August is always a tricky month in the industry; whether you're drinking everyday in Edinburgh (for a living, as I was last year with Sh!t-faced Showtime) or waiting for all the casting directors to get back from holiday, it's one long summer.
It's been an opportunity to reflect on the year so far and what I've learnt. One technique that I used to find useful, but has seemed to lose its value over time, is Actioning. To summarise, it's about playing a direct verb over each thought or however you break up the text. Thus, the most bland of lines can become active. For example, if your line is the currently vague, "You're late", there's a whole gamut of inspiration to draw from. You could: acknowledge or welcome or charm or seduce or deify! You could also: acknowledge or ignore or reject or repel or extinguish! "You're late" suddenly becomes playable.
However, what seems to me is that this technique (and using objectives as a whole) is based on a number of unreal assumptions, that:
1) We are aware of what we want.
2) We are able to effectively create that action.
3) Others receive that action "accurately".
So many times in my life, I've been trying, perhaps, to educate, where what I've really wanted to do is impress, what I've actually done is to tire, and the target actually received it as being patronised.
Now, this can be useful if taken as a whole process to explore characters and their interactions over the course of the scene. It's particularly effective when you have a character who is very forceful, or "front-footed", in the scene and so drive the action forward, or is being performative and so is aware of their own "actioning" as a character.
All of this works based on the assumption that the individual is an all-knowing and effective actor of their own intentions. Yet drama works when actions fail, otherwise the scene would be over, objective achieved, job done. In addition, there's much to be gained from the gap between what a character thinks they're doing and what they "are" doing. So, too, verbs are vague - what do we mean by "educate" or "seduce"? We all have different ideas depending on our experience, context, and circumstances.
Where to go from here?
Re-Actioning flips the proposition, working from the opposite perspective (the passive of direct verbs) where you react in response to what you perceive what is being done to you. Thus, rather than being an active analyst who knows exactly what they want and yet fails again and again to to get it, you become a reactive animal who takes in what happens to them and responds spontaneously to it. This technique combines the process (and relative specificity) of actioning while allowing a Meisner-like approach once it's got going, encouraging spontaneous reactions, listening, and surprising routes through the scene.
Going back to that example of "You're late", let's add a couple more vague lines:
A) "You're late."
A) "That's alright."
Actioning the scene, and thus pre-deciding and not reacting spontaneously to each other, could go as follows:
A) You're late. (Educate)
B) Yes. (Apologise)
A) That's alright. (Accept)
Instead, you could re-action it:
1) I feel aggrieved by your lateness, so out comes, in a spontaneous fashion, "You're late." It comes across as rude and undeservedly strict, rather than what we might expect from the (assumption I might have about) the benign educate.
2) Person A didn't realise it, but Person B, who was feeling guilty and had planned to apologise, now has the opportunity to react in the moment depending on how they receive it. They feel upset or undermined or angered. I'm not concentrating on what I want to do to you, but rather react in the moment according to my re-action.
3) Depending on how Person B responded, I now have to react according to it. Person A could feel disrespected or ashamed or manipulated.
This is simply another tool for putting your attention on the other rather than working internally. The scene may play out in broadly the same way, but there's now risk and possibility rather than pre-destination. So too, in the exploration, surprises may come from mining the imaginative gap between what characters think they're doing and how that's received. As re-active animals, we concentrate less on we think we "want" and more on what (we perceive) is happening to us.
Sure, in an ideal world, we'd be able to communicate effectively with each other. But looking around, it seems less and less the case in real life: old certainties about the self, identity, individual autonomy, and our ability to change the world are in flux. Embracing these uncertainties as actor-characters in the moment is risky, but by stopping trying to affect the other so forcefully (and perhaps erroneously), we might listen, react, and in so doing, effect an actual change.