I wrote recently about the most important element of Earle Gister’s legacy as an innovator in the understanding and practice of the craft of acting: namely, his notion of action as a way of describing and understanding the way in which an actor, acting as a character, is engaging another actor/character in a section of a scene: Earle professed that that way of engaging could be characterized by saying how an actor/character was making another actor/character feel. It’s a revolution in the understanding of what acting is all about, as everyone who attended one of Earle’s classes knows.
(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’d suggest you read the post linked to above before proceeding, as the discussion is going to get quite technical)
I have been working with Earle’s notion of action for ten years as a teacher, and for longer than that as a director. So I have thought a lot about it. And one thing that caught my attention a while back was I realized that in Earle’s class, there were certain actions that came up again and again in his work on scenes. The actions he worked with most often were making someone feel needed, making them feel loved, and making them feel out of line.
By far the most common one, in Earle’s class and also in my subsequent work, was making someone feel needed. When I propose it to a group of students for the first time while working on a scene, I am always greeted with inquisitive expressions: not quite confusion, but not total comprehension either. What I am saying is not totally unfamiliar to them, it’s not like some strange piece of jargon, but it’s almost always surprising for the actor in question that they are being asked to make the other actor/character feel needed. This delay in understanding may occur partly because there may be some difficulty in seeing how to do what is being asked with a particular section of a scene, that is, how the actor can use the words she has been given to do what I am suggesting, but I think it’s only partly that. I think it’s also the disorientation of encountering something that is familiar, on the one hand, but also unfamiliar, in that we are not used to focusing on it or spotlighting it. It’s so much a part of how we move through the world that we have a hard time seeing it. “The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity” said Ludwig Wittgenstein. We’re up against something like that here.
In everyday life, every time we ask someone for something, a favor, directions, information, help, whatever, we are making that other person feel needed. We are presenting someone with our need, in the hopes that they will want to meet that need, and accept our gratitude or appreciation as compensation. Think about why men, notoriously, hate to ask for directions. It entails engaging with a stranger and confessing that the stranger has something the man in question doesn’t have but needs: namely, information about the lay of the local land. Think, also, about why it’s satisfying to be able to give directions to someone in need of them: in providing the directions, there is a tacit recognition that we, the directions provider, have something of value to offer, to share. In gratifying the other person’s need, some aspects of our own value is made visible: our acquaintance with the neighborhood, but also our generosity, our graciousness, our willingness to be of help.
And we do a lot of asking for help, every single day. When we ask for information about the location of a product in a store, we are (usually) making the other person feel needed. When we ask a friend to show us how to do something on the computer, we are making the other person feel needed. When we ask for romantic or sexual attention, we are making the other person feel needed, in a particular way. When we go to the teller at the bank to deposit money, we are making that teller feel needed, since we can’t get the money into the bank without their help (in the situations I described, other actions are possible, but they would be departures that would be tied to specific circumstances or characters. In general, in situations where we ask for help, approval, information, appreciation, or anything else, we are making the other person feel needed).
And we don’t only make other people feel needed in everyday life. We are called upon to do it in scenes in scripts as well. A lot. Probably about 75% of the time, the script is asking us to make our partner feel needed. We are asked to engage with the other character, and let them know that we have a need, and that we believe them capable of fulfilling or meeting our need. Implicit in this message is that if they meet our need, we will bestow appreciation on them, and possibly, if they don’t meet our need, they will disappoint us, and possibly alienate or anger us as well.
So making the other person feel needed is offering conditional appreciation: do this for me, and I will love you for it, in its simplest form. Once you understand this, and you start to look at scripts with this in mind, it’s amazing how often we are asked to do this as actors, and it’s also amazing how much we do it in our everyday lives. And that’s what I meant earlier about the difficulty of catching sight of this: it’s something that we all traffic in, constantly, in even our most everyday, banal exchanges, and yet we don’t usually focus on the fact that that is what we are doing, so when we start to consider that, focus on it, and do it consciously in a scene, it’s a bit disorienting. How can this be such a central way of how we navigate the world, and yet seem so unfamiliar when it’s explicitly described?
The flip side of making someone feel needed is another action that came up in Earle’s class pretty often: making someone feel out of line. Where making someone feel needed is offering conditional appreciation, making someone feel out of line is offering conditional displeasure. We are giving someone the message that somehow they are not measuring up in this moment, but it’s also clear that they can remedy that at any moment by stepping back in line, by complying with our expectations or the shared expectations in a given situation. “Hey, stop that!” is the basic message here. We are sending some negative vibes in someone’s direction, letting them know that they are, well, out of line, but we are by no means writing them off for good. We fully expect that they will step back in line, although there is also the possibility, at least, that they won’t, which we have to be alive to as well.
The third action that we encountered in Earle’s class somewhat frequently was making someone feel loved. Making someone feel loved is different from making someone feel needed, because when we make someone feel loved we are communicating unconditional acceptance, appreciation, and/or love. Whereas making someone feel needed is offering appreciation and good vibes in exchange for something, some kind of help, making someone feel loved is offering the good vibes while asking for nothing in return. Now, to be clear, we probably do hope for something in return for saying what we say when we make someone feel loved, but we are in no way communicating our wishes our expectations to the other person in the way we do when we make someone feel needed. We look for a particular response, probably a sign that our feelings are shared by the other person, but we do not ask for that response. If we ask for it, we are making the other person feel needed.
Needed and out of line are the actions with which most scenes are negotiated. Making someone feel loved is a fairly rare thing in drama. Drama is conflict, Aristotle tells us, and it is a relatively rare person who can meet the pressures of being made to feel needed or out of line with the unconditional embrace of making the originator of these pressures feel loved. Such people do exist, so it does happen, but’s it’s not all that common.
Keep in mind, as well, that it’s entirely possible, even likely, that if you have to say the line “I love you”, that you are making the other person feel needed, not loved. The only way the action being played with such an utterance is NOT making the other person feel needed is if the person saying “I love you” is 100% OK with the other person not returning the sentiment or providing any kind of acknowledgement of the declaration of love at all. If there are any expectations at all, the actor saying “I love you” is making their partner feel needed, not loved. Conversely, someone can say “I need you” and make the person spoken to feel loved, if in saying “I need you” they mean “I admit it, I was trying to pretend I was independent, but now I know I can’t do without you.” If they are saying “I need you” and they mean “I will be miserable if you leave me so don’t leave me”, they are making the person spoken to feel needed.
Making someone feel cared for or appreciated are essentially the same action as making someone feel loved: something is offered for nothing in return.
Apologizing is making someone feel loved. So is sharing how we really feel about something: confiding is making someone feel loved.
So now we have conditional approval (needed), conditional displeasure (out of line), unconditional approval (loved/cared for/ appreciated)…so there must be a fourth major action, which is unconditional disapproval. It seems this fourth action, if it is to express unconditional disapproval, is something like making someone feel hated or beyond contempt or worthless, but the most common way it shows up in scene work is as making someone feel threatened. It’s probably comparatively easy to see hated, beyond contempt or worthless as unconditional disapproval, but threatened? Isn’t a threat by definition a condition? Well, yes, but there is a difference between threatening someone and making them feel threatened. When we make someone feel threatened, we are saying “Hey, I don’t give a shit what you think about me, I don’t give a shit about you or what happens to you, you mean nothing to me, so if you don’t do what I ask, I will have no problem harming you.” The message of the action is not the threat itself, but the fact that “you don’t mean anything to me, which is what allows us to make the threat: nothing, not conscience or fear of reprisal or shame or anything, will stop me from hurting you if you don’t accommodate me.” And it’s that last part that the action communicates. So just as we can say “I love you” and make someone feel needed, we can threaten someone and make them feel out of line (“You’re gonna get it if you don’t stop that!”) or threatened (“I have no problem killing you if you don’t do what I tell you to do.”)
Now, keep in mind, I don’t necessarily think that in a rehearsal process, only these four actions should be used. My other teacher who worked with this approach to action, Evan Yionoulis, would often talk about making someone feel like a prince (appreciated) or a schmuck (out-of-line). If such descriptors make it more concrete for the actor, they should be used, by all means. There may be words that are more directly tied to the situation of a scene, words that are more evocative and immediate than the ones I have delineated, and no one should have any problem using those words in lieu of the words I have mentioned.. So in practice, there is no need to confine ourselves to these four ways of naming actions.
But in situations where it is unclear what is actually going on in a scene, what is being worked out or negotiated, going back to these four actions, even trying them one at a time, can be a useful way get down to brass tacks.
Of course, you have to have someone in the room who is able to make judgments about which of these four actions is going to bring the actor into alignment with the text in a given section of a scene so that her visceral motor turns over and the words issue forth effortlessly, and making such judgments entails a fairly sophisticated understanding of objective. I have seen many people who understand how to play an action and who have certainly encountered the four actions I describe here attempt to use this set of actions, but to very lackluster effect. The action has to interface with the character’s need, with the circumstances of the scene, and with the text in question to do the work it needs to do. But that is a subject for another day.
Did I just claim to distill all human interaction down to four ways of making someone feel? I believe I did. Maybe it’s incomplete, but in my years of directing and teaching, I haven’t found a scene that couldn’t be handled with these four actions. And of course, with virtually infinite sets of circumstances offered in scripts and an infinite variety of characters, these four actions can be played in a virtually infinite number of ways. There is no loss of variety, no necessary poverty of means, that follows from the fact that we have just four actions. But in the end, in life and in scenes, we offer either good vibes or bad vibes, and we either attach strings, or we don’t. That’s four different fundamental ways of engaging, and I believe that about covers it.