Raising the Stakes: Counters & Obstacles
So, the last couple of blogs, I’ve been talking about objective and super-objective, how to make sure they’re actable and strong, and how to find the best one for your character. To review, the super-objective is your characters central driving-force throughout the play or movie. It influences and shapes the character’s behavior throughout the story and creates a strong, compelling, and authentic performance.
The Super-Objective is what you want. It is your character’s fantasy for the future; his or her most audacious goal based on their most pressing need. A character doesn’t usually strive to just get by. Instead, they want to win the championship, be the best, exceed all expectations. Actor’s work in the medium of feelings and unless you have invested your super-objective with sufficient emotion to make it compelling, you will find it harder to do your work in a way that can hold an audience’s attention.
Plays and movies aren’t written about ordinary people in ordinary situations. They are written about extraordinary people in extraordinary situations in this, the most important time of their lives. Even the most ordinary, grounded story must be interesting and compelling enough for people to want to watch it.
However, as much as your character may want something, it is rare for a character to go after it without some feeling of urgency to go after it right away. A person may want to go back to school someday, quit their job someday, lose 20 pounds someday. But someday is never going to happen unless there is an urgent and immediate need to actively begin accomplishing that goal right now.
To put it another way, while super-objective is the roadmap of your character, there are times when that may not be enough. Sometimes you may need extra drive to fuel your character’s actions throughout the story. Have you ever had a director tell you to “raise the stakes”? This means that you are not fighting for something hard enough. Your objective may be right, but you are not making it important enough to really make you want to fight for it.
One way to achieve this is to use counter-objective and counter-super-objective.
The 'Counters' are the answers to the questions of, “If I don’t do this right now, what will happen?” For example, I may really want to graduate and that’s great. But if I don’t go to class or study for the test, I will fail that class. If I fail this class, I will not graduate. If I don’t graduate, I will disappoint myself, my family, my friends and my dream for my future will remain forever unfulfilled. The Super Objective is the character’s dream for the future, the counter-super-objective is the character’s nightmare for the future.
Like it or not, humans are generally motivated by their hopes AND their fears. Quite frankly, I’m sure that I don’t have to remind anyone in these times of how powerful a motivator fear can be. Your character is no different so, as an actor, it is helpful to identify and calibrate your character’s fears so that you can find the appropriate feeling of urgency for each moment on stage and for the story as a whole.
Let’s look at Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy wants to get back home to Kansas. She literally follows a golden road leading to her super-objective. There are many obstacles to her objective on that road continually trying to block her way to her goal. What drives her not to quit is her fear. That fear is literally shown to her by the Wicked Witch late in the movie when she’s been captured. She shows her being all alone and never getting home.
Few stories have such clear-cut examples of super-objective and counter-super-objective. The actor, more often than not, must dig deep and really study their characters in order to find the right answers for their interpretation of the character. But, hey, that’s what rehearsals are for.
It’s also important that the actor properly calibrate their Objectives and Counter-Objectives. Generally speaking, the counter lives on the same plane as the objective and is polar to that objective. Remember last time we talked about using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need to find one’s super-objective? Your counter will ordinarily reside on the same tier of the pyramid of need as your objective. If Dorothy’s objective is to get home to her family, then that is a safety and security need.
At the end of the movie, she could have stayed in Oz, living a long life surrounded by friends she truly cares about. She’s definitely loved and admired there. But, "there’s no place like home".
Home for her is a place she truly feels safe and secure, a place where she is cared for. She’s still a child after all, so this makes sense to me. Therefore, Dorothy’s counter, her nightmare for the future, has to be the polarity of her never feeling safe and secure again.
If you, as the actor playing Dorothy, decided that your counter was “If I don’t get home, I’ll die,” this would change your acting choices quite a bit. Of course, now that I think about it, being terrified of a lion, an anthropomorphized scarecrow, and a possible killer robot with an axe, might be justified. But in the context of the story, if Dorothy’s primary fear is death, then that is a very different movie. She would be closer to the cowardly lion than the brave little girl and she might never have followed the yellow brick road in the first place.
Unlike the objective and the super-objective, the counter need not be fully active throughout the play or movie. Dorothy’s overcoming her fear is part of the story after all. And while that fear will never go away entirely, it is completely veiled by the time she is clicking her heals together. So how much fear is at the forefront of the character’s mind at any given time during the course of the story also makes a big difference.
Also, if I am playing a small part in a play or movie, I could really mess things up if I am playing a super-strong counter in the scene. If I am playing a walk-on waiter in a movie, and my objective is simply “to provide good service to my customer”. And I give myself a counter-objective of “or I’ll be fired,” then I can really pull focus from the scene. It just won’t be an authentic performance, so make sure that your counter is appropriate for the play, movie, or scene as a whole.
In other words, always know where the focus of the scene is supposed to be and make sure that your acting is supporting the overall story that is being told. The director will probably not appreciate it if you end up changing the story their trying to tell by pulling focus because you’ve decided that your waiter fears dying alone.
Also, while fear can motivate your character, fear can also be an obstacle to the character’s objective. An obstacle is anything that stands in the way of your character’s objective. It can be external like a person or an object or internal, like your character’s fear or doubt.
If my objective is to escape out of a burning building by jumping into a safety net. Then fear of heights may be an obstacle in that case. However, I may have an even greater fear of burning to death, so we have a fear of heights versus a fear of death. One is moving you towards the goal of jumping to safety and the other is keeping you on the ledge. This is where the conflict resides and therefore is the heart of the dramatic moment you have to play.
Identifying the obstacles to your objective is crucial. It helps you identify exactly where the conflict lies in a given scene or over the course of the story. Let’s say, I’m doing the “To be or Not to be” speech from Hamlet. First, we must decide what his or her objective might be. It could be “to untangle my thoughts about whether to live or die.”
So, what would be the obstacle? In this scenario, my obstacle is internal. If I am trying to untangle my thoughts, then that implies that my thoughts are currently tangled, cloudy, filled with doubt and uncertainty. Knowing where the fight or conflict is can be just as important as knowing what you are fighting for in a given scene.
Now, let’s say, in another production of Hamlet, he is AWARE that Polonius and Claudius are hidden behind an arras in the room. Perhaps, he is simply saying that speech for their benefit? A way to draw them out and manipulate Claudius into revealing himself? I’ve actually seen this done in some productions of the play, so it’s not really that farfetched. Then my obstacle isn’t internal, but external.
My objective might become, “To draw Claudius out.” Now my obstacle becomes Claudius, particularly the fact that he is hiding both literally behind a tapestry in the room and metaphorically behind the veneer of being a good uncle and king.
Different obstacles, entirely different performance.
Finding your obstacles, counter-objectives, and counter-super objective helps you, the actor, determine, where the fight is and how hard to fight for what you want in a given scene.
That being said, counters should be used carefully and sometimes not at all. Your stakes should be high, but they also should be authentic to the situation your character finds their self in. In short, you should always look for the maximum amount of emotional investment of the scene you are in while maintaining an authentic performance fully grounded in a feeling of the whole.
Hope that helps. I’ll see you guys later