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 brush off
To buddy up
To check out
To put down
To show off
To ward off
Actor Verb Tips
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.