Specific Intentions – for acting and actors – Part II

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Photo Credit: Alexis O’Connor 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.
Please be flexible when you read this essay. Your interpretations of the scene may differ from those of the author, and you may disagree quite seriously with Schwartz. Nevertheless, his method of breaking down a scene is extremely illuminating.
Now let’s re-examine the scene from Midnight Cowboy from the point of view of Ratso.
Ratso huddled in the overstuffed chair—wearing the stolen sheepskin coat– wrapped in blankets, his teeth chattering in spite of the sweat on his forehead. Joe enters, stops abruptly, his mood shattered by Ratso’s alarming condition. They simply stare at each other for a moment then Joe turns away to see soup heating on the Sterno stove. Joe tosses one of his paper bags onto Ratso’s lap.
We decided in the previous essay that a plausible Super-Objective for Ratso, the desire that drives him throughout the film, might be:
“I want to MOVE to Florida and a better life.”
The awareness of this Super-Objective 9along with agreement on it between you and your director0 is important, of course, but it can only help the actor in the moment if he focuses on specific action, not on a general state of mind or emotion.
The scene begins with Ratso, deathly ill, in an armchair. At that moment in time, Ratso’s intention might very well be:
(1) Intention: I want to get well. (Inner action)
A possible realisation of this intention might be:
(1a) Realisation: I huddle, cover myself, keep warm, prepare hot soup, try to control my shivering. (Outer action)
This is the task the actor must accomplish, however he sees fit to execute it. If the actor tries to evoke sadness or fright, most likely all that will happen in the moment is a cliché or indication of emotion. It was for that very reason that Stanislavski proposed in his Method of Physical Actions that the actor concentrate whole-heartedly on re-experiencing and recreating visible physical action in a truthful way. It was his firm belief that working in this manner would “lure” all the emotion required for the scene. Emotion would come organically as a consequence of honest physical behaviour.
All Ratso’s action is connected, however subtly, to his Super-Objective. After all, if Ratso is to achieve his dream of Florida, he cannot do so unless he gets well. In the scene, getting well is his first intention, realised in the manner described above.
As no character stays in the same place or state for any length of time, Ratso’s intention and realisation are soon disturbed by the sudden appearance of his friend Joe.
What does Ratso notice if he concentrates on what is happening in the moment? He sees Joe, who has just run up the stairs, enter with a smile on his face. That boyish grin is instantly transformed to a look of concern. Joe stares at his roommate without saying a word, turns to look at the can of soup cooking on the Sterno stove, then tosses a bag and crosses to the stove.
If Ratso wants to get well, he has realised that intention by trying to keep himself warm. The moment he sees Joe’s expression change from happiness to concern, he must react to what he sees in a way that would momentarily distract him from his concentration. If we could place a bubble over Ratso’s head and read the thoughts that enter his mind that instant, his Inner Monologue might go something like this:
Ratso (Inner Monologue): “Joe was in a good mood, until he saw me. He can see that I’m really sick.”
Digesting this information, Ratso has to change. He has a choice of new intentions. One of them might be:
(2) Intention: I want to PRETEND I’m okay. (Inner)
Given that choice, RATSO might realize it this way:
(2A) Realisation:I lower my blanket; I force myself to stop shivering; I smile. I stare. (Outer Action)
Of course, that’s just one choice among many. Suppose instead that RATSO decided that he didn’t care if JOE saw that he was sick. Another Intention
(2) Intention:I want to DEMONSTRATE how sick I am.
(2A) Realisation: I pull the blanket up to my face, lower my chin, and stare without expression.
As the screenplay doesn’t tell us anything more than “they simply stare at each other for a moment” it is up to the actor (and the director) to decide upon the appropriate behaviour which best illustrates Ratso’s present state of mind. Needless to say, if Ratso chooses to pretend instead of demonstrate, or vice versa, Joe’s response –the way Joe stares, the way he turns to the Sterno stove, the way he tosses the bag– will also be affected by what is on Ratso’s face and in his body language.
All of that transpires rapidly, in a flash of time, seemingly without thought. The truth is that this illusion of scenic reality is created only by careful choice and precise physical action, after much consideration and rehearsal. It just doesn’t happen because the actor playing Joe is full of feeling and comes through the door with theintention: “I want to act”and then immerses himself improvisationally in the action.
After staring at his sick friend, Joe’s next realisation might be (1) to toss the bag of groceries and medicine at Ratso forcefully, in anger, or (2) to toss it nonchalantly. Whatever the choice, Ratso’s response and reaction must change accordingly.
If the bag is hurled at him in anger, Ratso’s next intention might be:
(3) Intention: I want to see what’s in the bag.
The realisation of that intention could either be (A) to open the bag slowly or carefully, or (B) distractedly, without great concentration—all depending on what’s going on in Ratso’s mind as he digests Joe’s physical action (the toss).
(A) Ratso (Inner Monologue): “Joe’s really worried about me. He’s trying not to show it. He’s brought me something. Probably food.”
(B) Ratso (Inner Monologue): “Joe’s pissed off at me. He’s brought me something. Probably medicine. I hope he got the right kind.”
In any play, the possibilities for Intention and Realisation are endless, and yet all must be based on what is happening in the scene, moment-to-moment, as you the actor, and your director, understand it and choose to represent it. The important thing, in my opinion, is that whatever choice you make, it must be a precise and clear choice, visible and audible to the audience. This clarity of intention and realisation comes about only when the actor has trained the instrument. Therefore, how we speak and move outwardly in the moment is as important as what we feel inwardly, if not more so.
When you concentrate on what you want to do moment to moment — i.e., finding strong realisations to strong intentions — you are in effect stringing together the beads of action which ultimately create a living character in imaginary circumstances.
Sandy Meisner once told me “Get all the moments right, and you’ll have a character.”
Based on work by Norman B Schwartz
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