How to Act Using the Four Elements
There are a lot of acting techniques but one is relatively unknown to a lot of people, acting with the elements. Using the elements earth, water, fire, and air you can get into character fast without having to explore the motives of your character's emotions as you do with method acting. Read on to learn how you can make the elements work for you.
We have all met the elements in the form of people. We have all seen them in ourselves at some point because we all have a bit of them in us. Did you ever feel so happy that your cup ran over and you cried with joy? Water. Ever stopped beating around the bush and called it for what it was? Earth. Ever jumped up out of a chair and said “no”! Fire. Ever felt unable to sit still, wanting to start working on an idea? Air.
Earth is a calm grounded element. It is "down to earth” personified. It will hear everyone out; following their trail of thought in silence. It will think through what is being said while extracting bits of information.
It will be “all ears” while it observes, soberly and objectively keeping track of all that is said while putting together the “facts puzzle”. When the puzzle is done it will lay it out in front of you. It won’t say “Look what a cute picture of a unicorn this is! Aren’t the colors amazing? This puzzle makes me feel so joyful! ”. No, it will say “This is a puzzle of a unicorn”. Their remarks can sometimes be perceived as displays of a dry sense of humor.
Earth can come out of nowhere with a pearl of wisdom, cut through the bullshit with a katana and get right to the point. It won’t dress the window up with draperies so to speak. An earthling sees things in black and white. Grey areas don’t exist in their world. It will lay down the facts even if it is not something you want to hear. If they drop something down at your feet and you don’t get it, don’t worry, they have all the knowledge at hand to explain it. The observer learned and collected a lot of information during his “stakeouts”, you see. Earth’s body will walk calmly giving its eyes the chance to take everything in. It might hunch or slouch, literally taking it closer to the ground. It can drag its feet or place each foot down with care, staying in touch with the floor.
Check out this earth example from Pulp fiction: Vincent Vega played by John Travolta
Air is “all over the place” personified. It is a positive, bubbly, talker with a rapid-firing brain. It influences, argues, analyzes, distinguishes, re-adjusts, and gives a new perspective.
At the academy, we described this element as the door-to-door vacuum salesman. Air won’t be phased by someone saying “I don’t need a vacuum cleaner, I already have one”. He will tell you a story about his wacky one-eyed cat stepping in his water bowl every time because he can’t see the damn thing standing next to the food bowl. You’ll laugh at this character and half an hour later close the door with a new vacuum cleaner in hand. Thinking “Ah good times, I am glad I helped Air. Air is fun”.
Air takes things apart, assembles them in a new way and jumps up yelling TADAA! It’s a fast thinker, always bubbling with ideas and probably knows what earth wants to say before he has a chance to spit it out. It can be a bit like a dog. You’re having a conversation and BALL!
Air has solved something he was thinking about earlier. All this energy is translated into its body. It finds it hard to sit still. It will be sitting on the edge of a chair ready to go. Its foot or hand might be tapping away excess energy. Its eyes might not stay on something long. Air is the improviser, the fixer that won’t quit because he always gets a new idea on how to accomplish its goal. If it was an animal it would be a chameleon on speed.
Check out this air example from Pulp Fiction: Ringo played by Tim Roth
Water is a listener. It is “it moved me” personified. Like a dowsing rod, its focus always points towards the feelings and emotions of something. It does not matter if they are their own or those of others. It will tell you how a painting makes them feel. How sad it is for the neighbor, who lost the oak tree. It will be moved by the slightest air coming out of a mouth, a reflection that it recognizes from past experiences or a butterfly landing on its surface.
When you talk with water it will not only pick up the information you send out but also hone in on your feelings on the subject. It will empathize with you and try to comfort and help you with words of kindness and encouragement. Drops of emotion build up inside its body. They can be drops of sadness, anger, happiness, or frustration. At any moment the drop-reservoir can overflow and lead water to cry during a sunrise or when earth tells it the truth without considering its feelings.
Water that has some kind of instability might constantly overflow over the slightest thing. The body of the water element will focus on where its attention is. Everything else fades away. Its body will express the emotions swirling inside. Dancing ecstatically on an empty dance floor to a tribal beat cause it’s feeling it, go into the fetus position watching a sad movie, give gentle “there, there” taps, hugs, and kisses to anyone who “needs” it. The body expresses what is happening inside of water, from tranquil water, swirling vortexes to tsunamis of emotion.
Check out this water example from Pulp Fiction: Fabienne played by Maria de Medeiros
Fire needs fuel to keep burning. It is “with a fiery passion” personified. It needs a goal, a passion, to move towards. It is a decisive, strong, fearless element with confidence and courage. It will be the popular teenager in school leading the pack or the first warrior to run on to the battlefield. It is a powerhouse attorney and a Wall Street go-getter.
When fire turns negative it can be impatient, dominant, walk over people to reach its goal, be power-hungry, and a bully. Fire will not be contained. It is unable to do something they don’t believe in. It is a fast-acting quick-moving element. It is the bull in need of a purpose, a red flag to charge at.
It will get frustrated fast if there are hiccups or dilly-dallying people in the way of the flag. It’s easily combustible. Say something it doesn’t agree with and it will rise. Possibly point a finger at you and maybe even get in your face. If it is raging it will say things that will hit the target, (The red flag thing again), be the first one to punch someone’s lights out or shoot because it has the shortest fuse. All fire’s qualities are reflected in its body which will be well maintained and dressed confidently. It carries itself proudly. It will keep its head up and shoulders back. It might possibly lead with his upper body or head. It will walk proudly and with purpose.
Check out this fire example from Pulp Fiction: Jules Winnfield played by Samuel L. Jackson
While watching the clips from Pulp fiction you might have noticed that Tim Roth’s Air wasn’t exactly the twister I described air to be. You would be right. I have given you examples of the elements in full swing to help you recognize them faster. You can choose a gradation that suits the script.
Be a dry earth baking in the sun, watching tumbleweeds roll by, until something in a scene creates an earthquake, reaching a massive nine on the Richter scale, and wipes out every other element in the room.
Every element has a secret element that comes out when it is drunk. A fire person might turn into water and start clinging to people blurting out “I really felt the pain in your performance. You were so good. I love you, you’re amazing”. If you have a scene where your element gets intoxicated it is good to know what their secret element is.
The most fun way to get to know the elements and practice wielding them is with five people at a time. Four people play while one leads the session from the sidelines. Set up three chairs (air stands, naturally) and state which chair is what element.
Each actor takes up an “elements” position. Come up with a goal for yourself in the scene or improvisation. When the leader claps you switch elements clockwise. It is a lot of fun to do and to watch.
If you have to play an unstable character you can switch elements during a scene or if it is really bad even between sentences. Just go through the script and pick sentences or parts of dialogue that could spark "fire" to speak up, "water" to have an emotional breakdown, and so on.
About the Author
Hi, I'm Marjolein (Mar-yo-line) also known as Mack. I am a screenwriter and blogger for Stage32. Just writing that makes my eight-year-old self go WOOHOO before looking around calmly to see if no one has seen her. I have loved to act, playback, write raps and poems since I was a kid but during...