Directing: Actor Verb List – The Subtext

February 15, 2023
3 mins read

Theatre practitioner Stanislavski maintained that only 10% of what’s going on in our heads is expressed through words; the remaining 90% lies bedded beneath the script. This is subtext, and in Stanislavski’s own words, “[subtext] flows uninterruptedly beneath the words of the text, giving them life and a basis for existing… It is the subtext that makes us say the words we do in a play”. Or, for our sake, a film.

What are Actor Verbs?

In the context of theater and film performance, an actor’s verbs refer to action words or verbs that describe the character’s actions, intentions, and motivations in a scene. These verbs help actors identify their characters’ emotional and physical actions in a particular moment, which helps them create a more nuanced and convincing performance.

For example, an actor might identify the actor’s verb “to plead” in a particular scene, indicating that their character is trying to convince someone of something, perhaps through begging or supplication. Other examples of actor’s verbs in this context might include “to intimidate,” “to cajole,” “to seduce,” or “to deceive.”

This approach can help actors convey emotional truth and realism that draws the audience into the story. By focusing on the actor’s verbs in a scene, actors can better understand their characters and motivations. They can create a more compelling and believable performance that engages the audience.

Here is a list of action (actor) verbs useful for helping the actor’s process of creating a subtext. Of course, this isn’t the definitive list of lists. A lot of verbs are missing from it. Verbs that are commonly mistaken for actor’s verbs are the ones that require several actions or are not pursuable without words, such as “to build,” which is an activity or result.

“To question as to whether an action verb is doable, you have to measure the ability of the actor to pursue the action readily without any dialogue.”  Stanislavski.

Actor Verb List

Does it immediately make one think of something one can pursue without speaking? If it does, it is an actor’s verb, and these words will immediately enable the actor to respond and (hopefully) give you the performance you need.

To accuse

To admire

To admonish

To adore

To amuse

To annoy

To apologize

To applaud

To attack

To bask

To beg

To belittle

To bestow

To boast

To brag

To brood

To brush off

To buddy up

To caress

To celebrate

To challenge

To charm

To check out

To coax

To comfort

To command

To confess

To confide

To confront

To congratulate

To cuddle

To defend

To deify

To demand

To destroy

To dis

To discard

To discover

To dismiss

To distract

To embrace

To entertain

To entice

To erupt

To escape

To examine

To explode

To exult

To flatter

To flaunt

To flee

To flirt

To gloat

To grieve

To hide

To idolize

To ignore

To impress

To incite

To inspect

To instruct

To invade

To invite

To lure

To mock

To mother

To mourn

To ogle

To patronize

To perform

To pester

To pleas

To ponder

To pounce

To preen

To prepare

To primp

To probe

To protect

To put down

To question

To reject

To rescue

To retreat

To ridicule

To savor

To scold

To scrutinize

To search

To seduce

To seethe

To shock

To show off

To sneak

To soothe

To stalk

To startle

To strut

To surrender

To tantalize

To taunt

To teach

To tease

To tempt

To test

To threaten

To trump

To ward off

To wan

To welcome

To withdraw

To worship

To yearn

Actor Verb Tips

Cartoon actor holding a script with an assassitant cameraman holding a clapperboard in front of him. - Actor Verbs
  1. Study the script: The script is your guide to the character and is the best place to start when identifying actor verbs. Look for clues in the dialogue and stage directions, and pay close attention to the character’s emotions and motivations.
  2. Consider the context: The actor verb you choose will depend on the scene’s context. Think about what your character is trying to achieve and what actions they might take to achieve their goals.
  3. Use your imagination: Don’t be afraid to experiment and try out different options when identifying actor verbs. Use your imagination to put yourself in the character’s shoes and think about how you would react in their situation.
  4. Be specific: The more specific you can be with your actor verbs, the better. Instead of using broad terms like “to persuade,” try to be more precise by choosing a verb like “to flatter,” “to threaten,” or “to seduce.”
  5. Use your body and voice: Once you’ve identified your actor verbs, use your body and voice to bring them to life. Consider how you can physically embody the verb and use your voice to emphasize your action.

For more on actor’s verbs and subtext, check out Changing Direction by Lenore DeKoven.

Lewis McGregor

Lewis McGregor is a filmmaker, photographer and online content creator from Wales.