Pick a verb. Not just any verb, but do please pick one.
Great, you picked it.
Wait! No I didn’t!
“The Form of the Destructor Has Been Chosen.”
And just like that, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man has absconded with your speech or song or audition or whatever.
Point: If you don’t pick your verb – what you’re DOING in your song or speech – then your subconscious inner caveman picks one for you. To defend. To escape. To impress. To fight, to flee and other f-words. Is this what you want?
No. So pick your verb.
One of the things I learned from Steve Pearson in grad school in the 90’s is: action beats character. Character is what we are, but it’s not a verb. You can’t DO a character. But you can do the crap out of an action, and actors need a thing to DO, more than they need persona.
Doing before Being —- it’s very un-Zen, which is funny because Pearson is a Zen/Buddha kind of guy. King of the neutral face, no mugging ever, no cheap tricks; it’s got to be real and simple. Just do the thing, Erin, don’t make a big show of it, don’t shout out “Look Ma! I’m playing Hamlet!” This was a revelation to me at a time when my persona was still made up of mostly lipstick and jazz hands.*
His point was: you can build characters, but that’s like building a musical instrument. It’s part one. PLAYING it is what makes the actual music.
Of course I challenged this idea. Cuz isn’t drama all about faaaascinating character and intense emotion?
NO. You actually have to DO shit.
But what if I’m kinda woo woo, and I like the idea of just BEING. Can’t I just BE?
Yes, I can, but my inner caveman can’t, at least not in performance situations.
If I don’t pick and prioritize my verb, my inner caveman’s underlying needs and desires start to run things. When Mr. Pre-frontal Cortex is off duty, then Mr. Limbic System takes the wheel.
For example, maybe I was hired:
- To nail down a clean demo-recording for this composer’s portfolio of songs, with no quirky embellishments; or
- To sell the client on this product, not necessarily on me; or
- To wake up the conference audience in between main presenters, even if it means I look a little stupid; or
- To tee-up a performer that might otherwise come across badly, even if the performer is my rival; or
- To lasso maximum sales for my client, whether she plans to re-hire me or not;
But if I don’t clarify and prioritize those active verbs, my inner caveman naturally attempts:
- To impress this audience, or that particular person in the audience; and
- To secure my social status in this company or community; and
- To persuade someone that I am an effective teacher, a valuable teammate, a virtuous, trustworthy, loving family member, or an attractive and entertaining friend; and
- To prove to myself that I am right, and don’t need to change my mind about something; and
- To have fun, and create something unusual, and satisfy my curiosity; and and and…
Realistically, am I ever going to shut off those background needs? Nah, probably not, but what I can do is focus myself on the higher priority verb by defining it, chewing on it, and pasting it big on the windows of my brains.
How to Pick
When I ask my acting student what his verb is, he knows it won’t help him to say “to do a great job in this audition scene from Cherry Orchard”, or “to get into a good acting school”.
Instead he picks: “To convince Anya that I’m the smartest person she’s ever met.” That’s the verb that’s going to help him play this scene. Those others will actually distract him from what he needs to do.
Convince is a little flaccid, though. So in the different beats (aka sections) within the scene, we notch it up. “To hook her.” “To backhand her.” “To peg her against the wall.” “To stalk her.” “To shepherd her.” “To stroke her.”
He’s not literally going to backhand her, this is all metaphorical, but notice how much easier it is to play the scene when the verb is more physical, and more sensory. That’s what I mean by JUICY verbs. “Backhanding” someone gives you plenty more to do than just “Telling”. “Stalking” offers much more than “watching”. “Stroking” is much more than “agreeing”.
So consider the last performance or presentation you did.
What was your verb? Was it “to present” or was it more like Unveil, Parade, Let slip, Strip-tease, Expose, Auction, Set Free, Dump, Unravel, Lay Bare, Infect …
Verbs that activate one or more of the 5 senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch – those are the juicy ones that will keep you in the moment. Why? Because they hold the attention of Mr. Limbic System better than vague verbs like “be” and “present”.
And when you’ve got Mr. Limbic System and Mr. Pre-frontal Cortex working together, shit gets done.
Continue to Part 2, where we learn about picking the verb for your AUDIENCE.
*By the way, there’s nothing at all wrong with lipstick and jazz hands.