Objectives and Superobjectives – an acting approach

objectives and super objectives_550
Photo Credit: Ben Salter via cc
We are delighted to republish Prof. John Palmer’s ‘Theatre Briefs’ series, Actor Hub hope you find them as useful as we have.
This series of short essays about acting is reprinted with the kind permission of Professor John P Palmer of London, Ontario, Canada. He wrote these ‘Theatre Briefs’ for use by students and fellow actors during classes and rehearsals. Where he has relied on material from others, they are cited.
Stanislavski once said that the basis of any characterization is the simple statement I WANT, to which I would add “TO DO.” I WANT TO DO.
This desire to action is the basis of all dramatic literature from the Greeks to Seinfeld and on, into the new millennium. One person sets out wanting to achieve something; others help or hinder him/her along the way. The play begins, the play ends.
Stanislavski asked us to read the play with that in my mind. The first question the actor should ask is “What then is the overall desire, wish, dream of my character?” What does s/he want to do most of all? Is it to find love, peace, to be rich and famous, to make the world a better place? Etc., etc. These basic human objectives, recognizable to all, are what KS called “The Super Objective;” they are the overall thrust, the life force of each individual character in the play. How the character goes about doing this, how s/he overcomes the numerous obstacles, large and small, that are put in the way of achieving that desire is what most classic and modern theatre is about.
Once you have read the play or scene with that in mind, it might be useful to look at each character and describe their The Super Objective; by making a menu of simple declarative statements.
  • Hamlet - I want to . . .
  • Claudius - I want to . . .
  • Gertrude - I want to . . .
Obstacles create dramatic tension, without which there is no suspense or dramatic interest
You will notice as you study the play that these major and minor characters rarely have the same super-objective. If Hamlet wants to find out the truth of his father’s death, King Claudius wants to put the past behind him and reign peacefully. In order for Hamlet to find out the truth, he must test his uncle, he even must attempt to kill him. Hamlet’s probing and examination is the obstacle, the disturbance that keeps the new king from his super-objective of “I want to put the past behind me and reign peacefully.” These obstacles create dramatic tension, without which there is no suspense or dramatic interest. Claudius acts: he sends Hamlet away. Hamlet returns, etc.
How each character goes about step-by-step doing what s/he must do has been called the The Specific Objective or the Intention: a series of minor and major wishes followed by realizations of those wishes, strung together like beads on a string. KS called that string the “through-line” of the character — how one specific intention leads to another and another. His disciple Boleslavsky, first teacher of the KS system in the USA, preferred to think of this continuity of action as “the spine” of the character.
In the course of the play, each simple intention is carried out or compromised or aborted
If the Super Objective is “I want to FIND LOVE,” the character might begin with the simplest intention which is “I want to GREET a girl.” In the course of the play, each simple intention is carried out or compromised or aborted from “I want to GREET” to “I want to KISS my bride.”
But the important thing for the actor to remember is that once you understand what the Super-Objective is, you cannot act it. You cannot act something as vague as “I want to LOVE.” You can certainly act specific intentions: “I want to GREET, “I want to CONVERSE.” “I want to FLIRT.” “I want to KISS,” etc.
If the play is composed of hundreds of these verbs of action, the next job for the actor is to identify them line-by-line.
Taken from work by Norman B Schwartz
These essays may be reproduced at no charge for non-commercial purposes. Just please acknowledge the original source (John Palmer) and his blog Eclectecon.
Also please retain the attributions included in the briefs.
You may not use these resources for commercial purposes.