To act means to do, so you must always have something specific to do onstage or you will immediately stop acting.  This is why physical action is so very important for the actor.  Simply defined an action is the physical pursuance of a specific goal.  Physical action is the main building block of an actor’s technique because it is the one thing that  the actor can consistently do onstage.   

1.         An action must be physically capable of being done.

For example, “pleading for help” is something you can begin to do immediately.  Everyone knows how to do it.  On the other hand, “pursuing the American dream” is not something you can pick up and do at a moment’s notice.

 2.         An action should be fun to do.

By fun we don’t mean something that makes you laugh, but something that is truly compelling to you.  This includes things you might never actually do offstage, but that appeal to your sense of play.  The point is to find the action you want to do. 

 3.         An action must be specific.

            Stanislavsky said, “Generality is the enemy of all art.”  The specificity of an action

such as “extracting a crucial answer” will bring you to life much more than the vagueness of “finding out something.” 

4.         The test of an action must be in the other person.

An action is the physical pursuance of a specific objective, and that specific objective must have to do with the other person.  In other words, by looking at your partner, you should be able to tell how close you are to completing your action. 

5.         An action cannot be an errand.

An errand is an action that has no test in the other person.  “Delivering a message” is not a good action because you do not have to look at your partner to see if you have accomplished it.  Too quickly and easily accomplished, an errand is boring for you to perform and for the audience to watch.  The action must be something it is possible to fail at; you cannot fail at an errand. 

6.           An action should not presuppose any physical or emotional state.  You can’t artificially induce a physical or emotional state (e.g., hunger, anger, sorrow, drunkenness), because they are not within your control.  Any action requiring you to put yourself into a certain state before or during a scene will force you to act a lie.  “Making a jerk know how mad I am” is a bad action because you cannot do it unless you are angry.  A better action would be “putting a jerk in his place.” 

7.         An action cannot be manipulative.  This type of action gives rise to the attitude that “I can do whatever I want to you, but nothing you do is going to affect me.”  In other words, you make up your mind ahead of time how you are going to play the scene and allow nothing to sway you.  An action such as “making someone cry” is manipulative.  An action such as “forcing a friend to face facts” might very well make your  partner cry, but the crying is more likely to be the honest response to your carrying out your action, rather than the result of your manipulation. 

8.         The action must have a “cap.”  The cap is that specific thing you are looking for that will mean that you have succeeded at your action.  For example, “to get a friend’s forgiveness”  is an action with a cap.  You know when your partner has forgiven you by his behavior toward you. 


An “as if” helps the actor gain a fuller understanding of the action he/she has chosen for a given scene.  It also gives the actor a clear sense of the consequences of not completing his action–which is to say, it sets the stakes in the playing of the scene.  The way to achieve these things is not by investing in an emotional state, but by crating for yourself a tangible, personal stake in the action you have chosen.  The means of bringing the action home to you is the “as if.”  The “as if” is a memory device which is a way of sparking yourself to invest fully in the scene.


action:   to implore a loved one to give me another chance.

as if:       I’m persuading my fiancee not to break off our relationship after she discovered I had an affair while she was away. 

action:   to show an inferior who’s boss.

as if:         my new secretary started reeling off her rules to me the first day on the job and Ii told her she’d better follow my rules or she’d be looking for a new job.

 action:   to make amends for bad behavior.

as if:       I’m apologizing to my best friend’s parents for showing up roaring drunk at their twenty-fifty anniversary party and making a loud-mouthed ass of myself. 

The “as-if” is there to get you away from the fiction of the script so that you can find parallels directly accessible to you and thus easy to act on.  Once you have used the “as if” to personally invest in a given scene, the lines and attendant physical activities therein are simply tools to aid you in executing your action.

The great debate throughout the history of acting is whether the actor must feel what his or her character is ostensibly feeling at any given moment.  The bottom line is: What does it look like to the audience?  The crucial thing to remember is that the actor is not on-stage to have an experience or to expose himself to the audience, but to help tell a story.  At a certain point the writer may require and actress to sob over the death of the lover of the character she is playing.  All that is necessary is that the audience believes you are upset.  The audience will not know hat you have said you are doing in your scene analysis.  You may be playing a scene in which your character is dealing with his girlfriend, but your “as if” has to do with your brother.  What the audience sees is someone with a need to get something from the other person in the scene, an it’s understanding of that need will be based on the elements of the play, since that is the only information it has to go on.  The audience comes to the theater set to believe the story.  The actor comes to the theater to help tell the story, not by tricking himself into believing things he knows aren’t true, but by applying the tools he has developed to create an illusion.

                                                                     –A Practical Handbook for the Actor



John Lehman pretending to be David Mamet

     The story may not be credible to someone who has gone blind but the subject is the realationship between the husband and wife and that dynamic seems true. In order for something to be dramatic there needs to be a tension between people in a scene that makes the audience wonder “Who is going to win, who is going to lose.” The characters (author) uses whatever they have to get their way. Tone of voice, body language, facial reaction. And readers hang on these elements as clues to the outcome.

     One of my favorite books for writers isn’t even directed to them. It is called “Handbook for Actors” by NYU students of the playwrite David Mamet. Now he has written numberous books about writing and about the theater, but this one by people he was teaching cuts to the chase in a way his other explanations don’t. The book lists some terms for creating drama on stage that I think work just as well on paper. Here they are. We will talk more about them and apply them to some examples in upcoming posts. But first read through the list and think about what these mean in terms of your own writing.


action:  The physical pursuance of a specific goal. 

analysis:  The process whereby the action of a scene is determined.  It is derived from  these three questions.

1.   What is the character literally doing?

2.   What is the objective of what the character is doing in the scene?

3. What is the action like to me?  It’s as if…

 as-if:  The answer to question 3 of the analysis. It is a simple projection that makes specific for you the action you have chosen in step 2 of the analysis; it is a device serving to bring the action to life for you.

beat:   A single unit of action.  A scene (chapter) may have one or more of these. 

beat change:  The point during a scene where a new action begins. It occurs when a new piece of information or an event takes place over which the character has no control and which by its very nature must change what the actor is doing. 

cap:   The event or condition indicating that an actor has succeeded in his action.

 character:   The illusion created by the words and given circumstances supplied by the writer and director combined with the actions and externals of the actor. 

given circumstances:   Any piece of information or activity written into the work or demanded by the director comprising the imaginary framework within which an action is performed. 

living in the moment: Reacting impulsively to what the other character(s) in a scene does, according to the dictates of your action. 

objective:  The single element that defines what the character is doing in a scene, without which the scene will not work. 

subtext:  What is going on underneath the text. For example, if on the day your husband ides, you are buying a pair of gloves, the subtext of his death would greatly affect the way you felt, even if the action of buying gloves is everyday. Nothing of the subtext is ever going to occur unless the actor puts it there. 

through-action (goal):   The single overriding action that encompasses all the actions an actor pursues from scene to scene, from the beginning of a play to the end.