When an actor picks up a script, they need to regard it in the same way that a musician regards a piece of sheet music. Those who have no training in music will look at a piece of sheet music and try to glean its contents from the lyrics. The trained musician, on the other hand, is able to discern a complete performance by marrying the words to the musical notations. They grasp the structure of what is before them. The same must be true for the actor and their script.
However, a script doesn’t have the precise notations that are found with music. To the musician, what is on the page means something very specific. The ambiguity of the script gives the actor more freedom in the choices they make but it also makes finding the vital structure of the script more challenging.
This freedom without discipline often results in preparation for a role which involves a general read through of the script followed by a line by line approach, in an attempt to arrive at a realistic line delivery. There is no attempt to put together a complete performance based on the structure of the script. The result is a shallow performance.
The structure of the script is the structure of action. The words on the page give clues to the action in the same way that the lines on an architectural blueprint can suggest a structural aspect of an entire design. To understand the structure of action, one must understand three basic ingredients. When working on the script, the actor should constantly focus on answering these questions:
What does my character want?
What’s preventing them from getting what they want?
When does what they want change?
The answer to the first question leads to what is often referred to in the acting lexicon as the “objective.” All action is based on desire. The stronger the desire, the more interesting the action. The actor must discover what their character’s objectives are, in every scene in which they appear, in the strongest and most specific terms. They must arrive at objectives that are both powerful and playable.
The actor must also select objectives that they can make personal. It’s not enough to pretend that you’re going after what your character wants; you need to want it yourself and go after it until you’ve captured it for your character. Robert Cohen called this “victory oriented” acting.
But there is a paradox in this dynamic. How can the actor go after their character’s objective in powerful and playable terms even though the success or failure of their character’s quest is predestined by the script? In other words, it’s hard to genuinely pursue a victory at anything when you know the outcome. There are a few techniques that the actor must use in order to overcome this paradox.
The test of your action lies in the other actors. And I mean, specifically, the other actors; not the characters that the other actors are playing. In the process of attempting to win your character’s goal you must do so by, personally and genuinely, affecting the other actors around you. Make it personal. Don’t think of yourself as a character surrounded by other characters. You are playing yourself, in the service of your character, and you are surrounded by real people who happen to be playing characters. These people need to be moved and changed by the needs of your character. Playing your objective in such personal terms will help to diminish the forgone conclusion in the script.
The actor in search for the structure of their performance will experiment with different possibilities when determining what objectives they will pursue for their character. They will arrive at the objectives which best serve their character’s desires and allow for the most powerful and playable actions.
As an actor, you “play” your objective. But there is something that the actor must also actively “play against” in order to remain in the moment. I’ll cover this dynamic and continue our examination of the structure of acting in the next entry.