Friday, November 16, 2012

"Organic Theater" - Part 3: Objective

"Competition [in a scene] is healthy. Competition is life. Yet most actors refuse to acknowledge this. They don't want to compete. They want to get along. And they are therefore not first-rate actors."
- Michael Shurtleff

I don't normally find myself quoting Michael Shurtleff, but it rang particularly true when it was brought to my attention by Erin Cronican (our Managing Director), who is directing our upcoming production of John Kolvenbach's LOVE SONG.

There seems to be an epidemic going around our theaters.  I call it playing nice.

We spend our lives learning how to avoid conflict.  In my opinion, that's really the main thing taught in the majority of public schools: socialization.  But we get it from our parents, our peers - literally everywhere we turn, we're taught how to get along.  We learn very early on that Sharing is Caring, that we can't hit people or roar at them when we want something.  We can't just take food off of people's plates.  We learn to bite our lips, watch our mouths, hold our tongues...the sayings go on and on.  And all of these maxims serve us very well in life.  Not so well onstage.

The truth of it is:  we can't afford to behave onstage the same way we do in life.  Many of the great acting teachers have cited a difference between Naturalism and Realism onstage.  I'll go into greater detail on that in another post.  But the long and the short of it is this:  We go to the theater to see ourselves.  It's why we chose The Seeing Place as our name, the literal meaning of the Greek word, "Theatron".  In our minds, the theatre should be a place to express the things that we don't want to admit about ourselves in public.

We can hardly aim for that kind of goal if we insist on behaving in an everyday fashion onstage.  But how do we go about achieving that kind of heightened expression without setting blocking or levels of emotion?  What's to keep the strength of the story intact?  What's to keep us from avoiding conflict and behaving naturally, when that's what we've been taught all our lives?

In every theater around town, actors and directors alike stress the importance of raising the stakes.  But how do we do that? 

To answer that, I think Phil Connors says it best:

"It's the same thing your whole life.  Clean up your room.  Stand up straight.  Pick up your feet.  Take it like a man.  Be nice to your sister.  Don't mix beer and wine - ever!  Oh yeah...don't drive on the railroad tracks.  I don't know, Gus.  Sometimes, you just have to take the big chances.  I'm bettin' he's gonna swerve first.  I'm not gonna live by their rules anymore.  You make choices, and you live with them."
- Groundhog Day

Essentially, we have to change the way we're looking at the world.  David Gideon, my teacher, talks about the importance of recognizing the fact that we get applause onstage for the same things that we'd be thrown in jail for in real life.  But that's not just going to happen of its own volition.  We literally have to give ourselves permission.  Because there are no consequences onstage.  We're there to celebrate the reaches of humanity.  And we all have to play with the same kind of openness that we did when we were kids, playing make-believe. 

That said, there is still one more piece to the puzzle.  Simply acting with abandon doesn't help tell a story.  Though it's tempting, we can't just be free onstage. Why not?  Because that would destroy the reality of the play - unless the character is a psychopath.  We still have to live within some guidelines.

There is a sign posted in our rehearsal space.  It reads "GO AFTER WHAT YOU WANT."  And it really brings the whole thing to the surface.  How many people do you know that say they want to be actors, and yet when you ask them when they went on their last audition, they couldn't even begin to tell you?  I'll bet they have the same problem in their work onstage.

The singularly most difficult thing for an actor to find in a play is:  AN ACTABLE OBJECTIVE.  Many of us are taught to look for some action verbs or what our characters want is.  But in reality, what are our characters aiming for?  How are they going to get it?  Those are big questions.  And we spend a lot of time answering them at The Seeing Place. 

But it's not enough to have it in mind - in life or onstage.  We have to DO something about it.  I can know that I should exercise if I want to slim down until I'm blue in the face.  Nothing's gonna happen if I just think about it, though.  Sometimes, I literally need to force myself to act on my desires.  It can't be a matter of 'when we feel like it'.

Because our characters are at big points in their lives.  They're taking action.  There's a reason that Long Day's Journey Into Night takes place THIS WEEKEND at the Tyrone mansion - not last weekend or next weekend.  This is the time the family DID something.

I learned this from one of the greatest books on playwrighting ever.  On the second page, it says...

Let's begin the process simply, with a one-line definition of a story:
A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why.

One more time, because I think it's important:
A speaker tells a listener what someone DID to get what he wanted and why.

The objectives are our lifelines in the theatre.  If I go head first after what I want, and you do too, then BAM - immediate conflict.  I've been told that the greatest stories happen when two opposing viewpoints on living go into battle.  Just because Torvald loses the at the end of Ibsen's A Doll's House, it doesn't mean that he shouldn't be fighting for his life all along the way.  Otherwise, we'll know what happens in the end before he does.  Our failures onstage are what tend to give us the greatest successes. 

It's in that collaborative competition that the story is told.  We can't afford Kumbaya in the theatre.  I don't want to give my scene partners the benefit of the doubt.  I want to challenge them.  I want them to challenge me back.  It's just like any other game we play.  We should play to win.

There seems to be this idea that in an ensemble theater, everyone should give to everyone else.  We agree.  But we shouldn't make ourselves smaller to do that.  I'll end with Marianne Williamson's overquoted quote that is especially pertinent:

Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate,
but that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.

We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant,
gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

You are a child of God.

Your playing small does not serve the world.

There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.

It is not just in some; it is in everyone.

And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give

other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear,
our presence automatically liberates others.

What are your thoughts on the subject?
This is the third post in a series, defining methods The Seeing Place Theater uses in our rehearsal process to create Organic Theater.  

Other posts in this series:     Part One: Speaking Out  |  Part Two: Physical Reality


  1. "A speaker tells a listener..." I had already stopped and reread that quote before reading your next line repeating it. Even the listener can't "play small" or he is not telling the story. Going after what you want and competing on stage keeps you present, active, and aware, even when (gasp, I know this is shocking to hear) you're not speaking but rather, listening. The problem I see in a lot of productions is actors play small when they don't have anything to say. They almost vanish. We speak on stage because we've gotten to a place where we can't keep our mouths shut any longer. When we are not getting what we want we desperately need to find a way to communicate. Just ask a baby. This is active, this is huge. A play is about something that happens, not about a day nothing happened. You must always be going after what you want. Live fully in the reality of the play. Tell the story fully. Don't wait to speak, go immediately and aggressively after what you want, and believe me the words will be there when you need them to be.
    Of course, this is all easier said than done. I have fallen victim to playing nice on more occasions than I wish to admit. Even during rehearsals for my current production, LOVE SONG, I find myself playing small. I'm all too familiar with the deep socialization that keeps me doing this. I was raised Irish Catholic and it was always "do on to others..." but the time has come for me to shed these chains. I won't become the best actor I can be if I continue to be overly concerned about other peoples feelings on stage. I understand that characters in a play aren't people we generally like. In fact, most of the characters I've seen in a play are people I would run immediately and aggressively away from in real life.
    So, who cares what other people think about you? Practice going after what you want. Maybe if we all do this, we'll find some interesting similarities in each other; maybe even some common ground. The economist John Nash proved mathematically that if we all do selfishly what we all do best, everyone succeeds. The whole bubble rises.

    1. I love your example of the baby. There's an active participant in a situation if I ever saw one!

  2. I think there can be confusion about the difference about who a person is as an actor on stage and as an actor living their life out in the world or (and some may disagree here) even in the dressing room. This blog is about the former and not necessarily the latter. There are a lot of great actors who are assholes and a lot of great actors who are genuinely good caring human beings. Same thing goes for lousy actors: some assholes and good people. On stage, the actor must not hold back at all. He/she must be fully engaged, concentrated on the tasks at hand and aiming like a laser at his objective in the scene at hand in every moment. If she/he does not, they are cheating themselves and their fellow cast members.

    1. This is so true! And I think the only way that this kind of competition can exist is if a solid trust is built amongst the actors on stage. This is why we work with the same actors for a full season - so that there is enough emotional safety on stage to really live through a situation.

  3. More and more I am realizing the type of theatre I enjoy and want to be a part of is simple: tell me a story and get out of the way. Fancy lights, costumes, sets, etc. are important and serve productions differently, but at the end of the day, if the actors are not actively going after something like their lives depended on it, I don't care. Theater is about the day something extraordinary happened - that needs to be reflected in the direction, acting, and design.

    I do think there is a difference between a competitive Actor and a competitive actor (kind of what Alan talked about). The Actor knows when competition serves, but not competition in the sense, "Look at me trick the audience in ways my scene partner can not and get them to laugh, cry, etc." The actor, on the other hand, acts solely for this selfish reason: the applause. Every scene has a winner and a loser: that's the outcome of conflict. But in the process of creating theatre, there are no losers. Only actors don't know this.

  4. Great blog! It's certainly giving me losts to think about. :)

  5. I also think choosing the right objective is the hardest and most important thing in creating a character. Do y'all have any guidelines for yourself as far as how your phrase your objective? My acting teacher Jed Diamond told me that objective is "an image made flesh" - that is, you have a specific visual picture of what it looks like when you achieve your objective, and you find utterly specific words to describe it, phrasing it in terms of what you want to get the other person to do to you. Then you meditate/daydream/muse upon that objective, putting the want for it in your body, and you keep doing that until that image lives in your flesh, until your body wants that thing from head to toe. When I worked on the scene in MEASURE FOR MEASURE between Angelo and Isabel, in which she comes to plead for her brother's life and he ultimately demands her virginity in exchange, my image for my objective was him moved to tears by my appeal, clasping my hands, and swearing to save my brother's life. The way I put this into words changed, and I don't think I ever landed on something completely satisfactory, but I played around with "get him to yield to me", "get him to ally with me", etc. I always find an objective in the form of an image ignites me more as an actor.

  6. Great Post! As an actor I would have to say that I HATE playing it safe, and I wouldn't enjoy sharing the stage with someone that was doing it. Why not be real and push the other person? Like you said, we do it all the time in real life, so why would we not do it onstage? Because we're scared? That's crap. I respect someone more when they are real with me, especially if it means they have to push back against something I'm saying or doing. THAT to me is BEING NICE. Don't sugarcoat things for me or for the audience. Neither of us wants that, or enjoys being a part of it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a fight to pick.

  7. Amazing Post! I love how you drew a similarity between not taking initiative on stage and in real life. Taking risks in both areas can be scary, but they are always so rewarding. I feel that to really excel both on stage and in my career, I need to apply a certain level of CONSCIOUS EFFORT. Of course, the fears kick in whenever I start: why put in effort when the payoff might not be there? I have found overtime, the key is not in ridding myself of those fear, but "acting as if" I didn't have them. Eventually my actions prove my worries wrong and they fall off on their own. At the end of the day, I am always rewarded: That tactic in rehearsal didn't work? Good, it will bring me closer to one that does. Agents responded to my recent mailing? Fine, I will have more practice for next time and they all will have seen me once before. Take a risk people! Thanks again for this amazing post!

  8. Competition! Being "competitive"! Yikes! It is not what "good" girls in my generation were taught to be! I never fit in!!!!!!! So, although it will provide a large learning curve still for me, I relish the challenge. Think I need to remind myself that I don't need to have the other actor onstage with me "like" me!!! That will free me to go after what I want in the most agressive way necessary to fulfill my objective to the utmost. ... and yes, I agree with Magan.... choosing the words to express my objective most actively is a daunting, albeit, rewarding task!


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