Character and Action: Actioning


Character and action. These two elements should come together, especially when writing  drama, because the good writer can’t just put two great characters on scene and make them having an interesting conversation. The good writer always needs to keep in mind: what are they doing to each other? Are they provoking, approaching, interrogating each other? In one of the posts about dialogue in fiction, we have studied 3 actions through dialogue, which are hiding, ignoring and winning. But many others can be identified.

Max Stafford Clark was a famous director of the 70s, and he invented the system of actioning, which is a way of discovering what is really going on in the scene. He used to break the scenes in units, trying to understand where there was a change, a click in the story. Every unit corresponded to a transitive verb which described what the characters meant and wanted to say or do. This is a very useful way of understanding what is going on on scene, and acting changes according to the transitive verb. Mark Stafford Clark wrote a list of the verbs (scorn, dare, tease, challenge…) and he used it to play Macbeth. Prior to rehearsal and casting, he gathered texts and articles that could help him to interpret the play, and spent a lot of time actioning the text. The subtle differences between different actions describing the lines helped the actors in understanding and performing the play exactly as the director wanted.

We as well tried to apply it to a piece of the play (1.7.40 and on). In the scene, Lady Macbeth is trying to convince Macbeth to kill Duncan. She dares and challenges him, while he expresses some doubts about her plan. Her strategy changes during their conversation. She scorns Macbeth, she mocks him, but when she sees that he is considering her plan, she starts to encourage him. Even so, the exercise was interesting because the same line could be interpreted in many ways and therefore could also be performed in many ways. This made me realise how important it is the work of the director, who must interpret the work of the playwright.


We did the same with a scene from A Breakfast of Eels, the play we had to read for class. It was the beginning of Act Four, when Francis and Penrose are paying respect to the memory of Penrose’s family. In the scene, the attitudes of the two characters change and their conversation, despite simple, shows exactly the intentions and the personalities of Penrose and Francis. Also, Professor Musgrave wanted us to stage it and he made act LaAerial and Rob – and it was very fun to watch it. It’s interesting how different it is to read a play and to see it acted, especially considerating the actioning process. The same line by Penrose could mean he wanted to shame or tease Francis, and this makes the acting part interesting to interpret and perform.

After that, we did the same even with one of the pieces we had to bring to class. In this case, we did the one written by LaAerial, Noise Kills. Interestingly enough, the first part was perfect for actioning, since it started with the two characters arguing, but concerning the second part, Professor Musgrave told us that there was a lot of explanation. The two come soon back together, but that leads to them “playing volleyball”. The scene is not very active, and exposition is going on. They’re not really doing anything at each other, and that’s why actioning becomes more difficult and the scene loses some sense of reality.

From now on, I need to “action” every scene I write in order to make it more active and lively. Characters can’t just talk as they’re explaining things to each other. They need to do things to each other through dialogue. This is a very interesting point that I need to take into consideration when I write.



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