Directing: Actor Verb List – The Subtext

Theatre practitioner Stanislavski maintained that only 10% of what’s actually 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.

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.” 

Verb List

Essentially, does it immediately make one think of something that 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

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

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