Anyone remember the Subjunctive verb tense from French or Spanish class? We have it in English, too, but don’t study it closely. The Subjunctive is the verb tense of what could be. The basic structure is “If X then Y.” It is a unique tense, as it dwells in the possible, not in the actual. Example: “If I study hard, I will do well on the test.” There are no guarantees, only good guesses. Having studied French for four years, this concept has long since peeked my curiosity … if Future Circumstances (see previous blog) affect how characters behave, then what impact does potentiality have? May I introduce…Potential Circumstances?
Potential Circumstances are those that haven’t yet come to pass and depend on certain action, or, in other words, the future is contingent on certain factors playing out. Compare this to how we think and behave in life: We live in the potential state of mind all the time without realizing it … “If I take a class at this acting school, then I will have the chance to perform, as well;” “If I sit close to this attractive woman, I may get to chat with her;” “If I eat this frozen yogurt, I will feel happier” (This is my logic.) It is through the lens of the potential that we gage, implement or redirect our actions. This is a powerful aspect of our consciousness to tap into, as it is how we manifest our desires and goals, large and small; thus, in this way, Potential Circumstances affect our behavior.
Future Circumstances are more concrete and dependable, like:
"I will eat dinner tonight.”
“I will marry so-and-so tomorrow.”
“I will complete my degree.”
“I will meet my lawyer at 2pm.”
Potential Circumstances are more elusive. They usually are grappling with an obstacle of some sort:
“If I complete this task, I will be able to join my friend for dinner.”
“If I confront my fiancé, then I won’t be deceiving him or myself anymore.”
“If I meet with my professor, I can possibly salvage my grade.”
“If I convince the bus driver to let me on, then I stand a chance to make my meeting.”
As you can see, if the character plays her cards right, she may gain a set of future circumstances she desires, and this compels her to act. Identify your character’s Potential Circumstances and feel the compulsion to manifest them.
POSITIVE VS. NEGATIVE … an on-going debate…
It is best to consider Potential Circumstances in a positive light. Word them in such a way that improves your situation; don’t succumb to the negative. It’s important to clarify that “positive” doesn’t mean rainbows and sunshine, nor does “negative” mean evil and bad. Positive, in acting terms, means progressing toward your goal, and negative means affirming the obstacle or devolving into the problem. Here are some examples:
Negative --> Positive Potential Circumstances:
“If I don’t say something, my sister will be defenseless.”
--> “If I defend my sister, she will feel supported.”
“If I turn away, I won’t have to engage with this so-and-so.”
--> “If I turn away, I will take away his power.”
“If I placate her, then she won’t reprimand me anymore.”
--> “If I placate her, then she may calm down.”
I encourage actors to lean against the positive rather than the negative, as it brings you closer to the circumstances you desire. Potential Circumstances are the circumstances hoped for; therefore, you, as the character, work to make what is possible actual. This makes for an active, dynamic performance; an audience loves to see characters fight for something tooth and nail.
However, there is still good reason to acknowledge what you are running away from just as much as what you are running toward. Declan Donnellan in his book, The Actor and the Target, stresses the use of Binaries: the person/event/thing you repel and person/event/thing you desire. According to him, these two poles are like gravitational magnets steering your direction. Without one, you cannot have the other. Explore the power of what you don’t want and how it can motivate your action in tandem with your positive Potential Circumstances.
Expressions like, “the grass is always greener,” and “so close and yet so far away,” hint to the strong desire one feels about the yet-to-be. It’s always what could be that intrigues us; the elusive lover is far more enticing than the present one; the job just within grasp draws out one’s last ditch efforts. Potential Circumstances will require you to take action. You can put this tool to work by simply writing out “if X then Y” whenever it occurs to you within the margins of the script. See how this powerful formula compels you, as the character, to act. What you gain from this tool is yet to be.