ON THE MOST basic level, acting is about doing what’s required to win the fight for your desired outcome — your character’s objective. And the things you “do” are called tactics. You jab, block, punch, feint, and body slam (or tickle, caress, console, and lure) your partner in the sparring match that is your character’s fight to overcome obstacles. We call these moment-to-moment adjustments tactical actions. They’re the strategically chosen (by the actor), instantly selected (by the character) ways we fight the good fight.


To apply this idea to a monologue or song, start with a clean copy of the text you can write on. For songs, type out the lyrics as a monologue or in poetic form, if that works better for you. Either way, be sure you’ve included all the punctuation.

Start by determining what it is you’re fighting to make happen now. “I want to force him out of the room.” “I want her to propose to me.” “I want to usurp his power.” “I want her to kiss me.” Keep it simple, clear, and achievable within this next few minutes. You won’t always win, but you still try as though you could.

If you feel the objective shifts within the piece, draw a clear line through the text where that change happens. This is where the acting beat changes. Now, write the objective clearly next to each beat, because that’s what you’re constantly fighting to make happen during that portion of the song or monologue.


Bearing in mind that every time you take a breath you’re taking in a fresh thought, mark the places in each acting beat where you inhale — every time. A simple slash mark between the words in the sentence where you choose to breathe will do. It’s often easiest to speak the monologue and mark where you naturally breathe. Songs require you to consider the logic of the thought, your breath endurance, and the musical phrasing. For songs, you’ll sing it, then mark the breath divisions. Once you’ve made these choices, your beat is broken into what we call “breath phrases.”


For each breath phrase, choose an active, present tense verb. Not just any old verb, though. Choose a verb that acts on your partner. Complete this magic phrase: “I [verb] you.” This isn’t the goal statement; it’s the method statement — the way you’re making the other person fulfill your ideal outcome. I rescue you. I caress you. I amuse you. I slap you. I fool you. I punish you.

Write the action you’re playing above every breath phrase. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a list of actions you’ll memorize and embed into the playing of your monologue, scene, or song. It will inform your physical and vocal behavior and generate specific choices that express your character’s internal struggle in ways both authentic and theatrically available to your audience.

What is your character fighting to make happen now? Write your objective next to each beat of your song or monologue.
What is your character fighting to make happen now? Write your objective next to each beat of your song or monologue. Photo by Corey Rourke.


Your tactical action pathway toward your goal can be direct or a crazy crabwalk past the obstacles in your way. Sometimes you’ll select a sequence of tactics in an undeviating intensification of the same approach: I nag you — I browbeat you — I bully you — I throttle you. At other times, it may be more appropriate to shift tactics broadly: I reject you — I beg you — I ridicule you — I worship you.

Resist making the basic sentence (I [verb] you) more complex. It will only blur your tactic. Notice that the construction I [verb] with you or I [verb] to you will remove directness and immediacy. Be rigid about this guideline. It will require more thought and a friendly relationship with a thesaurus, but it will result in clearer acting.

We all have a limited vocabulary and repertoire of actions and verbs at our fingertips. Thankfully, there are many great sources for highly playable action verbs available in print or online. Probably the most widely used book for this is Actions: An Actors’ Thesaurus by Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams. It’s also available as a handy app for your smartphone.


Most often, tactics fall into two broad categories: intimidation and attraction. But there is a wide range of subtle shading between those extremes. How you pursue your goals tells us a lot about you. That’s because everything in your character’s world reflects their perspective. In making tactical choices for your character, choose well. Surprise yourself by trying tactics that may seem the opposite of your goal. They sometimes add complexity and dimension you never would have imagined.


Once you’ve done the careful work of selecting actions, you need to begin building a performance using them. In rehearsal, it is a good idea to try as wide a variety of tactics as you can. Your first choice doesn’t have to be your last. From this, you’ll learn what expresses the inner truth of your character, stimulates your partner the most strongly, and supports the moment best. Think of each action or breath phrase as an individual jewel you’re crafting for an eventual necklace that will string together as a seeming whole.

The crafting of these individual parts is where the actors’ rehearsal lives. Phrase by phrase, one at a time, begin exploring the possibilities of each tactical action. You may try a single breath phrase 15 or 20 times until it lives effortlessly in you. This process often results in a physical action plan — a gestural choreography — you can scale up or down, depending on the style of the piece and the size of your venue. Stay patient with this part of the process and allow yourself to fulfill each of the 20 or more actions in a typical two- to three-minute song or monologue. Once you’ve mastered one, try the next. String those two pearls together several times. Then move to the next action, until you’ve built the entire piece. You will discover a level of specificity and textual mastery you may never have known before.

Your physical action plan can be scaled up or down depending on the style of your piece.
Your physical action plan can be scaled up or down depending on the style of your piece. Photo of Dominic DeCicco in the 2019 ITF Next Generation Works musical commission Dreamland by John Nollendorfs.

Sometimes actors resist this level of specificity, wondering how they can be spontaneous and responsive to their partners if everything is planned. Correct. If everything is planned, and you stick to the plan no matter what, then you’ll be denying your partner’s responses and choices. Take this one step at a time, however. Once you’re comfortable undertaking this process intentionally, you’ll be comfortable with both practiced choices and improvisation to discover a chain of moment-to-moment adjustments that lead toward your goal.


Actors work with many different methods, using different skills for different roles and challenges. This method has proven to be very successful in bringing variety to songs and monologues where the actor may be truthful, believable, and a bit dull. Every actor falls into a rut with their tactical choices and can be lulled into variations of the same action over and over, back to back, until your audience feels they’re watching a blend of the same thing and starts to drift away. Working with tactical actions helps you make truthful, believable, varied, and compelling choices as a habit. Give it a try.

This article is adapted from Acting in Musical Theatre by Joe Deer and Rocco Dal Vera.

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