- OnStage North Carolina Columnist
As actors, we have so many choices when it comes to “technique”. Directors often want to know which technique we studied and which technique we prefer. While my graduate program was professed as a Meisner program, we were introduced to all the major techniques and encouraged to choose our own. But even after learning all the different approaches to acting, I still return to the technique I studied as an undergraduate - Robert Cohen’s Acting One and the “VOTE sheet”.
So what is the “VOTE sheet” and why do I prefer it so strongly? Perhaps because it was the first academic acting technique I ever learned, it has a certain sentimental value to me. Or perhaps I gravitate towards it because of its simplicity. Whatever the reason, I find it almost therapeutic to create a VOTE sheet for my characters.
VOTE is an acronym for the words victory, other, tactics, and expectations. Almost every acting technique uses some variation of these ideas, but I like the way Robert Cohen describes each one.
The typical actor mantra (some may even call it a cliche) is the phrase, “What’s my motivation?” Actors know we need a motivation, an objective, a want. What does my character want? But to me, this question isn’t enough. In reality, we have so many trivial wants that aren’t worthy of being dramatized. We want all kinds of things, as do our characters. So how do we know if we’re choosing a “want” that will come across dynamically to our audience?
Cohen tells us to choose, not a “want”, but a victory. What is my character’s victory? What does it look like? What will it feel like when he or she achieves it? Wants can simply be handed to you, but a victory must be earned. A victory will be celebrated, by the character and the audience. By identifying my character’s victory, whether in a particular scene or in the play as a whole, I have a tangible goal that I can see in my mind and work towards rather than just a simple desire.
According to Cohen, the “other” is your acting partner or the person from whom you want your victory. This may sound obvious, but it’s important to identify that person, specifically when you’re identifying your victory. It isn’t enough to say, “My victory is to become queen”, or “My victory is to have a baby”. These victories don’t play off of other characters. There is no drama in fighting for things that can be handed to you. You must be fighting against another character’s victory to create drama (unless you’re acting in a one-person show).
Even when delivering a monologue, identifying a specific “other” and what that other person brings to the scenario is vital to creating drama. Oftentimes, that is the missing piece between a good monologue and a great one.
We all know the importance of our tactics in each scene. This is the “how” of the equation. You know what your characters wants, you know from whom he or she wants it, now how is he or she going to get it? Cohen says this element is what give acting its “guts”. In my opinion, this is what separates the good actors from the great ones. The more tactics you can use and the more quickly you can shift between them, the more dynamic you are as an actor.
I’ll admit, as a fairly young actor, I don’t have many tactics under my belt. I tend to gravitate towards the same ones. But the more I study acting and the more directors I work with, the more tactics I discover. Cohen’s technique goes into great detail on the different kinds of tactics and provides lessons to practice them. Training in this area is highly valuable (and often undervalued compared to the “objective”).
This piece is often missing from other acting techniques, and I feel like it is so important to include. It is another piece that separates good acting from great. Cohen explains that it isn’t enough for your character to try to achieve the victory, he or she must expect to achieve it. If you are working towards a victory, but you doubt you’ll ever get it… why should the audience root for you? You must believe in your character and expect to achieve that victory. Adding the element of expectation adds energy, excitement, and enthusiasm to a performance, according to Cohen.
The element of expectation elicits the emotional response from the audience. How can we expect them to care about whether or not we achieve our victory if we’re not excited and expectant to receive it ourselves? As our characters passionately pursue their goals, the audience will find themselves passionately rooting for them. And isn’t that ultimately our goal as actors?
I love Robert Cohen’s VOTE method. You can write one sentence for each section, or like me, you can go into great detail with your character, trying to get more and more specific with each answer. Whatever acting method you choose, it should inspire you to dig deeply into your character and your script to create a dynamic performance that will bring the audience along with you on your journey. For me, Robert Cohen’s technique does just that.