The Super-Needy Super-Objective
Last time, I wrote about the actor’s objective and what makes one actable. Finding the objective is a vital part of the actor’s homework. An "objective" is what we are fighting for in each scene. It drives our character and the right one makes our acting come to life on stage and in film. A strong objective sparks our creative imagination giving us the greatest possible emotional commitment and dramatic inspiration through each beat, scene, or unit of the play or film.
It’s important, however, that we not confuse an "objective" for a tactic. An "objective" is the goal, but the "tactic" is how we achieve that goal. For example, Let’s say my objective is “To Get Her to Go Out With Me”. Great. Now we have to think of how we can accomplish this. I can flatter her. I can flirt with her. I can show off for her. I can question her. I can make her laugh. And so on.
Each separate tactic is meant to drive my objective throughout the scene. I can have one tactic or many tactics throughout the unit or scene, but each one must support my objective. If it doesn’t, then check to see if your objective has changed. If it has, then you know you have moved on to a different unit of the play or film, so you’ll need to find a new objective for the new unit.
Just as tactics are meant to support the objective, objectives support the actor’s Super-Objective. The "super-objective" is what your character wants over the entire course of the play or film. With very few exceptions, the "super-objective" does not change throughout the course of the story. It is the central driving force of the character and whether the character wins or loses, achieves that objective or fails, it shapes the character’s action through the course of the story.
Just as finding and articulating an objective can be difficult for many actors, finding the super-objective can be even more vexing. Many actors struggle to find an overall driving force for their characters and as a result their characterizations lack clarity and sharpness making their choice less interesting or more erratic as a result.
But, there is a way of efficiently finding your character’s objective that will simplify the process so that you can get right to the meat of your work as an actor. We do this by using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Abraham Maslow was a 20th century psychologist who created a model of Human Needs that prioritized and built upon each successive level of need culminating in Self-Actualization, the ideal self that one is capable of becoming.
While in life, we may have many needs that we are trying to accomplish simultaneously, in plays and in film, there is usually only one driving need that is being focused upon. That is because life goes on and on and plays and movies need to resolve everything in about two hours.
At the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are basic physiological needs. Food, Shelter, Water, Sleep, and other basic needs that keep us alive lie at the base of the pyramid. These are the most essential needs that a human needs to maintain life. Many plays and movies have characters where these are the driving forces throughout the story.
In the 2013 movie, Gravity, for example, Sandra Bullock’s character, is trying to get back to earth after her space shuttle suffers catastrophic damage. This is a movie about basic human survival and her super-objective throughout the story is to get back to earth.
Other movies such as Alive, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Perfect Storm all pretty much have the same super-objective for the main characters. Their basic physiological needs of maintaining their lives need to be urgently met throughout the story. Everything they do drives this need. Their super objective is therefore easy to find and play.
The next level of need is Safety and Security. This is the basic need that you and your stuff will be safe from one day to the next. You should feel safe leaving your house and you should feel save within your house. If you leave the house, then you should know that your house will be the same as you left it when you get back.
To me, the most obvious example of a character who strives for this as his super-objective is Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge has all the things he needs to keep alive and is happy to keep them at the bare minimum even though he could afford much more. However, he hordes money and spurns the poor and less fortunate because the more wealth he has, the safer from poverty he is.
He hates the poor because he fears becoming one of them. To him, money equals safety and security. He doesn’t want or need anything his money can buy (a nicer home, stylish clothes, the trappings of wealth). All he wants is the money itself, cold, hard, cash so that he can feel safe.
It is only when the ghosts show him that his wealth may be keeping his body safe, but won’t keep his soul safe and that he is putting himself in danger of eternal damnation that he changes his ways and becomes generous. He is still yearning for safety, though. It has simply changed from safety of body to safety of spirit.
So, Scrooge’s super-objective could be "to make himself safe". This could drive the actor throughout the play or movie and everything he does, spurning the poor, keeping himself from caring about others, hoarding wealth could be done to support that goal. This also may add depth and dimension to the character making him someone to root for even through his many faults.
The movie, The Pursuit of Happiness, also has safety and security as the driving force of the character. The character and his son are homeless. His super-objective is to provide a safe home for his family.
The next level of Maslow’s Hierarch of Needs is Love and Belonging. The need to love and be loved is the theme of countless plays and movies from Romeo and Juliet to The Shape of Water. Since Maslow’s time, researchers have found that giving and receiving love is not just a psychological need but a physical one as well. Providing dogs to the elderly, for example, not only helps with stress and depression, but some studies suggest it may help them live longer as well.
So yes, romantic love is a very common super-objective, but so is friendship and a need for belonging. Stand by Me, The Breakfast Club, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants: all great movies with leading characters whose super-objective could be connected the need for friendship or belonging.
If the movie or play basically ends when the protagonist gets the girl or guy of his or her dreams or, like Romeo and Juliet, it’s assured that they will never be together, then that character’s super-objective revolves around love and belonging.
The next level up is Self-Esteem. This means feeling good about ourselves and being valued by others. In film, this is the bread-and-butter of both Disney movies and sports movies and especially, Disney Sports Movies. Other movies with characters with a need for self-value include Legally Blonde, 8-Mile, and Hairspray.
It need not end happily either, Amadeus is a great example of both a play and movie where the main character yearns to valued. Spoiler alert for this 35-year-old movie and 230-year-old story: Salieri does not get valued.
At the very tippity-top of the pyramid is Self-Actualization. Self-Actualization is the need to live up to one’s full potential, to be your ideal self. In Shakespeare, that usually means being king. Macbeth, Richard III, Henry V, all can be seen to have a super objective of living up to one’s full potential by becoming king or in Henry’s case becoming a great king. All of these characters clearly already possess all of the underlying needs, they are wealthy, feel safe (except when visited by ghosts of friends they may have killed), have strong relationships and they all seem pretty confident. They have only one need left to fulfill and that’s Self-Actualization.
So, basically, the easiest way to find one’s super-objective is to start at which level of need they are missing. Sometimes it will be obvious, sometimes less so.
Let’s find a super-objective just for practice:
Prospero from The Tempest seems to be motivated through most of the play by Revenge. So it is tempting to say that his super-objective is "to get vengeance on his enemies".
For example, at the end of Act IV, he says:
“Let them be hunted soundly. At this hour
Lie at my mercy all mine enemies:
Shortly shall all my labours end”
But then, he changes and opts to forgive them. No external event happens to force him to make this decision. He decides to all on his own. Why? Maybe he has grown beyond vengeance and doesn’t need it to feel good about himself?
I think his super-objective is tied to the need for self-esteem, feeling good about oneself or feeling empowered. Psychologists say revenge is an act people engage in when they feel a loss of power and wish to reclaim it. Prospero finds the power within himself at the end so maybe his super-objective is "to reclaim the power he felt he lost". He achieves it, not by getting revenge or becoming Duke again, but by forgiving his enemies and finding the power within himself.
By attaching the super-objective to human need it increases the likelihood that it will be stronger, more compelling, and more emotional. Most of all, it fleshes out your character and produces a deeper, more authentic performance.
That being said, there is no one right answer to any of this and your Prospero may be very different from mine. That’s what make acting fun after all, so if your super-objective is different, I say, "awesome". Just make sure that it is strong, simple, and attached to the character’s most pressing need.
I want to leave you with this. Studying your character, articulating and writing down your tactics, objectives, and super-objectives is a vital and important part of the actor’s homework. But that’s just what it is: HOME. Work. This work is not a substitute for on-your-feet rehearsal. It is meant to complement and enhance your rehearsals in order to make them more productive. Acting truthfully with your scene partner, you may discover that some or many of the choices you made at home simply don’t work in rehearsal.
And that’s normal. That is what rehearsal is for. Homework never takes precedence over stage-work. Write everything in pencil and be ready to change everything and anything right to the very last performance or take. Inspired performance means being ready for inspiration whenever and wherever it comes.
Let me know what you think in the comments.
I’ll see you guys later.