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Actioning in Acting: A Full Guide to the Technique

Updated: Oct 19, 2022


As musicians fine-tune their instruments, actors do the same with the tools of their craft. Step-by-step scene study is part of that education, and it includes identifying objectives, marking beats, and finding ways to bring subtext to the forefront. This is where actioning comes into play.

What is actioning in acting?

How to use actioning as an actor

The benefits of actioning

Why actioning might not be for everyone

What is actioning in acting?

As Shakespeare wrote in “Hamlet”: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” That’s the basic principle behind “actioning,” a term coined by legendary Konstantin Stanislavsky. The technique involves assigning an active (or transitive) verb to each of your lines to illustrate its underlying meaning or subtext.

Acting coach Joseph Pearlman calls the work “action in the moment”—essentially, you are asking yourself what your character is doing with their words.

For example, take a line as simple as “get out.” Without knowing the context or intention, it could mean anything. In a scene between a married couple going through a divorce, you could assign it active verbs such as “wound,” “hurt,” or “scar”; in a scene between two flirty friends, you could assign the line verbs such as “tease,” “amuse,” or “charm.”

How to use actioning as an actor

Start by asking yourself the most important question: What is my character’s objective within this scene?

Once you identify your goal, the verbs you assign to each of your lines will all be in service of achieving that goal.

The next step is to take your script and identify each of your characters’ individual thoughts. This can change on a case-by-case basis, and it really comes down to your personal preference as an actor—sometimes it’s a single line, other times it’s a grouping of lines that share the same intention. It’s intention that’s key, and any time your character’s underlying intention shifts, you assign a new actioning verb.

For an example of actioning, imagine a scene in which your character offers their roommate a glass of water—that is the literal action of the moment. Let’s say the subtext of the scene is that your character has fallen in love with their roommate, and their objective is to get them to notice. During your early preparation, your marked-up script may look like this (actioning in italics): You: Would you like a glass of water? (entice) Roommate: No, thanks. You: Are you sure? You look hot. (pursue)

Of course, the verbs you choose depend not only on the subtext of the scene, but also the context. Imagine the same scenario, but your character’s roommate has a nasty temper:

You: Would you like a glass of water? (pacify) Roomate: No, thanks. You: Are you sure? You look hot. (test)

After assigning verbs to every thought, rehearse by saying each one out loud before delivering the line it’s assigned to. Drilling down the subtext of your dialogue will not only help you craft the most believable delivery, but it will also inform your physical actions throughout the scene. Assigning a verb such as “seduce” or “concede” could affect your posture; “comfort” could lead to your hand on a scene partner’s shoulder; “challenge” might mean your finger pointed in their face.

The benefits of actioning

The primary advantage of actioning is specificity. As an actor, actioning pushes you to dig into and interrogate every line you deliver—onstage or in front of the camera, you not only know what you’re saying, but why you’re saying it.

The more intentional you are with each delivery, the more layered your performance will be. The audience will understand everything you’re doing under the surface without needing it to be spelled out in words. Pearlman cites actor Martin Landau, who summed up why investigating subtext should be an actor’s main goal: “No one tries to cry. You try not to cry. No one tries to laugh. You try not to laugh,” Landau once said. “In a well-written script, dialogue is what a character is willing to say to another character. The 90% he isn’t, is what I do for a living.”

Actioning also allows you to identify the emotional ups and downs of the scene. “The great thing with actioning is [finding the] internal rhythm in every scene,” Pearlman says. “There’s an internal pace to the piece.”

Return to the prior example of your character and their roommate, but with your scene partner’s actioning verbs filled in. Just from this brief exchange, you get a sense of its back-and-forth, give-and-take rhythm.

You: Would you like a glass of water? (pacify) Roommate: No, thanks. (deflect) You: Are you sure? You look hot. (test)

Why actioning might not be for everyone

While actioning has many benefits during the initial training and rehearsal stages, it can also downplay one of the most vital components of acting: spontaneity.

“We can feel good and confident if we have a road map through it,” Pearlman says. “But if we have a scientific approach to human nature, then we don’t leave ourselves open to all of the spontaneous insanity that life has.”

Sticking too close to the original blueprint takes away your chances of making a new discovery in the moment. Because actioning is such an analytical approach, it works best as a form of preparation, not a rule set in stone that you must follow onstage or in front of the camera. Perhaps your scene partner does something that doesn’t quite match your original action verbs; acting is reacting, so you’ll need to adjust on the fly.

Pearlman also warns of losing your character’s “hook,” which he defines as “the very specific attitude you adopt at the top of the scene, after you’ve safely chucked your acting preparation out the window.”

Always remain open to anything you might learn about your character once you put your ideas into action. Pearlman points to Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning performance in “Joker,” which came about after the actor course-corrected away from his original prep work.

“You’re alone in a house and you’re reading through the script and you start imagining things and you start playing with it and rehearsing with yourself, and I think it always evolves,” Phoenix told CinemaBlend in 2019. “[Director Todd Phillips] and I got together and we talked about everything we shot, and I just said, ‘I think that we’ve been missing something, and I feel like we’re going down a road that seems wrong in both the look, the hair is wrong, the way I’m wearing the wardrobe is wrong, and a lot of the behavior.’ So we…kind of re-conceived the character and kind of realized the mistakes we had made.”

At the end of the day, acting is the art of studying human nature, not a step-by-step science experiment.

Actioning is a great way to lay the groundwork for a performance, but don’t let it box you in.

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