As an actor, you’ve probably been exposed to your fair share of acting lingo. Maybe you’ve heard the terms “action,” “objective,” and “intention” thrown around—and maybe you even have a rough idea of what they mean. But the subtle distinctions between each of these terms is important. So we asked four acting coaches to answer the question: What’s the difference between an action, an objective, and an intention?
Private Coaching, New York
Action, intention, objective—in the English language, three words that have several interpretations. However, in theatrical language, the amount of work required of an actor by these three words can mean the difference between the actor's failure and success.
Action is what an actor, playing a character, does or says to achieve an objective.
Objective is what the character wants, or what the character's goal is.
Intention, perhaps the most important job an actor has, is the meaning of the line or what's going on in the actor's mind—the subtext.
Find the why of the character. Example: Derek Jacobi directing Kenneth Branagh in “Hamlet” at the Birmingham Repertory. Jacobi disclosed that he'd always felt the soliloquy was not meant to be a soliloquy but rather a monologue spoken to Ophelia. Makes sense, as Ophelia is there to find out what Hamlet is thinking, and she traditionally enters only after Hamlet has finished the speech. Jacobi had her stand and listen. Branagh's action is then to feed her his thoughts. His intention, or subtext, is for her to pass along his plans to Polonius. His objective is to foil the king and Polonius.
That said, actors should not get hung up on theory. Rather than act the character, it's more important—and effective—to be creative and truthful.
Actors Annex, Los Angeles
The three tools are connected. Each one has a strong purpose in the scene and can't stand alone believably without working together with the others.
Let's start with the objective. You must identify what your character wants to "win" in the scene. It's the "what I want" from the other character that is the driving force, and it's always worded in a way that requires a response from the other character.
Now, from knowing what you want (the objective), you make it personal: the intention. This gives you the emotional need. It's not enough to just want something; you must have it at all costs. It's the subtext, or the driving force. It is real and urgent. Your objective is spurred on by your intention.
Actions are the instinctual behaviors you engage in, in an effort to achieve your objectives. But here's what's interesting: Your actions have the power to change the meaning and intention of your objective. So be careful. Actions are mini-objectives, which you use to get what you want. They support the scene objective both verbally and behaviorally.
Figure out what you want (objective), make it personal (intention), and go after it (action).
Matthew Corozine Studio, New York
I like to keep my work with my students as simple, specific, and doable as possible. I am blessed to have tools and technique based in "the reality of doing" (the Meisner technique). That being said, I try to keep actors out of their heads as much as they can be and not worrying about doing the scene "right." However, we must serve the playwright's intentions—hmm, there's that word.
An objective is what the character wants in a scene. Many techniques focus only on the objective/action/intention. But that's not compelling to an audience (or a scene partner). It's what happens to you in the doing—the journey—that's of interest. I think our work as artists is a connection, an expression of truth in the moment. I do not believe it's an intellectual pursuit. To be bogged down with terms and achieving goals takes the actor out of the play and makes him or her self-conscious as opposed to focusing on moment-to-moment truth.
Scott Sedita Acting Studios, Los Angeles
As far as I'm concerned, it's all about the want, what other teachers call the objective. For me, the word objective is too cerebral, too heady. We rarely use that word in our everyday life. The want is the most important tool for actors to understand and implement in their work.
In my acting class, I always ask my students, "What is your character's want?" I ask them what they, as the character, want in the scene. Is their want to change someone's opinion, acquire an object, gain another's affection, or complete an urgent task? The word want is primal, visceral, and raw! We use it every day to express our most basic and most passionate needs, urges, and desires.
Next time you approach a scene, first define your character's want, and then say it out loud. For example, "I want you to listen to me." Repeat this sentence as many times as possible, trying different intentions to achieve your want (to plead, to shame, to seduce, to crush, etc.) and see what organically happens inside your body before, during, and after the exercise.
Repeatedly stating your want is an effective technique to use before entering any scene. I call it "revving your engine."
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