Whenever I talk to practitioners about the craft of acting—which I do constantly for this column—there is one technique that is always mentioned, no matter what approach we're investigating, no matter what the medium (film, TV, stage), no matter whether we're discussing auditions or performances. It is of course the first thing you learned in Acting 1A: Objectives.
Consider this a micro-refresher on the topic, a free-form discussion, and a warning of possible traps.
Most of us have an overriding desire in life that fuels our actions. So do the characters we play. In real life our deepest objectives may remain on the unconscious level. In acting we must identify our character's objectives, both unconscious and conscious, for the entire script and scene by scene. The objectives we choose will determine our choice of actions (discussed below). Stanislavski wrote that objectives guide our path and keep us from false acting. "It is the objective that gives [the actor] faith in his right to come on to the stage and stay there," he asserted. It gives us the go-ahead to do, not just to be.
Stanislavski provided guidelines in determining an objective: Objectives must be clear and specific, personally meaningful yet "analogous to those of the character you are portraying," and deep, not superficial. They must be directed toward the other actors, not the audience. They must be truthful and human and, at least theoretically, obtainable within the confines of the text.
Playwright Amy Freed, a former actor who teaches acting at Stanford University, explained it thusly: "To get my mother's approval is not achievable onstage." Right. It's vague, general. "What is achievable might be, I want her to smile at me the way she always smiled at my brother." You need to make choices like that: specific, personal, powerful, loaded, achievable.
Objectives, noted Stanislavski, must always be expressed in terms of an active verb, not a noun or a passive-type verb. Uta Hagen suggests, in A Challenge for the Actor, "I want to find beauty," not "I want beauty." Note that Hagen is referring here to the big, overall objective that you initially discover in reading the script. By the time you get into rehearsals or into shooting the scene, you'll need to translate that overall objective into a set of specific, playable objectives.
Warned Stanislavski, "Every objective must carry in itself the germ of an action." Actions of course are the activities, whether physical or psychological, we do to achieve the objectives, beat by beat.
One at a Time
How do you go about settling on the objectives? Through text analysis, soul-searching, and on-your-feet experimentation. Los Angeles acting teacher Doug Warhit offered a few good tips: One is to read the other characters' parts and determine what their objectives are (don't make the mistake of discussing objectives with the other actors, though). That way, you can choose for your own character an objective that appears to be in conflict with the other characters' desires. Conflict equals drama. Warhit also noted that actors sometimes glom onto an objective early on rather than experimenting; your first choice is not necessarily your best.
Uta Hagen suggests approaching the objective after first determining who your character is, what her given circumstances are, and what her relationships are with the other characters. Warhit doesn't think it matters when in the course of your preparation you consider your objective, as long as you make sure to deal with all aspects of your role.
Start by finding your main objective in the play, advises Hagen. As we've discussed, be sure it's something that works for the character and has personal meaning to you, the actor—something you can identify with. If not, all is lost. Freed pointed out, "It took me years to understand how out on a limb you feel when you're playing an action to win. Once you do, it's transformative in that suddenly your acting is reckless, alive, for real, you can feel the chemistry change." But you can't achieve that intensity with your actions unless your objective has real meaning to you.
Then, during the course of rehearsals, explore your scene-by-scene objectives in the context of your responses to the other actors and your circumstances. "[A]n immediate objective stays in effect from the moment of its inception until the wish has been fulfilled or has failed," Hagen notes. At that point, you move on to another objective—always within the boundaries of your overall objective, of course. (Similarly if you perceive that an action of choice is not working—you're not getting any closer to achieving your objective—that's when you switch to another action.)
One more thing: Given that some objectives are drawn from the subconscious—in other words, you the actor know what they are, but the character doesn't—how do you play them? Hagen suggests that in early rehearsals you play the hidden objectives openly, overtly; then try to forget about them and play only the objectives that your character consciously knows. Theoretically, anyway, the two should meld, for a nicely layered performance.
It's Not So Simple
But things can go wrong in the choice and execution of an objective. Stanislavski said that the most common mistake actors make is to think too much about results rather than focusing fully on the actions you need to undertake to achieve your objectives. Hagen warned against "mechanizing" the procedure of finding objectives. Don't feel you must write everything down, she said. "If an objective is valid, it will stimulate not only your feelings but the will to do something about it." And as we all know, acting is doing.
Freed told me her students tend to want to reduce finding an objective to an easy formula: Make a strong selection and then play actions that would seem, logically, to lead you to fulfilling your objectives. But life, and interesting art, are not so neat and tidy, she pointed out. What happens is, the texture and complexity of reality get lost along the way. "It's all about getting what you want, but not in the straight-line way you think when you first begin acting," she explained. Choosing an objective and finding actions to achieve your objective cannot be approached the way you'd diagram a sentence. Complex characters require powerful objectives and all kinds of circuitous, revelatory, and unpredictable actions to fulfill them. Formulating your objective is not an intellectual exercise; in the end it is a visceral experience. "Your objective has to be in your body and soul" is the way Doug Warhit put it. He added, "Objectives only have validity if they move you viscerally and translate into behavior."
Warhit also pointed out that choosing an objective for a comedic sitcom character is different from choosing an objective for a dramatic character. "Sitcom characters tend to be eccentric, immature, selfish, childish," he said. "Therefore when choosing an objective you can't base it on mature adult logic, you can't follow the same rules as you would for drama, which is more linear and logical."
He also warned against formulating your objective in a negative way, and he used the film The Score as an example. In that movie, explained Warhit, Robert De Niro apparently chose a negative objective: to not do any more stealing. De Niro had a secondary objective, to get serious with his girlfriend, but that need wasn't as strong as his need not to steal. "In my opinion all he was doing was protesting rather than going after something, and he wasn't fully engaged," said Warhit. Whereas Edward Norton's objective—to do the robbery and to involve De Niro's character in it—was so overwhelming that his character was more persuasive. "That's a great movie to learn from in terms of going after what you want as opposed to avoiding something," concluded Warhit.
Finally, I asked Los Angeles teacher Margie Haber, who specializes in the audition situation ("I call it 'slice of life' rather than 'audition,'" she emphasized), what actors need to know about objectives when auditioning. Her answer surprised me. "Most people do focus on their intention, and then they get off-track," she said. "They are so focused [on their objective] that they give up the most important thing: the relationship to the other character." We'll talk more about Haber's particular approach to auditioning in a future column, but meantime her point is well taken. Objectives, actions, given circumstances, obstacles, relationships, spontaneous responses: All are equally important aspects of the craft of acting. And no matter how strong and personalized and text-appropriate your objective, you still have to react in the moment. BSW