Investigating Action

Joan Recalls Her First Acting Workshop

When I'm teaching, I'm always thinking of Aristotle: "The function of theatre is to entertain, and what we find most entertaining is seeing and grasping a truth."


What is action? This simple word calls performance into being. It is our root, the essential ground for all theatrical arts.

Yet, I consistently find that many of us, even well trained and experienced actors, can have great difficulty finding truthful, playable actions. And without an action, the actor resorts to habits and tricks. The ship remains tethered and lashed to the pier. In An Actor Prepares, Stanislavski puts it this way:

"We need a creative, human subconscious and the place to look for it above all is in a stirring objective and its through line of action. Then, consciousness and unconsciousness are subtly and marvelously blended. When an actor is completely absorbed by some profoundly moving objective, so that he throws his whole being into its execution, he reaches a state we call inspiration. In it, almost everything he does is subconscious and he has no conscious realization of how he accomplishes his purpose."

But the ability to find the stirring objective is what Aristotle calls "the genius of the poet". So how do we get there?

After a lifetime of study and practice, I have developed my own method of exploring that question. Put simply, actors use their bodies to explore what's in their characters minds and hearts. As a process of investigation, they choose physical actions which correspond to psychological or emotional actions. By fully engaging their bodies, they fully access their emotions. In this way, if the action isn't clear, it becomes clear.


I start by teaching script analysis. Scenes are drawn from the great playwrights, (Chekhov, Williams, Beckett, Shakespeare, etc.) I'm influenced by Stanislavski, Adler, Hagen, but mostly, Aristotle. The students learn to find a journey by mapping out the play, scene-by-scene, action by action.

Once the actions are chosen, they are physicalized. But it's not dancing, it's not arbitrary motion, it's not expressionism, it's not post - modernism or any other ism. Though the movement can be abstract during the exercise, the final scene work is very natural. The movement is simply a way to investigate, to call up, to become deeply engaged, just as we are in life.

This process creates an internal structure, which is ultimately forgotten. All that remains is the rhythm of the character's journey. Structure is crucial, simply because it invites true release and spontaneity. It makes possible the unlimited sense of freedom which always drives a great performance.

In 1995, several influential members of the film community became intrigued by my work, and through their generous efforts, the soundstages of Warner-Hollywood were donated to me in the evenings and on the weekends. This was a great stroke of good fortune. The stages are huge and sound proof, which allows us to work with a sense of freedom and abandon. In this environment, I have expanded my work with students to include the performances of fully staged plays, which I direct using the techniques I have developed in class.

I love teaching because it's a highly intuitive act. I have a basic format, I know what I want from the actors, and I see what they are hiding or holding back. I sense the possibility, the feeling, the talent that lies just beyond the perceived boundaries of the moment. Depending on the student and the day, I'll use a variety of different methods to help them release. It's a dialogue I never tire of. I work, as I ask them to feeling, by listening intently and responding specifically.

It's always a leap of faith. And by leaping into the unknown myself, I invite my students to leap with me. Thus, the main principles I want them to understand are reinforced: do the work, know clearly what you want, and trust what happens next.


Simon was working on Treplev in the final scene of Chekhov's The Seagull. Simon is 6'2", solidly built, and an extremely clever actor. He was convinced that he was playing the character with utmost vulnerability and could not sense that his acting was quite cold and removed. Discussion proved fruitless (as it often does). At the climax of the scene, he chose the noble action "to support Nina."

"O.K., show me."
His instinct led him to kneel, embracing her as she turned away from him. However, when he held her, he did so only with his fingertips, his forehead pressed against her back of her neck. The rest of his body arched away from her. "Support her. Support her completely!"

He frantically repositioned his head. "Find a way! Look! Her spine could collapse. Support her spine!"
Now he pressed his forehead and the bridge of his nose against her scapula. He had no idea that the rest of his body seemed poised to bolt in the opposite direction. I kept coaching him, laying a hand on his shoulder, the small of his back, his ankle bone.

"Get closer! Support!" I urged. "I am!" he shouted in frustration.
I kept encouraging him to figure it out with his body. He won't understand until he finds it for himself.
"No you aren't, keep going. Really support her!" After fifteen minutes or so, he was exhausted and thoroughly out of ideas. Briefly, he leaned against her.

How simply and eloquently Simon's struggle revealed his fears as an actor, of getting too close, of not wanting to act without his (fore)head. But now he was a little nearer, so I kept with him.

"Support her with your legs! Support her with your arms! With your breath! Find away! Even more!"

Finally, in desperation, he held her, then held her more closely.

Then suddenly his emotion released, his body lost its wooden quality and he softened. He shook and collapsed it was revealed that what Treplev really needed is her support. In fact, he needs it so desperately, he could literally crush her by leaning on her. Finally Simon felt the deeper vulnerability of the scene. And he discovered it was precisely this fear that kept him as an actor from revealing the character's intense need in that moment. Simon was afraid, so he made Treplev strong. That robbed the humanness from the scene.

Once safely through the exercise, Simon was more free to work with depth… using the intelligence, richness and subtlety of the body.


First, we must realize we have a body, and that it is intelligent. The body must become more sensitive, moving by feeling, without mental protection. Students learn that every gesture, every use of space- can be expressive of the inner state. The actor's physicality must be unselfish, open, supple, able to infinitely respond. Yet the formality of any physical improv only serves to provide a structure for the actors, so that they feel safe enough to let go of the muscle and show me the soul.

I push them, I get in there, I work them out, I spot where they're hiding and adjust them, repeat them, encourage them, bring them out, explode their boundaries, change their movements, challenge them, question them and ask them to respond with their whole selves, their new born selves. I give them the rules. They give the rest. They find the life. They learn to breathe. They learn to listen and to forget, to surprise and to trust. They learn because they're moving. They learn because they're so involved, I require them to be, they must be and so they are, and they are so surprised they laugh like babies on the stage and weep as loud and fall, they fall as hard. But your bones are softer when you're sweating, so getting up is easier, and easier to bear.

They find the action and when they find it, they find it's never drying up. Action is the divining rod to the spring, and the spring is always flowing. I teach them to trust the action and enjoy the rest.

An Example of That Divining Rod

Matt, the most gentle and sensitive actor you can imagine, was often playing gentle and sensitive characters. So he asked if he could work on Jean from Strindberg's Miss Julie. I watched him sink (unconsciously) into a lunge as he talked about the character. So I knew that he was right; as an actor, he was ready to "get down".

At first when he played the scene, he played Jean like a young poet-philosopher. He walked so daintily that his legs looked like toothpicks, or delicate flower stems. His voice would taper to a whisper on lines like, "Menial's whore! Lackey's harlot! Shut your mouth and get out of here!"

Now, Matt is a gifted actor, and the choice was interesting. But I kept thinking of that unconscious bend in his knees. I felt that he was subtly shielding himself from the brutality of the moment. He naturally disagreed, but was willing to experiment. I suggested he begin strengthening his quadriceps and legs. We added yoga poses, hip openers, to the warm-ups. He wore thick socks and heavy boots as he rehearsed. He played the scenes on his hands and knees, or crouching, squatting, or covering ground in a low lunging run.

One day, he rose up from the ground like the missing link- and the passion of the character roared through. It was unexpected, not stagy or forced. He hit upon the fire, the animal-man so central to Strindberg's play. Matt never looked back. The cover was torn off the well. It was a major turning point in his acting. He was ready, expressive and well trained. Now he was able to draw uninhibitedly from a deep subconscious source.

By unlocking the body, nuance is freed. I don't care about painterly pictures or interesting gestures or big emotions for their own sakes. I want the actor to find the physical action that makes the psychological action more deeply felt. And I know, that when the movement comes from that source, it will be as powerful, as simple and beautiful as Rod in would conceive it. The expressiveness comes from life.

I'm looking at these photos:

Who can argue that when we are truly emotionally involved, that our bodies do not follow! We twist, we lift, we entwine and fall, we throw up our arms in disgust and elation! According to the character and the circumstance, we show it as fully as we feel it (upraised arms) or feel it fully and show it little (upraised palms).

When actors are engaged on this level, they can begin to approximate how perfect, how expressive we are in life. "Conceptual!" "Overacting!" Only when it is not connected to feeling. Actors often get confused about "being natural", and to me, they become unnatural. They go dead, they scratch and shrug, they loose all the grace and complexity of non-acting humans. The whole canvas of the body stands dormant.

We resist what we know.

A Case In Point

Jan was working on Lady from Tennessee William's Orpheus Descending. Lady meets Val after sedating her husband. She clumps down the stairs heavily, saying "I gave him morphine" and "I don't want no one to die. Death's terrible, Val".

Jan absolutely couldn't shake the morose line reading she had decided on, even though she knew it wasn't working. "I don't want to do too much. I think she's subtle," she said.

That may be so, but in the process the actress had become dull. I asked her to find a movement.

"Well, I keep wanting to do this, but it doesn't go with the lines."

Then she swung from the stair rail like a sneaky three-year old on a high wire. The secret was out the door opened on Lady's guilty delight, her irrepressible joy at being rid of her husband for a few hours. Not P.C. maybe, but surprising and truthful.

Eventually, the big swing was toned down to a gentle sway, but the undercurrent of the naughty pleasure stayed. Jan was on her way to developing a Lady with a lyrical, sensual grace and a heartbreakingly open, innocent sense of humor.


Soon enough, students trust the spontaneous, intuitive expression. They know how to get themselves there, and cease repeating what worked the last time they played the scene.

The physical method is grounded in a strong understanding of the text and a deep inquiry into the mind of the character. Thus the performance can constantly change and surprise- though the basic throughline remains clear and consistent. Now, "the conscious and the unconscious are subtly and marvelously blended."

This is the most direct way for me to work with actors. We don't waste a lot of words. Words rarely get at what we mean anyway. The actors figure out for themselves what feels right, and their performances are unique and realistic.

Somehow, it helps us bypass the ego and the rigid inner rules of what we can and cannot do. We work with respect for each other. And in this treacherous realm of feeling, full of sandtraps and walled entries- there is always the simple movement to suggest the way forward.

Sometimes its just the very literal "next step".

Joan Scheckel ©1997