Actioning In Acting

During our recent Acting Initiative sessions we looked at actioning in acting. One of the first things we discovered was that the term actioning is hard to pin down, as different practitioners mean different things when they use it.

After much discussion on the merits of a few interpretations we came upon some common ground and got on our feet to work on a section from Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come!

At it’s simplest, actioning is best described, in this article about Max Stafford-Clark, as “breaking up the text into sections, the actor has to find a transitive verb to accompany each individual action.”

Stafford-Clark is one of the modern director’s most associated with the use of actioning, and he is referenced again in A Student’s Guide to AS Drama and Theatre Studies by Robert Lowe and Philip Rush.

Here, the authors reference Stafford-Clark’s book Letters To George, in which he outlines a rehearsal technique based on actioning the text.

Firstly, he starts his rehearsals with a script, with the actors sitting around a table (remember that he’s already asked them to undertake key research activities to inform their understanding of the play and their roles within it). The focus is on the text and breaking it down to understand what is behind what the characters say.

In our group not everyone had read Philadelphia so it limited what we could achieve in our experiment with actioning, but also tested the usefulness of the process. I was given the task of actioning Madge, as she was the most guarded character in the scene and it was felt a knowledge of the play would be required. I had read the play previously and I do not think it would have been possible to action Madge’s lines correctly without having read it. Other actors in our group, however, did manage to get the true intentions of their characters without reading the play. This in itself was an interesting discovery about actioning.

I am a firm believer that attempting to action a scene before you have read and studied the full play, while not useless, only leads to you having to action the scene all over again at a later date. What our work did show though, is that actioning the scene, to the best of your abilities, at whatever stage, creates a performance that is interesting to watch.

So, how do you action a scene? In his essay Interior Action – Acting on Impulse, Andrew Garrison sets it up nicely;

Actions makes use of physically active verbs on a beat-by-beat basis to chart the interaction between characters. If you’ve ever felt like bad news felt like “a punch in the stomach” or an insult was a “slap in the face,” – or you’ve ever felt the warm caress of a sincere compliment or let a joke “tickle” you, you’ve had experience with Interior Action. Even without physical contact, the impact of the intention sent and received, is powerful and tangible.

What Garrison refers to as physically active verbs are commonly referred to as transitive verbs. This article said it best;

…it helps to think of a transitive verb action as something which can be done to somebody and one way to analyse whether a verb is transitive is to ask yourself “Could I be made to feel that?”[emboldening by Eoin]– so, for example, one can be made to feel threatened, inspired, devastated etc [1]– and this observation helps explain why TC thinks actioning is a useful acting tool: basically speaking, human beings can be thought of as continuously attempting to affect the state of other human beings on a more or less continuous basis, whether we consciously process this or not.

In my own experiences of actioning the emphasis placed on the other character(s) produces more giving performances, where the actors are listening to each other more attentively.

The above article goes on to say “a useful transitive verb does not have to be literal – verbs like “shatter”. “pin”and “illuminate” are useful precisely because they operate on a metaphorical level and can serve as a springboard for the imagination.”

I do not necessarily agree with that. I started out that way in my actioning of Philadelphia, but when I forced myself to take the time required to find the right word that fit with both the “Could I be made to feel that?” rule and the notion of doing something to the other character, I found a much clearer understanding of Madge’s intentions. I always tried to place the verb in a sentence I {transitive verb} you.

List of Transitive Verbs

List of Transitive Verbs

One of the actors brought in a good list of verbs, that together with a thesaurus was all I needed. Click on the image to drag and drop a larger version onto your desktop.

After testing out the benefits of actioning on our section of Philadelphia there was some debate about the need to action every beat of every play. A lot of people felt that it was not necessary as you would understand what was going on for the majority of the script. I find it hard to argue with them, but in doing the actioning of Philadelphia I made an interesting discovery.

Having read the play before I thought I knew what Madge’s intention were, and for the most part I did. However, when I actioned her lines I found that I developed a much clearer understanding than I had without actioning. While the actioning would not change the intention it would certainly make it easier to play.

Following on from this work I cannot argue with someone who says every line of every play should be actioned either!

Like most things in acting it comes down to individual choice. Just like the perfect transitive verb for me is not the perfect one for the next actor, the benefits of actioning will vary from actor to actor. I would recommend erring on the side of caution though. It is a lot of work to action an entire play. Don’t let that put you off. Try it and see if you reap enough benefits to warrant making it your normal practice as an actor.

*After writing this post I came across a book called Actions: The Actors Thesaurus which looks like it would be useful to anyone exploring actioning.


“As actors…if we´re not accessing and allowing our own instinctive and unique behavior to come to the surface unhindered, un-judged and uncensored, we run the risk of stifling the very source of our own creativity.” Andy Garrison


17 Responses to “Actioning In Acting”

  1. I want three forms of the verbs but you didnot give that in image

    • eoinohannrachain Says:

      Why do you want three forms of the verbs?

      I put up a list I was given to help people as I noticed there was very little out there about actioning. I’ve given all I have to give at this point I’m afraid.

    • eoinohannrachain Says:

      Glad you found it useful Haribabu.

  2. thanks for list of verb / its very useful

  3. Some useful insight on how to explain this simply.

  4. (h)

  5. Annette Flynn Says:

    Good insightful article on actioning Eoin. Actually came across this as I was doing a google search on actioning verbs as my friend has my book on it (the book you mentioned in the blog) and I need to action some lines at the moment. Didn’t realise this was by you until I came to the comment section. Well done and thanks again for the good read. It’s always good to revise what actioning is as the concept can be a bit hard to grasp or define. Cheers, Annette

    • eoinohannrachain Says:

      Hi Annette, your comment got lost in my junk section for some reason. Found it today cleaning up my email account. Thanks for the comment. I enjoyed writing this piece. Glad you found it useful. Must find the time to write up a few more posts soon.

  6. Michael Ryan Says:

    Hi Eoin,
    I learnt this method over the summer and am applying it to a one act piece I am co-directing at the moment. Two years down the line do you still use actioning?
    Michael Ryan

    • eoinohannrachain Says:

      Hi Michael, I still use Actioning all the time. How did you get on with it?

      • Michael Ryan Says:

        Hi Eoin,
        Yes I found it extremely useful. The majority of the actors found it very beneficial. Others found it overly tedious and did not buy into it. As a Director it forced me to deeply mine the text. As well as actioning we also set objectives in each unit for each character, set super-objectives and agreed on the major themes of the play. This gave us a common blueprint which kept us focused and influenced decisions we made along the way.
        I am currently performing in a Tom Murphy play and I used the method extensively as an actor. The other actors and Director did not apply this methodology but I still found it a very useful exercise to do on my own. I found myself revisiting the actions, tweaking and honing them as we went through the various stages of the rehearsal process. The process also made line learning easier. I also bought that book and found it very useful. Thanks again.

      • eoinohannrachain Says:

        It’s not for everybody alright but I have always found it brought more insight into the text.

  7. […] for the moments when the text seems out of reach. Here are two blogs I have found that weigh up the positives and […]

  8. A comprehensive study of actioning is the subject of Mike Alfred’s (of Shared Experience) book DIFFERENT EVERY NIGHT.

  9. Actioning is one of those things you either love or hate. Some people take to it and swear by it while others think it’s too tedious. A great introductry article on actioning can be found here:

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