Objectives are essential to good acting.
What are they and how to act truthfully with them?
One of my favourite scenes ever written is the scene between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth Act I Scene VII where Macbeth has just convinced himself that, contrary to the prophecy and his promise to his wife earlier he will not murder King Duncan that night. “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent…” and as if on cue the spur of spurs arrives to prick him where it hurts!
To work on this scene with actors I always begin with a series of exercises that focus purely on some of the key tenets of the Gonsalves Method. Objectives, Stakes and Entitlement. I believe these elements are rooted in all human interactions from when we are babies and our objective is to be fed. Our stakes are survival and our entitlement is huge! Any parent reading this next description of a teenager will surely recognise it.
I’m going to take you through a series of questions and I want you to say out loud your answers.
You’re a teenager and are trying to get money of your parents, or extra screen time, or a lift in the car (the list is endless) you want something! Let’s suggest they need to get money to get to the party where the hot boy/girl is going to be. High stakes indeed!
Where is the teenager’s attention? What are they looking at…? The wallet? No – what is the wallet going to do? No…they are looking to see if their parents are in a good or bad mood. Is this the best time to try their luck? Essentially we are always assessing is someone frowning or smiling. Where on that spectrum are they?
Now having assessed that, the teenager makes an opening gambit. Maybe flattery, “you look nice mum have you done your hair…?” and then the game begins. They go moment to moment assessing are their tactics working. Bartering, guilt tripping, whining, threatening, door slamming, pulling away (“I didn’t want to go anyway”) then begging, crying anything to get their objective and ultimately their stakes. When I did this exercise with seven year olds recently they said we do “lip” then crying, then tantrum. Lip is a quivering pushed out bottom lip (very effective they assured me)!
If a tactic is going well and you see cracks forming in the parent – a slight smile, a wavering, “if we should fail” in the case of Macbeth. This is the moment Lady Macbeth knows he’s susceptible and what does she do? She unrelentingly keeps going.
If it’s working keep going. If it’s failing change tactic immediately and check again is that working…
We all play tactics and objectives unconsciously every day. Think today have you got somebody to do something. Notice what tactics you used. Get someone to make you a cup of tea? Give you a lift? Help you carry something? And we instinctively know how to change tactics according to who you are talking to.
Which tactic is “mum or dad” more open to? Which kind of tactic do you not bother trying with them? What always works? This is prior knowledge. When you work on building up your character knowledge for playing a role a big part of it is knowing what they know about other characters in these terms. What works with them if i want to get something from them.
All characters are trying to get something from someone else and if your attention is outward you are trying all the time, to see how well or badly you are doing at achieving that objective, and you can then change accordingly.
Every actor, needs to build up the range of tactics they will try to use. Some people call these transitive verbs. I just say you need to try things and see immediately what was the effect of that tactic. Has it got me further or closer to my objective. I think it’s best to discover tactics by trying the following exercises: they are inspired by Cicely Berry’s “need to speak “ work and RSC exercises and my own made up ones gathered over the years, but you can make this exercise your own once you start to use it. I highly recommend you do an improvisation of a teenager trying to get money off their parents as you can then easily identify tactics, objectives, stakes and entitlement, it’s also easy to set up and great fun and (particularly good when working with young people) getting more screen time is the other big high stakes issue of our times. Or with older people getting someone on a first date agree to a second date. Where is our attention? On them. Are they smiling or frowning? If you make a joke and they don’t laugh you don’t make another one!
The Gonsalves Method has a simple sentence that if applied to a scene gives you a lot of what you need to play the scene. You then need to check “Is it working”? My following article will outline the “Objectives fill in the blanks Sentence” and a series of games and exercises that you can apply to any scene to build up this sense of “getting someone to do something”. Remember if your actor has their attention out and is asking is it working and responding accordingly it is very hard for them to be self conscious as they are “busy” with their attention outwards and because in each moment they need to check “is it working!” Not looking inward for that answer but reading and responding to the other person. This helps prevent nerves and gives everyone something to do in each moment. Even your non speaking parts can be engaged trying to get someone to do something, or say something, in their body language.
Remember all communication is 55% body language, 38 % tone of voice and only 7% is what you say. The Gonsalves Method gets you under the words to give you 100% connection! (As my corporate training brochure quotes)!
Act I Scene VII of Macbeth is a masterclass in objectives, and tactics. I will not suggest which tactics Lady Macbeth uses, because the key thing about using tactics is I believe you can use ALL of them at any time. They are all at your disposal unless your prior knowledge makes you know that they won’t work with this character, (remember mum and dad as a teenager – what works with one might fail with the other)! This is what gives us interpretive choice. We might all decide the same thing about what she wants to get Macbeth to do, but how she does it moment to moment is up to….no wait for it…..you guessed it….Macbeth. His behaviour and his words will tell her how she has to respond. Now that truly is “acting is reacting”. Anything outside of her will inform how she changes tactics. The sound of a servant walking past maybe overhearing, laughter of King Duncan from the other room, the triumphant battle victory drinking song that may break out and creep through the door giving her yet another tactic (or indeed him). I always get drawn into Lady Macbeth’s objectives. But in a scene both characters need an objective. If they are conflicting you inherently create the conflict and tension most scenes demand.
[Ed: Why don’t you click on the following link to read it (from Lady Macbeth‘s entry) and see if you can work out what her objective is: Mcbeth: Act 1 Scene 7 – Lady Mcbeth ]
I argue that you can only have one objective per scene.
No really – this is an essential thing to strive for. But what about when something happens? A letter arrives or your secret lover walks in… or any number of events that happen in scenes? Well…when you first assess what is your objective I challenge you to find an all encompassing objective that captures what is going on. What the person wants to get from the other person. (I’ll talk about scenes that are more than two handers in my next article….but for now I suggest a scene is when a character enters to when they leave….Then as this event occurs you just ask yourself does that thing/event happening in the middle of the scene make it harder or easier to get my objective.? If you’re trying to get money as a teenager of your parents and then your mother comes home does that make it easier or harder. This gives you the beat changes and the variation you as a teacher or director are seeking, but it’s all rooted in one character trying to get something from another character and failing and trying again. Think Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers – he is continually failing and changing tactic – people failing but trying is the essence of comedy… You can’t really use Objectives until you’re clear what is at stake for your character, why things matter… Read my next article outlining some exercises to practise finding and using objectives, and and discovering ways of changing tactics! And then try applying them to this amazing scene from Macbeth.
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