Overcoming Obstacles by Changing Intentions

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Photo Credit: Nick Page 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 important thing to remember here is that although every character has a Super-Objective or Overall intention that carries him/her from the beginning of the play to the end, within that journey specific intentions always change, sometimes as often as line-to-line. These subtle changes –the colours of the beads- vary according to the individual personality and talent of the actor. The more varied the colours the actor strings, the more interesting the total performance becomes.
In the scene so far Ratso has dismissed his friend Joe’s generous gift, earned with the money of Joe’s first score as gigolo. Joe might have displayed anger, or disappointment at this, but interestingly enough, his love or concern for Ratso is so strong that he soon overcomes whatever disappointment he might have felt. He says:
2Joe:“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.”
What then is the active verb of intention of this speech? I want to reassure you? I want to assuage your fears? etc. It is realised by speech in an adverbial fashion. Cheerfully? Proudly? Tenderly? The HOW of the speech also varies from actor to actor. The screenplay describes a physical activity, which reinforces Joe’s inner intention:
(He hands Ratso the soup. Ratso seems momentarily steadied by the warmth in his hands. He grins curiously at Joe.)
How Joe hands the soup is as important as what he says. As his inner intention now has changed to “I want to help my friend get well,” it is essential that Joe focus on his partner to see Ratso’s response to that action. This response is step #3 of the BAU. Joe observes Ratso to see if his action is having a desired result before moving on to the next intention.
Before deciding what that intention might be, it helps to consider Joe’s inner-monologue: what does he think in the moment, but not say, as he observes Ratso take the soup and drink it? That monologue might go something like this:
Joe (Thinking) “Is Ratso still pissed at me cause I used my money to buy these things instead of stealing them? Well, one good thing; he’s eating the soup.”
Of course, Joe doesn’t know for sure until he sees Ratso “grins curiously” whether Ratso likes the soup or not. Note that the author has given the actor and us a very clear parenthetical instruction – a verb and an adverb – as clues to Ratso’s inner thoughts. If Ratso grins instead of frowns, we can assume that the soup has not displeased him.
What is Joe’s reaction to that grin? (BAU #4) If it pleases him, we need to see his reaction to it, as it will affect his new intention. As Ratso never comments verbally on the soup, the “grin” is the only means the actor has to show us what is going on inside Ratso’s mind. Ratso says:
3Ratso:“It was okay? I mean, it went okay?”
What is Ratso’S intention here? It might be: “I want to change the subject because I don’t feel like apologising or thanking Joe for his gift.” Added to that is “I want to find out what happened because I’m dying of curiosity.”
You will notice that in suddenly changing intentions from “I want to criticise” to “I want to find out” the actor is asked to string two entirely different colours on the string of beads that create his total characterisation. You do not criticise in the same way as you inquire. Your body language and tone of voice change.
Again, Ratso realises his inner intention by an outer realisation through a sudden change in speech and body movement. Does he move his body closer? Perhaps. As he is huddled in the chair, how can he drink the soup clutching the blanket to his face?
Realisation of an intention often requires a physical change as well as an internal one. One possible physical action for Ratso might be to let the blanket drop momentarily.
Now Joe speaks in answer to his roommate’s question.
3Joe:“She went crazy, that’s the truth, like a goddamn alley cat.”
What is the new intention? Surely “I want to boast” “I want to show off”? Actable verbs quite different in colour from some of Joe’s earlier intentions “I want to open a door slowly” “I want to stir the soup” “I want to assuage my friend.” Joe, who had been apologetic and anxious a second ago, now reveals another side of himself which is in direct contrast to earlier colours. That change is demonstrated in the way he speaks line #3, and in how he behaves to Ratso in the moment.
What is Ratso’S response to this change? The author’s parenthetical tells us quite clearly:
(Ratso laughs with Joe, almost spilling the soup.)
Joe has a response and reaction to that: Is he still angry that Ratso put him down? Has he overlooked Ratso’S lack of gratitude?
(Joe reaches to steady it.)
This physical realisation must tell us how Joe feels about Ratso in the moment. What happened ten seconds ago is no longer really relevant to the moment.
The new intention could be
(1) Intention: “I want to keep the soup from spilling,” or perhaps it might be something stronger and more interesting.
Intention (2) “I want to HELP my friend get better in every possible way.”
As we have demonstrated throughout this material, moment-to-moment the actor is always given a plate of choices, choices that depend on how s/he reads the script, and what her/his partner does in the moment.
When Stella Adler said “genius is in the choice,” she meant that there is a great difference between the actor who instantly chooses (1) “I want to keep the soup from spilling” and the actor who digs deep to find the hidden humanity in his/her actions: (2)”I want to HELP my friend get better in every way possible.”
The choice still remains ours.
Based on work by Norman B Schwartz
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