Objective: So Misunderstood.
First of all, I want to say that most of what I’ll be talking about today comes from William Ball’s book, A Sense of Direction. While this is a pretty good book on directing, its chapter on objectives is an absolutely essential read for all actors, so go out and get that book if you want to get a more in depth look at what I’ll be talking about today.
As you probably guessed by now, I am primarily influenced by the Michael Chekhov Technique for actors. Chekhov was a student of Constantin Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre. Constantin Stanislavski is to actors what Pythagorus is to triangles, Buddha is to Buddhists, Christ is to Christians. Believe it or not, we’ll be talking more about Jesus’s relationship to acting later.
Everything modern acting is is based on Stanislavski’s work and teachings. Chekhov was considered by Stanislavski to be “his most brilliant student” and there really isn’t any air between Stanislavski’s use of Objective and Chekhov’s. They both felt it was a vital component of the actor’s work and finding the right one can make the difference between a forgettable performance and one that is dynamic, engaging, and inspired.
Stanislavski’s main contribution to the actor’s work is “The Magic IF”, If this were to happen to me, what would I do? Believe it or not, prior to Stanislavski, acting wasn’t really thought of in those terms. In fact, actually feeling feelings on stage was frowned upon and considered very unprofessional.
Instead, many actors followed the Delsarte School of Acting. This was a system where a series of hand gestures signified emotion. For example sad, might be indicated by putting one’s hand over their heart. Rejection might be indicated by holding out one’s hands with their palms facing whatever it was they were rejecting. Anger was clenching one’s fists and so on.
In the meantime, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Naturalism and Realism were starting to take hold over the world of art and Delsarte became more and more old fashioned and out of place as a result.
Stanislavski’s response was to develop a new kind of acting to meet the demands of realism and his system was invented. And as long as films and theatre aspire to the style of realism, we actors are going to be using objective in our work.
This is because once everyone started asking themselves the question of What would I do? The answer became increasingly, I would fight for that thing I want. I would try to get that person I desired to fall in love with me. I would try to make my enemy suffer and so on.
Objective was the natural result of asking ourselves the question of "What would I do?"
Today, objective is one of those concepts that many acting techniques agree is absolutely vital to the actor’s work. But it can also be hard work and many actors are still confused as to what makes an objective a good one or not.
So here’s are the three parts an objective must have in order to be usable for the actor:
1. a verb.
2. a receiver
3. a desired response.
The first part of objective is the verb. An objective is not a quality. By that, I mean, the actor cannot play an emotion like angry or happy. This leads to the worst kind of acting: Mugging or Indicating. To be clear you can play an objective with a quality of emotion, but the objective and the quality are entirely separate, and the actor can only play a quality if they are using an actable verb as the core of the action.
Acting is ACTing. And you can only act actively. You must be doing something at all times during the course of the play or film or you most decidedly are not acting. Acting requires action.
So, an objective requires a verb. But not just any verb. This verb must be actable. It might be helpful if I talk about what an actable verb is not so we can zero in on what an actable verb is.
First, an Actable Verb is not behavioral or conditional. 'Walk','run', 'sneeze', 'sleep', and 'belch' are not actable verbs. These verbs are not sustainable. And they are not connected to a strong feeling of want and need that is required. In other words, there is no intent behind these verbs and they act as little more than stage directions during the course of our work.
Second, an Actable Verb is not a trigger verb. This rule is a little more subjective than behavioral verbs. The reasoning however, is much the same. They are simply not sustainable objectives. “Kick”, “notice”, and “quit” are verbs that happen very, very quickly and then are over. That being said, some verbs seem like they are trigger verbs, but can be surprisingly useful. I can 'twist someone up in knots' (in a metaphorical sense) and that might ignite my imagination for the length of the beat or unit. Chekhov actors use “push”, “pull”, “smash”, and “rip” all the time so again, it works if you can sustain it. If you can’t, it’s a trigger verb and you should try to find something else.
Third, an Actable Verb is not overly Intellectual. I try to be careful here because one actor’s intellectual verb can be quite useful for another actor so the distinction is up to the actor themself. For example, verbs like “obfuscate”, “cogitate”, or “impugn” might be intellectual to one actor, but another actor might find these to be really helpful. Here’s the general rule of thumb: If you have to look it up or you don’t use the verb regularly in your day-to-day life, then it probably is too intellectual for you to use for your work.
The point of these verbs is to add fuel to the fire of desire and a verb with too many syllables might not be really connected to you viscerally as a person. Instead of “obfuscate” try using “cover up”. Instead of “cogitate”, try using “piece together”. Instead of “impugn”, try using “attack”. Do you see how the latter words are just more active and alive? This is what you are looking for as an actor.
Fourth, an Actable Verb is not existential. Existential verbs tend to be vast overarching verbs that are way too vague for an actor to play them with active specificity. Verbs like “Try”, “want”, or “exist” just don’t cut it when it comes to objective. Actors work in the medium of specifics and the more specific a verb is the more it sparks our imagination and creates nuanced detail in our work.
Existential verbs tend to be the kind of verbs actors get most stuck on in my experience. So here’s a trick to get you out of that trap. Use the words “So that”. In other words, “I am trying to kiss her so that…what?” She will fall in love with me. She will sleep with me. She will see that I am right.
Now skip the existential part and go right for the goal. I am getting her to fall in love with me. Ok, how? By charming her. So now my objective is to charm her into falling in love with me. There’s a lot of stuff in there I could play. It’s far more active than the objective I was using before. Now we are cooking with gas.
The final and most subjective type of verb to avoid is Adjectival Verbs. These are verbs that tend to lead to indicating or mugging and are therefore to be avoided. They could be verbs that are close to, but not quite conditional like “discuss”, “argue”, and “forgive”. Or they could be verbs that are too close to playing an emotion like “loathe”, “pity”, or “judge”. That being said, I have found many adjectival verbs like “charm”, “enchant”, and “provoke” really useful so it’s something that an actor has to use their best judgement and try to keep aware if it leads them astray.
In essence, an actable verb is strong, simple, and sustainable. Examples might be: “inspire”, “ensnare”, and “dominate”. These are strong, actable verbs on which to build a powerful and useful objective, but just using a verb is not creating a complete objective.
Objective must also be deeply connected to a relationship of want and need in the character. And that relationship must involve the “other” on stage with you. This other could be another character or characters onstage or off, seen or unseen. It could also be your other self.
Many monologues, for example, involve speaking one’s thoughts aloud with no one else on stage with you. Shakespeare’s soliloquies are the most common example of this. When I coach actors on these types of monologues and I ask the question “Who are you talking to?”, the answers I sometimes get are either the audience or themselves.
However, talking to the audience makes little sense. If I am saying “To be or not to be” then I am not looking for the audience to answer the question. I am looking for the answer. I, as Hamlet, am the only one who can answer that question. If an audience member stands up and says, “Live Hamlet!!!” then the play has gone astray, hasn’t it?
So, if I am talking to me, does that make my character crazy? No, because we talk to ourselves all the time. But, here’s the thing, there’s more than one “Self” we are usually talking to. There is the higher self and the lower self. The Higher Self is the self that encompasses all of our nobler aspirations. The desire to be a good person, to be a better person, our ideal self. That is the higher self. The lower self involves all of our base desires. Food, drink, and sex are things that our lower-self desires.
So instead of thinking of yourself as alone on stage, think of yourself always with two other people even and especially when you are alone. This will help you find an actable receiver for your monologues and make it more active and dynamic.
For example, if my monologue is about whether I love her or I leave her, then I am talking to my Higher Self, the one who aspires to be a good person and embody the noble aspect of love and my Lower Self, the one who is frightened and wants to do things that are safe. If want one of these selves to help me make my choice and I have to want one of these selves to actively help me achieve whatever my objective may be. Suddenly, you’re not so alone on stage, are you? Try it and let me know what you think.
So, you must have an objective that is achievable only through the “other” on stage with you and you must have a clear and concise idea of what the goal of that objective is.
This tends to be a sticking point for many actors. Objectives like “teach”, “tell”, and “explain” tend to be pretty weak for precisely that point. There’s no strong relationship of want and need attached to them and the goal is ambiguous. You want to “teach” them? why? Because you are a good, altruistic person? That sucks for acting. Acting is not “nice”. And an altruistic character is truly the dullest type of character you can play.
In fact, there is only one truly altruistic character you will probably ever play on stage or in film and that’s Jesus. And even then, depending on who’s writing it, your Jesus could have a non-altruistic motive attached which is great for you, the actor, because otherwise where’s the fun?
But if you’re ever stuck on an objective that doesn’t have a strong goal from the “other” on stage with you, you can use the “crowbar” verbs of “Get” and “Make” to figure it out. In other words, ask yourself, “What am I trying to “get” or “make” the other person do?
Trust me, entire directorial careers have been built on simply asking their actors the questions “What are you trying to "Get" him to do?” or “What are you trying to “Make” her do?”
“I am trying to Make her leave with me.” Great, how? “I am trying to seduce her.” So your objective is? “To seduce her into leaving with me? Awesome, now play that.
Suddenly, you have a living moment filled with creative imagination and dynamic power.
So, just to review, an actable objective consists of:
1. A strong, simple, and sustainable action verb.
2. A relationship of want and need attached to the “other”.
3. A concrete desired response that can be articulated.
If it does not have all of those elements, then you need to dig deeper or make a different choice.
Hope that helps. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
See you guys later.