Overcoming Obstacles – An actors and acting guide

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Photo Credit: US Army 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.
The scene from MIDNIGHT COWBOY so far:
Joe has returned from his first big score as a gigolo. On his way home he stops off at a store to buy his sick roommate Ratso long underwear and medicine.
Entering the freezing apartment, he finds Ratso huddled in a chair, shivering with cold. He tosses the bag of medicine and clothing at his friend and begins preparing soup.
Ratso examines the contents of the bag and tells Joe that he should have stolen the goods instead of buying them. Joe tells his friend not to worry about money, soon they’ll be rolling in money.
He hands Ratso the soup.
With these simple actions and a few lines of dialogue, the screenwriter, Waldo Salt, has begun painting a complex relationship between two dissimilar men. The big question for the actor remains –how does the knowledge of the Super-Objective affect how the scene is played?
For the purpose of this discussion, we have decided that Ratso’s Super-Objective might be: “I want to MOVE to Florida and a better life.” Joe’s might be “I want to MAKE IT BIG in the Big Apple.”.
As the scene progresses, neither character is dealing specifically with the larger concept. But Ratso knows that unless he gets well, he can’t move to Florida. Thus, as the scene begins, his energies are focused on some simple specific and actable tasks.
For Ratso: I want to GET WELL; I want to DISCOVER what my room-mate has bought me.
For Joe: I want to SURPRISE my buddy; I want to HELP him get well.
These simple intentions and their realisations are all that the actors can and must act. They cannot act an intangible philosophical yearning. They can act only visible physical realisations of their specific moment-to-moment wants: for Joe, I open the door, I look at my friend, I toss him the bag, I stir the soup, I hand the soup to my sick friend, etc.
These basic tasks are like coloured beads strung on the string of the play. If Joe hates his friend, he will hand him the soup in a different manner than if he is worried to death that his friend might die. The colours on the beads change as the psychology of each character changes.
For Joe, the thrust (AKA “the spine”) of the play is wanting to MAKE IT BIG, but there is an obstacle to doing this: his promise to take his friend to Florida. Joe cannot accomplish his dream, if his friend is sick; therefore in order to achieve the Super-Objective, Joe must focus on specific intentions, devoting all his energies to overcoming the obstacle, however he can. Therefore, the simple actable intention “I want to FEED my friend ” and the actual pouring of the soup are related to the larger thread, the Super-Objective. But all the actor acts in the moment is the simple task of pouring. That pouring becomes a significant action because it reflects Joe’s psychology in the moment. If the pouring has no relation to what Joe is feeling, it’s just a meaningless bit of business.
Ratso’s thrust is ” I want to MOVE to Florida and a better life,” but the obstacles are
(1) He cannot do so if he is sick, and
(2) He cannot get there if Joe wastes money.
Ratso deals with these obstacles with specific intentions and realisations.
(1) I want to KEEP WARM
(2) I want to EXAMINE the bag
(3) I want to CRITICIZE my friend for spending money instead of stealing.
In his explanation of The Method of Physical Actions, Stanislavski proposed that the actor focus all his/her energy into discovering and executing these simple tasks in the most truthful, believable and original way possible. In doing so, s/he finds the most appropriate gestures and movements to best demonstrate the psychology of the character.
In achieving his/her dream or wish, each character works on colouring each bead of action, however minuscule the bead, stringing every intention, realisation, response, reaction and intention/ intention, realisation, response, reaction and intention/ intention, realisation, response, reaction and intention, etc. etc. from the beginning to the end of the dramatic action.
The actor never has to think about emotion. Emotion comes as a result of the hard work of overcoming the obstacles that deter us from achieving our Super-Objective.
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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