The public parts of my notebook.
Because most actors and actresses are trained in some variant of the Stanislavsky System , they have a way of understanding fictional characters that’s not well known to the general public. This is too bad, because it’s a really fun way to think about fiction, one that’s useful to writers and critics as well as actors (and directors), and even if you’re “just” an audience member or reader, it’s still enlightening. I wish it was taught in Literature and Film Studies classes.
In each scene (or in each meaningful part of a scene), a character has a goal, sometimes called his “action.” Actors generally express actions as infinitive verbs, centered on another character, as in “My action is To Seduce her” or “My action is To Convince him to sell the estate.” Though (depending on what happens in the script), a character might not achieve his goal, it must at least be achievable in theory. In other words, the actor has to know what would count as achieving it, so that when he’s acting, he’s striving for something tangible.
Stanislavsky-style acting focuses on active goals (actions) rather than emotions. So if an actor is trying to be sad, his director is likely to ask him to stop doing that and, instead, try to achieve a particular, specific goal.
In light of that, some might say To Seduce is a bad action, because it’s too general. When do you know for sure if you’ve seduced someone? Do they actually have to have sex with you? Do they have to fall in love with you? As a director, I ask actors a lot of questions about their actions, especially when a scene is not going well.
Me: What are you trying to achieve?
Actor: I’m trying To Seduce her?
Me: How will you know if you’ve succeeded?
Actor: …. um … Well, if she smiled at me or something…
Me: That doesn’t seem specific enough. That could equally be the result of the action To Entertain her. I think if we come up with something more specific for you, you’ll have an easier time committing to the scene.
Actor: Okay. I’m trying to get her to touch me.
Me: Just to touch you?
Actor: To kiss me!
Me: Great, so if she kisses you, you win the scene. If she doesn’t kiss you, you lose. Everything you do in this scene is an attempt to get her to kiss you.
And all the things the actor does are tactics employed to achieve his goal. For instance, if his first line is “You sure look pretty, today!” he might think of that as a tactic of flattery, used to achieve his goal of getting a kiss. Tactics can be played using lines (and every line must be some sort of tactic) or physical actions. For instance, when he moves closer to her, that might be a tactic of pursuit, meant to further his goal of getting a kiss.
A scene isn’t a scene without conflict, so presumably she doesn’t want to kiss him, or she does but is scared to. (If she does want to kiss him, has no fear of kissing him, and, in fact, does kiss him in the first minute of the scene, he needs to choose a different action. Your goal can’t be to obtain something you already have.)
So, in an attempt to play her action, which might be To Fight Him Off or something totally unrelated to his action, like To Get Him To Help Her Clean the Kitchen, she throws obstacles at him. Maybe he compliments her, but she shrugs it off (obstacle). He moves closer to her, but she backs away (obstacle). He has to constantly adjust his tactics in light of these obstacles.
He might also throw internal obstacles at himself. For instance, maybe she point-blank asks him, “Why did you come to see me?” Rather than saying, “For a kiss,” maybe he pauses and laughs. He’s thrown by his own shyness (internal obstacle).
An action is over when a character achieves his goal or totally loses it – or, sometimes, because a scene ends. (It might end before the conflict is resolved.) If a character is still “in play” after winning or losing, he’ll have a new action. It’s somewhat rare for a character to switch actions mid scene, but it happens. There’s a striking example (in fact, an amazing example!) in “Titus Andronicus.” See if you can find it. Hint: it happens to the title character.
You can go through a whole play and analyze it this way, giving each character scene goals based on textual evidence. Each time they do or say anything, you can think about what kind of tactic it is (or is it an internal obstacle playing out?). Drama tends to happen when two or more characters have actions that are at odds with one another.
It’s a great meeting of art and “science.” By which I mean there’s creative leeway (not one right answer), but actions, tactics and obstacles can’t just be anything. They must be rooted in the text.
I’ll note that characters aren’t always aware of their actions. From their level, actions might be subconscious. Also, the point isn’t to telegraph your actions to the audience. It’s not a guessing game. (Jack Nicholson once admitted that he was trying to seduce Nurse Ratched in parts of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” This was his secret. He didn’t even want the audience to know. But it made the scenes exciting for him, and the audience had the sense that something really interesting was going on, even if they couldn’t pinpoint it.)
If you enjoy analyzing scenes this way, you can do it with any form of fiction (that’s about characters). Not just plays and movies. And it’s a great way for writers to come up with character motivations. I once heard Ang Lee talk about staging a car chase as if each car was a character with opposing actions.