Specific Intentions & Dialogue – An actors guide

intentions and dialogue_550
Photo Credit: Caitlin Regan 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.
Up until now all of Joe and Ratso’s actions were done without dialogue. What happens once dialogue is introduced into the action of the script?
In the scene, Joe has just tossed a bag of clothing and medicines at his sick friend Ratso, then gone over to the Sterno stove to prepare some soup. As Ratso examines the contents of the bag with the intention of “I want to see what’s here,” Ratso realises that intention by opening the bag and examining its contents slowly.
Joe speaks.
1.Joe: See what you think of that crap. I’ll pour your soup. Got some of that junk you like to swill, too. Mentholatum. Aspirin. All that shee-it
What are the verbs of intention, the actor can act here ? Again, we are not talking about playing a Super Objective or a mood, we are addressing the specific action in the moment.
Joe refers to the clothing and groceries as “crap,” “swill” and “shee-it,” which is not what he feels, nor why he bought them What then is his intention in speaking about these purchases in such a manner ? It might be:
(1) Intention: I want to LIGHTEN things up. I want to KID AROUND. I want to MAKE A JOKE, etc.
If that is the intention (Step #1 of the BAU – Basic Acting Unit), how then does Joe realise that intention? Of course Joe must speak – an outer action must realise an inner desire.
How he speaks is the adverb that modifies the verb of action LIGHTEN, KID, MAKE A JOKE. If how you do what you do is your character, you–the actor–have many choices in how to realise this action. You might exaggerate the words “crap,” “swill” and “shee-it.” You might say them with a smile. You might deliver them “dead-pan,” knowing that your friend will know that you’re not serious. The choice is the actor’s.
At the same time Joe is preparing the soup, Ratso is examining the bag. Here’s what the screenplay parenthetical tells us about that specific action:
Ratso opens the paper bag, trying to control his shivering, pulling out the socks and a suit of long underwear. He sees Joe watching him for a reaction.
The best Ratso can do is a slight shake of his head.
The script tells us that as much as Ratso needs the medicine and clothing, he is distressed that Joe has paid for them instead of stealing them. What then is Ratso’s intention in the moment. It might be:
(1A) Ratso: Intention: I want to SHOW Joe my disappointment.
How is that realised ?
(1b) Ratso. Realisation: I shake my head slightly. I crumple the socks. I throw the long underwear to the floor. Etc.
Now suppose somewhere toward the end of his first speech (#1) Joe spots that disappointment on his partner’s face, the way Ratso shakes his head, or treats the clothing with indifference. That will certainly change the way Joe speaks his next line.
Joe’s intention would change colour from “ I want to KID” to “I want to DISCOVER what’s wrong?” or “I want to FIND OUT if I made a mistake.” Joe realises this, of course, by the only means an actor has: by speech and movement. His next dialogue is:
1a Joe: They wrong?
Imagine how this line can be realised in an adverbial way. “With curiosity” “With Annoyance” “With bewilderment” If Joe is truly perplexed, he might stop stirring the soup. Etc., etc.. Words and physical movement demonstrate inner feelings.
2.Ratso: They’re okay. Only why buy them? That’s dumb While you got the aspirin, I coulda lifted six pairs of socks.
What’s Ratso’s intention here? Is it “I want to CRITICIZE” ? “I want to PUT HIM DOWN”? Whatever the intention the actor chooses, the way he speaks or moves in realising it must be clear to Joe whose act of friendship and generosity has so far gone unrewarded.
Here is where Step #3 of the BAU comes into play. As Ratso acts his intention and realisation of line #2, he looks at Joe for a response (Step #3) Is Joe angry, disappointed, hurt or any number of responds that such a moment calls from the character.
What Joe does in the moment must be digested by Ratso and reacted to, which is Step #4 of the BAU.
Ratso might react in numerous ways, depending on the actor. Let’s imagine Ratso’s inner monologue.
(a) “He’s pissed off at me. Who cares. He’s a dope.”
(b) “I hurt his feelings. The idiot should have stolen the stuff and not wasted his money.”
Or etc, etc
Whatever reaction the actor chooses, it will in turn affect Ratso’s reaction and his next intention. Intentions – as we have demonstrated – can change line-to-line.
2. Joe: We don’t have to steal nothing no more, boy. I got nine bucks left and twenty more Thursday and before you know it we gonna be riding on Easy Street.
Joe may have had a momentary flash of disappointment, but his dialogue tells us something about his next intention, which seems to be “I want to REASSURE YOU.“ If that is the intention, then obviously his momentarily disappointment quickly changed to something else. Imagine how that need to reassure, to assuage his buddy’s doubts, effects Joe’s voice and body language as he speaks and moves during line #2.
2. Joe: We don’t have to steal nothing no more, boy. I got nine bucks left and twenty more Thursday and before you know it we gonna be riding on Easy Street.
And here is the next parenthetical action:
(He hands Ratso the soup. Ratso seems momentarily steadied by the warmth in his hands. He grins curiously at Joe.)
How does Joe hand the soup based on how he is feeling about Ratso’S behaviour. Is the adverbial realisation “brusquely”? Is it “gently” ? Or what?
The choice is the actor’s. It depends on your subjective view of what you believe to be truthful for the moment based on your understanding of the psychology of two human beings living under these sordid circumstances.
As Stella Adler once said “Genius is in the choice.”
Based on work by Norman B. Schwartz.
The originals for many of these essays are based on material that appeared at home.ease.lsoft.com/archives/acting-pro
Unfortunately that site no longer seems active.
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.