What Is an “Obstacle” in Acting?

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We're all familiar with that important actor’s tool, the “objective.” But don't forget the other “O” word: “obstacles.” Obstacles go hand in hand with objectives, but are less frequently discussed—perhaps even misunderstood. 

What is an “obstacle” in acting?
“Obstacles are anything and everything that get in the way of your objectives,” writes Los Angeles acting teacher Ivana Chubbuck. They exist both internally (your character’s/your own psychological makeup) and externally (the other characters/actors, the environment). “Obstacles give power and intensity to your objective by making your goal harder to accomplish,” Chubbuck continues. “If your objective has ‘risk’ to it, it brings jeopardy and danger to the goal.”

If not, “then your journey is not interesting for you or for the audience,” Chubbuck elaborated in a phone conversation. “Without obstacles it ceases to be important. As humans, we like the hunt. It's the survival instinct—we don't want to just eat berries and fruit picked off the tree. There's got to be a barrier that gives you a strong drive to win what you're going after. Your choices have to be riddled with things that compel you to do more to accomplish your goal."

How do I determine my character’s obstacles? 
First, as you go through the script analysis process scene by scene, find your objectives. Then look for elements in the script that you must overcome in order to achieve your objectives. (In a good script, they should be obvious enough.) That's your starting point. Now, you must use your actor’s imagination, life experiences, and everything that will confront you on the stage or set, to heighten, personalize, and enhance those built-in obstacles. In “A Challenge for the Actor,” Uta Hagen writes that obstacles “can be drawn from things in the character's past, from specific character traits, from the events in the play, from the environs, the circumstances, the furnishings, and the tangible objects, from the relationships and certain aspects of them such as age differences.”

“The more obstacles, the better,” Los Angeles acting teacher Doug Warhit says. "Obstacles can be physical, emotional, spiritual, internal, external, familial, behavioral—as long as they serve the material. You can't arbitrarily create obstacles that don't advance the story or aren't appropriate for the character."

Hagen warns actors not to “intellectualize or be pedantic about defining ‘What's in my way?’” Stop and analyze the text only when you feel like you’re lacking an obstacle—when it feels like it’s too easy for you to get what you want. 

Maybe so, but Chubbuck, for one, doesn't underestimate the importance of identifying obstacles. She told me that her students often don't seem to want to deal with them. Why? Because Chubbuck insists they make an important connection when formulating obstacles: personalizing them. "To deal with obstacles, you need to face the things that screw you up as a human being, the things people tend to be in denial about," she said. If you're not willing to face your dark side, your acting won't be as rich and deep. Chubbuck points out that the basis for Greek tragedy—from which all comedy and drama derive—is the fatal flaw, which is the ultimate internal obstacle. If you can find a fatal flaw that your character must struggle against, and you can connect to that flaw personally, you're ahead of the game. Otherwise your obstacles run the risk of being superficial.

Chubbuck suggests ways of filling an obstacle up from the inside, as she puts it: Think about the possibility of rejection, of failure, of not getting what you want, and attach personalized images to those possibilities. What would it mean to win your goal, what would it mean to lose? "The [fear of] loss has to be nipping at our heels," she said.

She includes a concrete example in her pamphlet: "If it's a seduction scene, your [character's] obstacles could include possible rejection, personal sexual problems, self-worth issues, history of past hurts from other lovers, etc. Then, [take] the character's obstacles and match them to your own life with your personal history of rejection, your specific sexual fears, your exact issue with your body (breasts, chest, arms, legs, whatever, pick one—the worst one). Are you shy, overbearing, or submissive, and how does it get in your way? Do you have a small penis, a bladder infection, or smelly feet?"

Warhit observed that actors sometimes study only their own character when doing script analysis. "If I examine what the other character wants, and ideally it conflicts with what I want, the obstacles will be inherent," he pointed out.

How do obstacles come into play on stage or on set?
When your script analysis and personalizing is done—and you've found obstacles that work for you (and the character)—and you're actually onstage or on the set, you should play off the other person and the actual environment. "The magic," emphasized Warhit, "is in the spontaneity and the changes."

Chubbuck told me that when Jodie Foster was filming “Maverick,” she went to sit on a chair and accidentally missed it, landing on the floor. She could have called “cut,” but, professional that she is, she used that mishap to her advantage: getting up, dusting herself off, glancing around to see if anyone saw her, acting as if it never happened. Similarly, Kristin Scott Thomas, in “The English Patient,” after a romantic scene with Ralph Fiennes, turned away, bumped unexpectedly into a pole, and just kept going with the scene, glancing back to shoot her lover an "I'm such a spaz" look. "You pray for curveballs like that," Chubbuck says. "When actors stop a scene [midstream], I say, 'You blew a wonderful opportunity!' "

This energy can come from another actor, as well. “If I expect you to slap me in a scene, and you kiss me, that's going to throw me an obstacle. The idea is to justify whatever's going on in the moment,” explains Warhit. “The obstacles from the environment, or from the other person, usually allow you to act more fully than those that come from within yourself. Actors can be introspective and indulgent. If I get it from the other actor, it's more interesting."

Another Los Angeles acting teacher, Judith Weston, noted in her book “Directing Actors” the importance of turning unanticipated, in-the-moment obstacles into meaningful ones.

"Sometimes actors forget that an obstacle is a good thing, not a bad thing," she writes. "[They want] to stay in their comfort zone. Sometimes they make a choice that enables them not to engage, not to be affected by the other actor." In an effort to stay on course, they protect themselves from Chubbuck's metaphorical "curve ball." Or, writes Weston, they strike bargains with each other: "If you are really mean to me in that scene, then I will be able to cry." But if actors collude like that, she warns, "the emotional life becomes a connect-the-dots drawing instead of an event." In short, the actors have no genuine obstacles.

"In life," says Warhit, "we want to get along. In acting, we want to create as many problems for ourselves and our partner as we can, to create chaos." For instance, “you're talking to me right now in a normal tone of voice. But to create an obstacle, I can imagine you're talking to me as though you were my mother, in a patronizing tone of voice." He reiterates that your choices can't be arbitrary—but you definitely want as many obstacles as you can find.

Don't forget that, like Jodie Foster's recalcitrant chair or Kristin Scott Thomas' obtrusive pole, physical obstacles can—and should—energize you just the way emotional ones do. "Physical obstacles can be the best thing that can happen to the work," says Weston.

"Through obstacles, the actor becomes a hero," says Chubbuck. Just make sure those obstacles are plentiful, immediate, appropriate, and deep.

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