Learning Lines: Operative Words

May 16, 2019

 

You will come across the term “operative word,” several times in your actor training. An “operative word” simply refers to the emphasised or stressed word in a sentence, that gives that sentence a certain connotation, tone, or meaning. As an artist, it is your job to figure out what exactly your character is trying to say. 

 

The task of memorising a bunch of words on paper, and in perfect order, can seem daunting for some. Even more so when the language is challenging. You have probably marvelled at how actors can make sense of Shakespeare and then recite it while being word-perfect. If you use operative words to help you memorise what your character means to say, you will find that memorising your lines word-perfectly becomes so much easier. Here is the joy of acting as a profession; where you get to use your creativity and go to work.

 

How do you know which operative word to choose, or what your character should land on? Getting skilled at choosing the best operative words, requires:

  1. Cultivating good instincts; and 

  2. Tons of practice

To grow your instincts you can do things like read good material, and a lot of it. Have you ever noticed that when you read a play it’s easy to sense what kind of person each character is? You can see when they are lying, or concealing the truth, when they are being nasty, or tactical -all just by reading and letting the words set your imagination on fire. The same goes for when you read a novel. You will eventually need to be the same kind of detective when handling your own script/material, so studying good writing will help you immensely. You can also grow your instinct by watching great films and observing your favourite actors. How do they go about saying one thing, but revealing something totally different? Look at art, read interviews, go out to busy places and watch human behaviour. Sharpening your instincts can be the most enjoyable kind of homework the actor has.

 

Here is a useful activity for the practice part of the equation. To help yourself explore different choices for operative words, use the following activity: Repeat a sentence in a script the same amount of times as the number of words in that sentence. Start by stressing the first word. End by stressing the last word. Sound confusing? Here is an example:

 

“They asked me if I was okay.”

 

The sentence seems simple enough. Now, notice how the meaning of the sentence changes, as your “operative word” shifts from the first word through to the last. 

 

They asked me if I was okay.

They asked me if I was okay.

They asked me if I was okay.

They asked me if I was okay.

They asked me if I was okay.

They asked me if I was okay.

They asked me if I was okay.  

 

It might look tedious on paper, but this activity is very useful for exploring your options. Do you sense how when stress is placed on the word “they,” the sentence seems to hint at an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dynamic? Or how when you stress the word “me” your character is either being self-effacing (has a humble quality) or is being self-righteous (bragging)? It is your job to discover which operative word option excites you the most as the artist. But it is also equally important to go with the best choice for the textual demand of the material. Don’t forget that to be a writer is a vocation, and authors always choose words wisely. Respect them, and make sure that your take on the reading is what the play or movie is actually about. 

 

Operative words are great because they help you find your meaning as an actor. They also help with line memorisation, since it wont just be about remembering a bunch of words strung together, but about how your character is going to mean what they are saying (or not) to get what they want. 

 

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