Messy comes before perfection.
  • Keep your eyes on the goal, not on the failure in front of you.
  • Learn and move forward.

Bad rehearsal always lead somewhere. And that place is a great performance.


How to respond when an actor asks, “What should I do?”

I get to teach and work with young actors. Some have experience. Others do not.

It’s incredibly fun seeing someone take the stage for the first time and try to find their way, try to understand their character, try to understand the relationships between the other characters, and try to, ultimately, figure out what they are supposed to accomplish in the scene.

One question that I am frequently asked as a director is “what should I be doing in this scene?” This almost always happens when an actor doesn’t have any lines for a while but is supposed to stay on the stage. This is a frightening dilemma for the inexperienced actor. They always wonder if they should just go off-stage at this point and come back in later. I had one actor ask me once, “should I just sit down and read a magazine?”

But the answer to the question “What should I do?” is quite simple. The answer is another question. Here it is: “What is your scene objective?”

In essence, why did the playwright put you in this scene? What are you supposed to be accomplishing? And, this is crucial, why didn’t the playwright have you exit IF you don’t have any lines for a while. Was this just an oversight? Not likely. The playwright wants that character to continue to try to accomplish his/her objective on-stage EVEN IF he/she doesn’t have any lines. So therefore, it’s easy to know what to do. The actor has to do actions, movements, and facial expressions which push them closer to accomplishing their scene objective.

Example, if an actor is playing a father who disapproves of the young man his daughter is sitting with, what would the actor do to show that disapproval even if he doesn’t have any lines for a while? He wouldn’t just sit down and become detached from the scene by reading a magazine (unless he sat right in the middle between his daughter and her beau.) Perhaps he would pace nervously, perhaps he would keep looking back at the young man, perhaps he would hover over them, or cringe when she slides in closer. There are many possible actions here depending on the dialogue and situation.

So what I try to do with my young actors is to have them identify why they are in the scene. Have them think of actions which help fulfill their objective and keep them connected with the flow of the story. If they can do this, they will learn to live “moment to moment” on stage, and they will get much better with having spontaneous and authentic actions. In essence, they will be better actors.