The use of the word “tactics” is widespread among actors, directors and acting teachers. This usage came into being for the best of reasons, but it is ultimately (mostly) unsatisfactory as a way of talking about what we are doing when we act. Let me explain.

The usage of the word arises from the classic acting class dictum “acting is doing.” Actors are taught that what is essential is try to affect their partner in the scene and elicit a desired response from the partner. Whatever happens inside the actor is a by-product of that pursuit. This way of looking at things is intended to counter the pervasive and pernicious belief that what actors do is “show emotion”. By shifting the focus from showing to doing, the actor, so the theory goes, gets her attention off of herself and puts it on to her partner, and thus overcomes self-consciousness and does spontaneous, organic, authentic work. So far so good.

As part of focusing on affecting the partner, the actor is asked to consider “tactics”. Tactics are, quite simply, ways of behaving that are most likely to elicit the desired response from the partner. The actor is often asked to think in terms of “active verbs” when considering tactics, so tactics might include “to tease”, “to cajole”, or “to tempt”. They don’t always have to be expressed that succinctly; teachers may provide various instructions for the formulation of tactics, or then again, they may provide nothing at all.

But the thing about tactics is that there is a suggestion of furtiveness: because my partner/opponent does not want to do what I want him to do, I can’t simply ask for what I need in the moment, I have to proceed tactically, that is to say, deceitfully, or at the very least, secretly. A tactic that is obvious or transparent to others is of no use; they see where we are going “tactically”, and can adjust accordingly and foil our efforts.

And why is this suggestion of deceit a problem? Aren’t we sometimes deceitful in our relations with others? Yes, we are. But the use of the words “tactics” suggests that deceit is the rule, rather than the exception. It suggests that as a rule we proceed tactically with each other. As a rule we conceal our wishes and misrepresent our intentions to others to elicit a desired response from them. But that simply isn’t true. There are situations in which we behave inauthentically, conceal our motives from others, etc. But these are not, for most people, the norm. Our significant relationships exist on a bedrock of trust, and that trust means that often, though not always, we can interact with these others in ways which we reveal our true selves. This doesn’t necessarily mean we live our life as if it were a nonstop encounter group; behaving authentically, and revealing ourselves, does not mean that we are revealing intimate things; we may simply be revealing that we are hungry or tired or giddy or whatever. But we are letting our outsides match our insides. We are not thinking tactically. We certainly are not only thinking tactically.

So then what kind of thinking are we engaged in, what are we actually doing, if much of the time we are not thinking tactically? It’s not easy to explain, not because it is excessively complicated but because it is so familiar that it is difficult to catch sight of. Let’s think about a simple example.

Suppose I have a roommate, whom I have lived with for sometime. We have a basically good relationship, and sometimes hang out together. Recently, though, my roommate came up short on the rent money, and we had a fight about it. It was painful and difficult, and I feel that as a result, we are not the friends we were. This is sad for me, as I actually really valued the friendship. So after some time goes by, I decide I want to make a gesture of reconciliation, and I decide that when my roommate comes home from work I will suggest that we go out to eat.

Now, let’s think through this situation using “tactics”. What I want to make happen, let’s say for now, is that I want my roommate to join me for dinner. So a proponent of “tactics” will ask me to think about what tactic I could use that would make my roommate most likely to go out to dinner. I might think it over for a while, and decide that I am going to try to make her laugh, or welcome her and offer her a drink before I pop the question, or I am going to apologize for the difficulties. All of these might be tactics I might use to try to get her to join me for dinner.

So where is the problem here? I have an outcome I want to bring about, I am weighing different ways I might try to make that happen, I am making a choice, all good things, right? So where is it that tactics fall short?

Let’s just say for now, for simplicity’s sake, that there are two outcomes that I am interested in, not just one. One involves whether or not my roommate joins me for dinner or not. The other involves whether or not my roommate recognizes that I am making a gesture of reconciliation, extending the olive branch, and whether she appreciates that. Note that while the two outcomes are connected to each other, there is no absolute dependence between them. My roommate could say, “Wow, how nice, yes, I’d love to, where’d you have in mind?” or she could say “I would love to! That’s really nice of you to ask. I have a big presentation for work tomorrow that I have to get done, could we do it another night this week” or she could say “Oh. Dinner? Well, ok, if you want to.” In the first case, I get both my wishes. In the second, I get my first wish but not my second. In the third, I get my second wish but not my first.

Here’s the thing: the word “tactics” strongly suggests that the only thing that matters is whether or not I get my first wish. It focuses my attention on whether or not I get the other person to do what I want them to do, whether or not I get the outcome that I want. But it does not direct my attention to another very important question: what does how my roommate answers the question mean about how she values me and our friendship in this moment.

For an actor, the second question is always at least as important as the first, and often it is more important. The word “tactics”, by focusing us exclusively on future outcomes (even very near future) takes our attention away from the immediacy of the here and now, and how we are exposed and vulnerable in that here and now. In telling me whether she will accept my invitation, my roommate is telling me something about what I mean to her, and that message is not determined only by whether she accepts that invitation or not. So “tactics”, the word, tends to encourage a narrow way of looking at what the scene is about.

But that’s not all.

When I ask my roommate whether she will go out to eat with me, I will try to influence her, but not tactically. I am not thinking “how should I act to get her to agree to my request? I know, I’ll be really warm and happy to see her.” I’ve got something better than that. I’ve got my need for her, for her friendship, my need to know that the friendship can be restored. And I intuitively understand that if I manifest that need to her, that is, if I reveal it to her, chances are good she will appreciate the way that I feel and will want to meet my need. So instead of using a tactic on her, I am going to reveal myself to her, reveal who she is to me. I suppose you could argue that that in itself is a tactic, but again, normally, when we use the word tactic, we mean that our intentions are not transparent, that we are trying to trick someone. If we don’t need the subterfuge, then what do we need to be tactical for? We can just ask for what we want.

Asking for what we want. It’s such a simple formulation, but a profound one, when it comes to acting. Acting is, in most cases (though not all!), about asking for what we want, transparently, truly, not deceitfully. It is about manifesting our need to another, in the full knowledge that they may refuse us. We may apply some pressure, but the awareness that we may be rejected is always there.

In light of all of this, in my acting tradition, the term “action” was adopted in place of “tactics”. The point is that the word “action” suggests something much more immediate and spontaneous than “tactic”. That is not the whole story; I have encountered other teachers who use the term “action”, but not in the way that we do or for the reasons we do, and the difference is not merely semantic. It has to do with all of the tools that go along with “action”, most importantly, with objectives, but that is another discussion. It has also been suggested, by a very brilliant thinker, that differences of usage, differences we might be inclined to dismiss as “merely semantic”, actually bespeak much deeper contrasts and divergences.

If you want to know more, take my class, and you will encounter all of this in the context of actual practice. It’s much, much easier to elucidate in that kind of setting. But for now, consider letting go of the word “tactics”, and think more about asking for what you need, in the present moment. You may find yourself seeing things very differently.

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