The beginning

Think about the above question and the picture. Choose one of the four answers

  1. The bear?
  2. His own fear and anxiety?
  3. The truck?
  4. The handle on the truck’s door?

The answer is at the end....


Beginning something can take many forms. For an actor, the start is usually quickly being made aware of how much we don’t know. Whether it is class, a rehearsal, or even a meeting with a casting director, the primary feeling is often an absence of understanding. But those around us - the teacher, other actors, director, casting director - all seem to already know everything. They’re using language familiar in their mouths, but alien to our own.

These directors, teachers and fellow actors will throw around hugely important concepts as if they are innately understood to us. They use words for these concepts that sound familiar, too. Words like “Objective”, “Beat”, “Action” and all their other synonyms : “Intention”, “Goal”, “Purpose”, “Mission” – or my favorite stereotype : “Motivation”.

These are all words we recognize – they make sense to us. But when it comes to articulating them and embed them in a workable process, our initial definitions can fail us. This results in a multitude of problems – the fear of making a ‘wrong’ choice or weak choice, mono-tactical approaches to a scene (eg. “if in doubt, just shout”), odd choices that don’t match the character or the scene, but most importantly – reaching for an emotion. Because if our poor brains have no concrete explanation for the words we use to describe our process, we will use whatever habit we’ve used in the past. And that usually means going for ‘feeling’.

Don’t get me wrong – ‘feeling’ is very good. Our senses are the pathway between the world and our brains. And emotions are good, too – they are essential to how our brain stores information, motivates itself to learn more information and vastly enriches the quality of our lives. 

However, an actor is trying to get at the root of a human process, not the result of that process. Emotions are very easy to illicit. Sit down with a rubik’s cube for 3 minutes. Challenge your friend to a race. Try and teach yourself a complicated dance step. You’ll start ‘feeling’ very quickly. But all of those activities were not begun with the thought “I need to feel frustrated.” In fact, the only reason you may have felt anything at all with the rubik’s cube is because you actually started with the thought “I want to SOLVE this”. Solving is an action devoid of a feeling or emotion.

Actors work so hard to recreate and illicit authentic emotion. And I have a bunch of theories of why that is, but let me articulate only the most controversial one – we go for emotion because it is easier than the alternatives. All this talk of “dig into the motivations of a character” sounds too much like hard work. And our brains aren’t naturally wired for hard work – they are wired for survival. If an actor has ever gone onstage unprepared (and yet still spouting emotions), they probably at one point in their career were rewarded by the audience for that. And that is the tempting seed that dwells in every performer – the process we got away with it, rather than worked at. We survived. It takes an exceptional discipline and passion in an artist to pursue the alternative.

But the alternative is only possible with clarity. So let’s be clear about what we mean by the words used to articulate the actor’s process.

*disclaimer : these descriptions I use are not anything ‘better’ than anybody else’s. I simply explain what I mean when using these words, so you know what I mean. You can translate my definitions to other words if they suit your process better.

In an ideal world, you are handed a script, you read it in one sitting, fall in love with every aspect of it, understand it in the core of your soul, hurl the script to one side of your room because you already have absorbed every detail, and leap to your feet to begin staging.

…and for every other situation, there are objectives. 

These things we call ‘objectives’ are the foundation of every choice you will go on to make. And like all foundations, they do not need to be carefully decorated, or delicately crafted – instead, they must be sturdy, simple and straight-forward.

“How do we choose one?” I hear you ask… Well here are the five ‘tests’ I use :

An objective must always :

1 – be phrased in terms of what you want from the other person.

This one gets me in trouble with other acting teachers all the time. A greatly respected acting teacher once said to me “Sometimes a character’s objective is just to sit down”. I replied “Perhaps. But the actor playing that character needs to articulate that objective as ‘For the love of God, let me sit down’ if they want to be active.” 

You must ALWAYS phrase your objective in terms of what you need from another. Always. Even in a soliloquy. Hamlet may be “solus", but he is in a freakin’ PLAY! Every dramatic character is being observed. So they want something from those observing them. In Hamlet’s example, he may want to be reassured, or empowered, or comforted or invigorated – all of which are things he can ask for from his listeners. We’ll return to soliloquy’s later, but for now at least, know that even a character on their own is searching for something outside of themselves.

Drama happens between people. And I think it is fair to assume drama has the purpose to explore what connects people. Which means something that will quickly destroy an evening of drama is performers engaging in only their own dilemmas, seemingly disconnected from everyone else. “Acting on your own” is a phrase I’ve heard used to describe this phenomenon. It is indulgent, self-serving and detracts from the story – and ultimately it is the story that an audience is more interested in. Much more than how deeply an actor can ‘feel’. 

Objectives are also way more intuitive and engaging to play when they involve other people. Actually, when you phrase an objective in terms of what you want from the other person, all the other ‘tests’ begin to fall into place. 

2 – be phrased as a positive

Don’t think about smiling. Don’t imagine yourself falling asleep. Don’t think of the theme song for The Simpsons. The subconscious brain does NOT hear the word ‘don’t’ when given a command. I am always bowled over with how frequently people who say “I just don’t want to turn out like my father” end up doing just that. The word “don’t” is an arrow pointing toward whatever you write/say after it. It is not always fully realized. For example, a school rule I had when I was a kid was “don’t run in the hall”. When I saw the rule, I did not unexplainably begin to run down the hall… But I did picture myself running down it and the feeling of freedom I had from that imaginary run.

Objectives for an actor work the same way. You need a positive target, and if you use the word ‘don’t’ in an objective, you’ll end up going for whatever you write after the word ‘don’t’.

3 – have a ‘bulls’ eye’

If we are going for feeling as an actor, this test for an objective will be confusing and frustrating. Because feeling is entirely subjective. Which is why feelings as goals for actors tend to make for indulgent, strange and frankly annoying performances. So to avoid this, we need an element of objectivity in our process. ‘Objective’ and ‘Objectivity’ share a root word for a reason.

This objective needs a specific clear ‘moment’ that it would be possible to achieve it in. The less clear the bulls’ eye, the less clear the actor. Emotions are notoriously unreliable and unspecific. So don’t rely on them – make yourself a clear bulls’ eye and take aim.

4 – excite you

Now, by this I don’t mean the only test of an objective is if it makes you leap up and run around the room. But take my example at the beginning of the chapter: the ideal world scenario. This is an actor at their most intuitive, connected and responsive. That’s what we all want every job to be. So this example, for all its’ craziness and pie-in-the-sky optimism must be the scenario we aim to re-create with each piece we work on. As I mentioned in #3, the character needs a bull’s eye. Well, so does the actor. And that is tested by the willingness, openness and intrigue of your response to your choices. 

If the objectives you are choosing look GREAT on paper, but shut you down on your feet THEY ARE NOT WORKING.

If the objectives you are choosing get checked as ‘correct’ by your teacher, but don’t motivate you THEY ARE NOT WORKING

If the objectives you are choosing make sense, seem right but make your work uninteresting or boring THEY ARE NOT WORKING

You must be brutal with your objectives. If you choose one, and it does not serve your sense of wonder, joy or even fear, get rid of it. Put a bullet in the back of its’ head, tie it up in a sack and drown it in the river. 

5 – be physically capable of being done

I knew an actress who always used the same Super Objective “Put me on a pedestal and worship me”. She used it as Juliet in Romeo & Juliet. And she used it a few months later as Anne Frank. Crazy, huh? What is most crazy about it, though, is how unreal the concept is. Does Juliet actually want Romeo (or her father, mother or nurse, for that matter) to pick her up, put her on a raised plinth, get down on their knees and worship her? Does any part of Juliet’s text lead us to believe she wants that? If you choose an objective, it must ring true to the character seeking it, AND the actor playing it.  

Side note : “Put me on a pedestal and worship me” is a GREAT objective for a character like the Greek Goddess Athena, though. Asking yourself “what does my character think is physically capable of being done” is a great place to begin when working with characters in pieces that are so-called ‘styled’ or ‘classical’. If you are cast as Dionysus in The Bacchae, you play someone who believes it is possible for a human fetus to be saved from a burning mortal mother, sewn into the thigh of a God and then born from that thigh. This is what we might call a ‘character-defining belief’. It challenges both our beliefs and often those of the other characters in the piece. Caligula has beliefs like these. And so does Blanche Dubois. As a tool for the actor, defining the limits of what a character believes is possible and then articulating their objective with a reflection of those beliefs, can give you a solid foundation to build a brave character on. 


So now we know what we mean by an Objective, let’s return to the Question posed by the picture at the beginning of the chapter

If your answer is a), you need to hold on for my next post – Obstacles. Because that bear is a pretty terrifying obstacle.

If your answer was b), you are dead. Becoming lost in your own feelings about the situation wont get you out of it any faster. 

If your answer was c) you are getting closer. But, being pursued by a bear makes the truck too ‘general’ a focus. After all, it may also become an obstacle (you could snag your coat on the bumper, for example).

The answer is d). It is a positive goal. It is a clear bull’s eye. It is certainly exciting!

Til next time…