Status Transactions and the Actor
When I first read Keith Johnstone’s notion of the “status transaction,” I knew I had stumbled on the fundamental hidden truth of all real-life relationships: that every real-life interaction between people is loaded with subtle attempts to position oneself above or below the other. I also believe that this subtle, unobserved chemistry between people is a large part of what separates mundane, mediocre acting from excellent acting. So, now that we have become conscious of a fundamental and interesting truth about human interaction, how does that figure into our acting or storytelling technique? How can we make this useful to us?
Well, before we talk about status, let’s get on the same page with our preparation-related vocabulary. Hopefully as an actor, you are already thinking in terms of relationship and conflict. I rely on Michael Shurtleff’s book Audition quite heavily when I take up a role or a directing project. Shurtleff’s “guidepost” concepts have been successfully adapted as the basis of a successful Chicago audition and acting studio. The studio is called The Acting Studio (not to be confused with the method-oriented Actors’ Studio in New York), and was originally formed by legendary Chicago casting director Jane Brody.
While other sources are “character”-centric (e.g. “My character wouldn’t do that,” or “I think my character really wants a little house in the country.”), Shurtleff recognizes the relationship itself as the most basic unit of drama. My character matters nothing; my individual relationships with each character on stage must be the focus of my preparation work.
To this point, The Acting Studio has a mantra that they have their actors learn, to reinforce this fundamental truth. Part of that mantra is: “What is the problem with the other person, and what am I going to do to solve it right now?” The central truth about drama is that is is about people bonded in deep relationships who are trying to prevail upon one another, and no one character can have things entirely their way without creating a serious problem for the other. This state of conflict presupposes action. How will two characters with a certain relationship to one another try to “fix” the other? Will they fight with them, plead with them, stonewall them, convince them, trade with them, etc.? We refer to these actions as the different tactics that two characters in a relationship might use one one anther. If the tactics are interesting and authentic, then the acting is fascinating.
The Acting Studio Chicago has a wonderful summary of the twelve Shurtleff guideposts.
Now that we’re on the same page about relationships, conflict, action and tactics, we can talk a little about the status transaction. Where does it fit into all of this?
Well, like Shurtleff’s guideposts, I think that the status transaction is something important to think about during preparation so that you can see a new level of interaction. If it were to fit in Shurtleff’s model, it would be part of his “communication and competition” guidepost. In addition to all the other scene-analysis questions an actor asks, they should ask questions about how status is being transacted in the scene and why. The status-related discoveries that you make, just like these other guidepost-related discoveries of humor, relationships, moments before, etc., should be added into the general mix during preparation and not actually be at the forefront of the actor’s mind while giving a performance.
There are some traps to avoid when using the status transaction in acting. If an actor perceives that his character is in a dominant status position during a scene, he will be tempted to play everything “high status”: stiff posture, domineering attitude, and the whole bit. Conversely, an actor who perceives their character to be in a submissive status position in a scene will fall into a mannerism trap of looking down, pointing their toes inward, speaking softly, etc. Mannerisms are not actions. Trying to “play” high-status or low-status will result in losing your active intent towards the other actor, and mistakenly focusing on yourself.
But since all actions imply a relative status transaction, you can use status-related clues to chose more authentic and interesting actions. The purpose of highlighting the status transaction in acting is to stop the actor from always defaulting to the strong, rational objective, and to allow him or her to remember that humans do things for petty and irrational reasons. They do things sometimes just to feel slightly more dominant, or to feel the burst of self-pity or outside approval that comes with submission.
If you are putting a scene together, and your character has the line, “What did you mean by that?”
Ninety-nine out of every hundred actors would note that this line looks hostile, and but be spoken in a confrontational tone. Actors also all default to portraying themselves as high-status, and hostility would be the highest status interpretation of that line.
Now, if I was aware of the status transaction, I would ask myself, is there another possible interpretation? What would happen if my character was on the low-status position of the interaction? Instead of taking a confrontational attitude, suppose I was talking to someone I greatly admired. I could ask the question in such a way that was earnest, as if I was fawning over their every word and wanting them to elaborate. My chosen action is that I am fawning and stroking this persons ego so as to win their favor, which is a submissive action, and potentially just as interesting.
This gets more interesting when you realize that status can be played opposite to the usual relationship dynamic. This happens a lot in comedy. Picture a boss choosing low-status actions around a certain employee who dominates him. For more on employee characters out-status-ing their bosses, see the movie Office Space.
Is the idea of dominance and submission important to a portrayal? Well, here’s an excerpt from Johnstone, about his experience with Waiting for Godot:
“A great play is a virtuoso display of status transactions – Waiting for Godot, for example. The ‘tramps’ play friendship status, but there’s a continual friction because Valdimir believes himself higher than Estragon, a these which Estragon will not accept. Pozzo and Lucky play maximum-gap master-servant scenes. The ‘tramps’ play low-status to Lucky, and Pozzo often plays low-status to the tramps – which produces thrilling effects…
“If you observe the status, then the play is fascinating. If you ignore it the play is tedious. Pozzo is not really a very high-status master, since he has to fight for status all the time. He owns the land, but he does not own the space…
“It must be clear, I think, that even the stage directions relate to status. Every ‘silence’ is lowering to Pozzo. I remember a reviewer (Kenneth Tynan) making fun of Becket’s pauses, but this just shows a lack of understanding. Obviously Becket’s plays need careful pacing, but the pauses are part of a pattern of dominance and submission. Godot earns its reputation as a boring play only when directors try to make it ‘significant’, and ignore the status transactions.”
So, why is it important for actor preparation to observe status transactions?…
…In order to come up with the most interesting and telling actions to perform, especially in challenging plays like Godot, where relationships and actions might not be otherwise obvious.