defining and defending the Main Action

March 18, 2006

The idea of coming up with a “Main Action” for a play was something I learned to do in grad school — Mark Harrison and Valerie Curtis-Newton and Jon Jory all but crammed this technique down our throats. We spent endless hours debating our Main Actions, honing them into a tool that would slice right to the heart of the play.

That’s what the Main Action is. A tool. Specifically, it’s a tool for directors, very similar to a superobjective for an actor. I find it to be tremendously useful.

So here’s my attempt to break it down. The Main Action is a single phrase that captures what happens over the course of the play. It must be active and muscular on the one hand, something that implies a strong objective for the main character. And it must also be poetic and exist on a symbolic level on the other hand; it has to place the story in a larger, metaphorical context. It must be specifically and strongly rooted in the text, not arbitrarily decided upon by the director. It reveals the theme or message of the play by implication and usually with a twist — if you enact this Main Action, this will be the result.

Here’s the catch, the thing that Lucas keeps posting comments about. Everything in the play must relate to the Main Action in one way or another. But the phrasing on that should really be the other way around: you have to choose a Main Action that relates to everything that happens in the play, that informs and reveals and connects each character and scene and moment. The assumption here is that in any given play, there IS a single idea that everything connects to — and some people might say that this is reductive and limiting. Maybe it is, but I have come to believe that it’s impossible (for me, at least) to direct a play without an idea about why each moment is a part of it. And I would argue that ultimately, every good play or story has some central idea that connects each piece. This isn’t the same as saying every story needs to be a Well-Made Play. Nor is it saying you need to beat the audience over the head with your Main Action.

The process of coming up with your Main Action is the best way I know to get to know a play. It forces you to read the play actively, to think about each character and each scene and why they’re there, why everything happens the way that it does. This is at least half the battle. Once you have a good Main Action, it informs every directorial choice you make. What period should we set this play in? What kind of theatrical conventions should we use? What kind of changes happen in the scenery over the course of the play? Which character should be in focus during this moment? When inspiration doesn’t strike, the Main Action gives you a way in. And when inspiration does strike, the Main Action helps you decide whether this particular flash of inspiration is worth keeping in the show. Most importantly, though, I find that knowing the Main Action leads to more (and more useful) flashes of inspiration.

A few of the Main Actions I considered for Hamlet before hitting on “To deny change”:

-To avenge a father’s death
-To restore order to Denmark (or to the universe)
-To make the world right again
-To regain control
-To respond appropriately to death
-To win the throne of Denmark
-To control Hamlet’s fate
-To get validation for righteous action
-To choose between two rights (thanks to Oanh Nguyen)
-To justify revenge

Some Main Actions that I’ve used in past productions:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: To escape the fate of Hamlet.
Julius Caesar: To protect the glory of Rome.
Macbeth: To murder fear.
Marisol: To find protection.
The Diary of Anne Frank: To assert individual identity.
The Misanthrope: To be the center of attention.
The Eight: Reindeer Monologues: To save the spirit of Christmas.

I would love to hear what other directors do along these lines, and how other directors use their version of the Main Action. I know one director who uses a Big Question instead of a Main Action — it might be “What happens when you refuse to accept change?” or “Can you deny change?” I’d also love to hear how this type of analysis might relate to the work of designers and writers and actors.


2 Responses to “defining and defending the Main Action”

  1. Phil Says:

    I disagree with your thinking. Completely. Its reductive to me.
    It seems to turn art into nothing more than a strong thesis statement.
    Big deal.
    I want to be creatively confused by art. Complexity is more interesting.

  2. joshcostello Says:

    Hi, Phil — first off, thanks for commenting. I’m always happy to have these conversations.

    I started writing a long response, then realized I was repeating what I wrote in the original post. If you go back and read it a little closer, I think you’ll see that I addressed a lot of this already — I specifically said the Main Action is a tool, and not something I’d want to beat the audience over the head with.

    There are three additional points I’d like to make, though.

    1. Any choice you make in staging a play precludes all the other choices you could have made instead — therefore, directing a play is inherently reductive.

    2. I agree that complexity is more interesting than simplicity — vastly more interesting. But I don’t agree with your implication that complexity and confusion are the same thing. A dash of confusion to keep the audience guessing is great. A play that makes no sense just bores me. There’s a balance there, and I’m pretty sure you and I would differ on exactly how far to tilt the scale. Which is what keeps things fun.

    3. It sounds like you think “art” and “a strong thesis statement” are two separate things and that they can’t or shouldn’t coexist. I disagree.

    Again, thanks for your comment. It occurs to me now that maybe you and I are just interested in making different kinds of theatre, maybe for different kinds of audiences. Even so, I hope you can appreciate the idea that every production of a play does make some kind of statement, and that there’s a value in thinking about what kind of statement you’d like to make.

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