Plotting Actions for Objectives | How to Use Actions in Your Acting Process
Actor plotting actions on a map

Plotting Actions for Objectives

Written by on | Acting Methodologies

Actions, like objectives, intentions and motivations, are the kind of dramatic concepts we can so easily step over and forget to utilise. Some actors tie them to drama school exercises—the kind of thing you grow out of focusing on as your skills and instincts develop. Others regard them as so evident in a given text it’s not worth the time writing them down: “What do I want? It’s obvious!” “How will I get it … isn’t that clear?” 

At any stage of your career—at any skill level and in any context—the process of plotting and playing actions is invaluable to your performance. They will help you maintain a forward momentum in scenes, and bring your character’s personality to the surface as they work towards their objective believably and with gusto. As you are ultimately working towards affecting your scene partner, actions get you out of your head-space and bring your focus onto the other player. A scene becomes about making the other person feel or do something, and therefore takes the pressure off you to ‘perform’.

What Is an Action?

In short, an action is what you plan and play to help you achieve your character’s objective. If an objective is what your character wants in a scene, the action is how they get it. Actions are active: they are verbs that imply ‘moving’ and ‘doing’—getting things done. And as good objectives always involve the other person in a scene, playing strong actions will help you to enact significant change upon them that result in believable moments of conflict and drama. Consider the following scenario: 

Cynthia wants to borrow $10 from her friend Kyle who, in turn, wants Cynthia to pay back the money she owes from the previous week.

If the actor playing Cynthia’s objective is to borrow $10 from Kyle, her action is how best she plans to achieve this in the scene. Maybe she wants to beg Kyle for the money? Threaten him into lending more? Maybe she’ll flirt with him? Reason with him? Guilt him? If the first line is the following, think about if any of these actions might be effective:

CYNTHIA: We’re old friends. I hope you don’t mind me leaning on you like this … but can I borrow ten dollars?

Arguably, any of the above options would fit this opening line. They’d each play into very different versions of the scene—and may be more or less compatible with these characters’ personalities and their prior relationship—but any of them would be interesting departure points for how this exchange might be performed. Try them out yourself: see how each one feels and what you think the rest of the scene might be like as a result.

Of course: if you weren’t to plot an action for this scene, you still might get through it using the context of what’s being said—just as if you weren’t to establish your character’s objective. But the scene will lack focus. Without doing the necessary planning and homework, you risk missing what might make an otherwise simple exchange a moment of genuine drama: a chance to give insight into the character you play. At best, you’ll look unfocused. At worst, you’ll be boring. And no moment on-stage or on-camera can ever survive that.

Script Work

When plotting actions, your first step is always to determine what your character wants overall: think about this in the context of the entire script (the ‘spine’ of your character’s story) and then within the particular scene you are working on. Remember that your objective should always be tied to the other person in the scene: how can you best affect them? (For more information on this topic, look at our article How To Find Your Character’s Objective.)

Objective work (and subsequently the plotting of actions) can only come about from intense textual analysis; sit down with your script and read it thoroughly. Write down your given circumstances, work out what is happening in each scene and what the author is trying to convey. Once you determine your objective, everything your character does and says should be seen as something you can apply an action to: nothing in a script is left to chance, and therefore everything is fair game when it comes to charging it with meaning.

Exploring Your Character

In a similar vein: start to document your understandings and observations about your own character in the story. Look for given circumstances as provided by the author, and record as many things as you can that can be reinforced directly by something in the script. The more you can write down about your character, the better your understanding of how they navigate conflict: this will help you plot believable actions and aid them in getting what they want in any given scene. Based on our earlier example, the foundations of a character study of Cynthia might be the following:

CYNTHIA
wants to borrow $10 from Kyle|
owes money to Kyle from an earlier time
Kyle is an old friend

As your understanding of the character grows, you may be able to extrapolate more complex observations about the character. You may even begin to record ideas that are more conjecture than based on firm fact. While this can be fruitful in building a more interesting character, make sure not to base too much of your characterisation here: you don’t want to stray too far from interpretations of the text your fellow actors may not share.

They feel close enough to Kyle to ask a favour (at least twice)
“Old friends”: Is there some deeper connection here based on a shared history?

Another helpful part of this process can be working out the relationships and attitudes between characters. This is where you can start to fold in your own interpretations: make yourself a quick reference guide to help you understand how your character might interact with another.

Relationship: CYNTHIA – (friend) – KYLE

Attitudes:
relies on him
already indebted to him
attracted to him?
annoyed by his attitude?
clashes with his personality?

Plotting the Scene

Once you have completed your analysis of the characters and text, the next step is to plot your action/s for the scene itself. This is where all of your hard work will pay off: plot an action that is true to your character and how they might go about achieving their present goal (objective), and one that will affect the other person in the scene the most. Use what you have learned in your study so that your plan of attack is considered and effective.

Some actors argue that if one wishes to be effective in a scene, then only the biggest, most dramatic actions will do: why spend time flirting with somebody when yelling at them is the most direct, strong action you could play? The truth is that while yelling is the “biggest” thing you might be able to do, it’s not necessarily the most effective. Each character, each scene, each moment in a script is different. They will require different approaches. Think about sitting in a restaurant and having the wrong meal put in front of you: would you go straight to yelling to correct this error? Or would reasoning be the more effective tactic in getting what you ordered? 

Should I Plot More Than One Action?

The answer to this question is largely determined by the scene you are performing. Generally, one strong action will carry you through a scene: your objective, after all, should remain unchanged. However, if your character achieves their objective early and there is a shift in what their goal might be—a secondary action may be required to carry them through to a new end point.

Sometimes, a character might ‘tack’ through a scene using multiple actions—we sometimes refer to these as ‘bit actions’ in reference to Stanislavsky’s method of breaking down a script into ‘bits’ (or ‘beats’). If a character’s approach to intimidate somebody fails, they may modify their approach to plead instead. Alternatively, they may find a series of actions actually help them build to achieving their objective To return to the above example:

CYNTHIA: We’re old friends. I hope you don’t mind me leaning on you like this … but can I borrow ten dollars?

The actor portraying Cynthia might play the action “to endear with the first sentence of this line to draw Kyle in with their past relationship. Then, having done this, they may follow up their approach with the action “to guilt” in order to play on his sympathies.

Playing multiple actions can be helpful—especially when performing a monologue that requires one performer to create dramatic tension without a scene partner standing in the way of their objective. However, any action you play (and any subsequent action throughout a scene) must be relatable to the character and the text, and believably play towards achieving the objective.

Playing With Others

If you have the opportunity to do any of this work with your scene partner, you should jump at the chance to do so! It can be extremely valuable to embark on this kind of interrogation with the person who will most be affected by it; whenever possible, spend some time with your fellow actor/s looking over the text and plotting out the actions and objectives you’ll be utilising.

If this is not the case—if you’re, say, doing a guest spot on a soap where none of the actors bother doing this process (or any process) anymore—it is still worth using to properly prepare yourself for a scene; prove to your colleagues that your choices are considered and grounded in a working process. In fact, plotting actions ensure that you have plenty to offer even a lacklustre scene partner: as your focus is on affecting them, it can often be a great way of waking them up and giving you more to play against.

Conclusion

Plotting actions is a lot of work. It requires analysis and concentration; at times, a little trial-and-error as you work out which course is most effective. However, the result is always a more believable performance—one filled with energy and direction, as your character guns straight for their utmost desires. Think, again, on the concept of actions as the how: even more than an objective, how your character sets out to achieve a goal speaks to who they are and where they sit in the world of the story you’re telling. Knowing the how is the way you truly inhabit a character. It’s what good acting is all about.

If you’re interested in a thesaurus of actions for actors, we love: The Actor’s Thesaurus by Marina Caldarone 

    About the Author

    Alexander Lee-Rekers

    Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

    About the Author

    Alexander Lee-Rekers

    Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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