Specific Intentions – for acting and actors – Part I

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Photo Credit: David D 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.
The Super-Objective, as KS (Stanislavski) labelled it, can be anything human: “I want to find love” or “I want to be rich and famous,” or “I want to free my country” or “I want to own the land,” etc., etc. The possibilities for these objectives are as endless as our dreams and aspirations. The Super-Objective, whatever it may be, is something desired passionately, and, as Shurtleff tells us, it is frequently perceived by the character in the play as a matter of life and death.
How do we find them? Each character’s Super-Objective can usually be expressed in a simple declarative sentence. I want to do or be (something.) One rarely needs to write an essay to understand the essential volition that drives the character from beginning to end of the play. Read the play carefully and ask yourself: “What do I (the character) want to accomplish most of all in life?” The answer is the super objective.
The problem for the actor, however, is that understanding (and naming) the Super-Objective does not necessarily solve the problem of how to play the role. A Super-Objective is usually a grand and sometimes vague state of desire. But good acting isn’t vague. Good acting is always specific and focused on the moment. It is not so much the problem of “What I want to be or do in general?” As it is, “What one must do specifically, now, to get what I want?”
What we do now is best described as the intention. When specific intentions are joined to actual moment-to-moment realisations (What I do physically to get what I want), the actor creates dramatic action. As has often been said, acting is not just wanting, it is doing.
A good illustration of this principle of intention and realisation is a scene from the Oscar-winning screenplay of Midnight Cowboy by Waldo Salt
The next several essays use this scene repeatedly. After you work through these briefs, you’ll see how much depth of analysis and critical thinking is required for good acting:
Two drifters in Manhattan have become unlikely friends and share an unheated room. One is Ratso/Rizzo, a petty thief who lives by his wits, hustling and stealing from out-of-towners. The other is Joe Buck, a not-too-bright cowboy from Texas who, despite his delusions of grandeur, has become a petty gigolo. Joe has promised that as soon as he makes big money, he will accompany his buddy Ratso to Florida.
Despite the sordid situation in which they live, each character has a definite Super-Objective (in this case, both have a dream) which can be discovered by a careful reading of the screenplay.
I suggest that these two dreams are:
(Super-Objective #1) Ratso “I want to MOVE to Florida and a better life.”
(Super-Objective #2) Joe “I want to MAKE IT BIG in the Big Apple.”
Before the scene begins, Joe has made his first score with a rich woman. Before returning home to the flat he shares with Ratso, he has stopped off to buy his sick friend some medicine and groceries. His anticipated intention is to burst out with the good news of his first score, delighting his friend with presents.
Here is how the screenplay describes the first series of actions. As yet there is no dialogue:
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.
Let’s look at this from the viewpoint of each actor.
Joe’s point of view is studied in this essay;
Ratso’s will be in the next one.
The actor performing the role of Joe can’t play “I want to MAKE IT in the Big City” as he approaches the door to his apartment for the simple reason that the Super-Objective is not specifically related to what is happening in the moment. (In an overall sense, the Super-Objective is connected to the action because making it big to Joe means being generous, showing-off, helping his friend get out of the city.) But at this specific moment in time all the actor playing Joe has to act is:
(1) Intention: I want to open the door. (Inner action)
A possible realisation of this intention might be:
(1a) Realisation: I will open the door slowly so I can surprise my friend. (Outer action)
(1b) Realisation: I will open the door quickly, and burst in on my friend with the good news. (Outer action)
This choice of realisation will depend on the analysis by both the actor and the director. Which realisation you choose will then determine the action you choose.
Banal as this simple action may sound, a meaningful performance is strung together from these basic events, what Stanislavski called “tasks,” each task executed truthfully — exactly as the character would behave in the moment.
How then does Joe open the door? That is the actor’s (and/or director’s) choice. In our imaginary scenario, our actor has chosen to open the door slowly.
The door opens slowly. Joe sees his friend Ratso huddled in the chair; Ratso is violently ill. Joe can no longer execute his planned intention to burst out with the good news of his first score, delighting his friend with presents. Because of what Joe sees, his intention changes. He intended to come in smiling, ready to laugh, flush with success; but when he sees Ratso, he almost instantaneously develops a new intention. The resulting action is that you can almost see the smile and joy drain from his face and be replaced by…?
The screenplay reads:
They simply stare at each other for a moment, then Joe turns away to see soup heating on the Sterno stove.
What then are the specific intentionS and realisationS in this simple description? For Joe it might begin with:
(2) intention: I want to be certain of what I see. (Inner)
(2A) realisation: I stare. (Outer Action)
The problem for the actor here is the execution of this simple action. If I want to be certain that what I see before me is true (that Ratso is seriously sick) I must examine what I see carefully. BUT I may not want to show what I am feeling on my face. Or, I may want to show my concern on my face. No two actors will treat this moment in the same way. The important thing to remember here is that although each actor’s choice of intention in the moment may be the same, the realisation of that specific intention is almost always slightly different actor to actor.
That’s why Gielgud’s Hamlet is not Mel Gibson’s or Laurence Olivier’s. As Sandy Meisner tells us “How you do what you do is your character.” No two actors DO in the same way.
Joe stares, his friend stares back and says nothing, hiding his misery. Now the actor playing Joe has a choice to make. Do I continue the action of staring, or do I change my intention and its realisation?
The script only tells us: “then Joe turns away to see soup heating on the Sterno stove.“ Why does Joe turn away? As always the actor has a number of choices to consider. He must justify his action with a psychological reason. Here are a few:
(3/1) intention: I want to HIDE my concern. (Inner)
(3/2) intention: I want to HELP him immediately. (Inner)
or, etc., etc.
Whatever inner reason you, the actor, choose, the outer realisation is:
(3a) realisation: I turn to look at the soup heating. (Outer ACTION)
What gives this physical action variety is HOW you choose to turn. If your intention is 3/1, you might choose to turn your head slowly in order not to display your anxiety. If your intention is 3/2, you might turn your head quickly. Slowly or Quickly are adverbial actions. In the Grammar of Acting, they define how you do what you do, or your characterisation.
The screenplay now tells describes the next action to be executed by the actor:
Joe tosses one of his paper bags onto Ratso’s lap.
The key word here is the verb “tosses.” We notice that the screenwriter did not write “places” to describe the action. We must ask ourselves why he chose a violent verb to describe a simple action. What is Joe’S intention in “tossing” instead of “placing.”? As always, there are a number of possible choices for the actor to consider:
(4/1) intention: I want to BREAK the tense mood with a violent gesture.
(4/2) intention: I want to GET DOWN to the job of helping my pal ASAP
(4/3) intention: I want to SURPRISE or SHOCK my friend with my gifts.
(4/4) All or none of the above, or any other intention that comes to mind.
The choice, of course, is the actor’s or director’s. What is important is HOW you carry out the realisation of this intention in an original and dramatic way.
(4a) realisation. I toss the paper bag.
Truffaut once said that film is life played at twenty-four frames a second. What we are attempting to do here is to stop and start the tape of the film in order study each action, as it evolves frame by frame.
Now it is true that there are some actors out there who do all these things instinctively, and without study. Their actions come naturally without thought. These geniuses simply immerse themselves in the reality of the character’s circumstances — They Believe— and they do. But for most of us, those “of more meagre endowments,” as KS once described us, a careful analysis of what we do, and how we can do it
In a phrase, the Grammar of Acting may well be worth the study.
In the Grammar of Acting, the character you play is the noun — the “I” that acts to achieve a Super-Objective– a dream, a wish, a goal. Intentions and Realisations are the carefully chosen verbs and adverbs that the actor chooses to get there.
Based on 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.
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