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The Craft

ACTeen's Rita Litton on Objectives for Young Actors

ACTeen's Rita Litton on Objectives for Young Actors
Photo Source: Paul Greco
Young acting students often ask me what they should be feeling; should they be "angry" or "sad"? It's the wrong question. I understand the actor's strong desire to connect to the material. But as a result, many fall into the feelings trap or what I call the "Taking Your Own Pulse" school of acting. They are constantly asking themselves, "Am I feeling it?" or "Am I feeling it now?" The unfortunate result of this approach is spending too much time preoccupied with "inner lives" and not noticing and focusing on what's going on around them-specifically, the other actor. They stop listening.

Acting is doing. An actor doesn't come onstage to feel an emotion but to do something. An actor should choose a strong objective. The objective should be something specific and difficult to get from the other actor. The stronger the need and the more challenging the obstacle is, the bigger the emotional response. If you achieve your stated objective, you are "happy"; if unsuccessful, you are "angry" or "sad." But if you listen carefully to your partner and react spontaneously, honest feelings occur. Feelings are the by-product of objectives won or lost.

What if the part requires intense emotion-say, crying-while the actor is performing alone?  Much has been written about emotional and affective memory. My advice to young actors is to first use the circumstances in the script to find the character's recent or immediate wants, then beg these needs from the unseen partner. Other young actors can use Stanislavsky's "Magic If" to connect to the material. You ask yourself, "What would I do if this was occurring to me personally or I was in this situation?"

Many young actors relate to emotionally charged events such as getting lost or being bullied or excluded. Again, note that the actor is not playing emotions externally such as "scared" or "lonely." These situations have strong objectives ("Find me!," "Pick me," or "Stay with me"), so focus on the action words as your imagination connects to these events.

As you rev up your "what if'' comparisons, make sure that your body is engaged. Strong emotions affect the body. You breathe deeper, your pulse quickens, and your face may flush or sweat. To help activate this sensation before an acting scene, breathe deeply, jump, or jog in place. Physical actions often trigger a stronger connection to the material because the activity stimulates your body to remember how it performs when you are in high emotional gear. Ultimately these objective, imaginative, and physical actions can help even the most inhibited actor to really "feel it.''

Rita Litton is the founder and director of ACTeen (established in 1978, the nation's first on-camera acting curriculum for teens and young adults) in New York City. In 2010 and 2011, she won Back Stage's Readers' Choice Award for favorite acting class for kids and teens.

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