A Roadmap of Intentions in Acting

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Photo Credit: Aaron Harmon 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.
Note from Prof. Palmer –To tell the truth, these last few briefs have gone pretty far and may not be as interesting to you as the first couple were. Also, you may see these roles (Joe and Ratso from Midnight Cowboy) quite differently than Schwartz does. If you do, his interpretations and explanations may make it more difficult to follow the gist of what he’s trying to say.
Try to plunge ahead. Try to work through what Schwartz is saying, and try to take it in. Even if you disagree with him, working through this material cannot help but improve your performances, but only if you actually do it and don’t just read it. It’s another case of learning-by-doing rather than not-learning-by-reading.
This is the last of the briefs that directly addresses these topics.
The scene so far: Ratso first dismissed his friend Joe’S generous gift of medicine and clothing, earned with the money of Joe’S first score as gigolo, because Joe bought them instead of stole them. Joe, with his usual naiveté, reassures his friend that they will soon be rolling in money. Ratso apologizes and confesses to his friend that he is worried to death about what will happen to him if he goes the hospital. Joe, troubled by his friend’s trembling, is about to set out to find a doctor when Ratso stops him. Ratso tells Joe that he wants to go to Florida. Joe, who has promised to accompany him there someday, refuses to go with him now.
The scene ends with the following dialogue and action:
11Joe:I can’t go to Florida now!
12Ratso:Just get me on the bus.
12Joe:Shee-it, you got the fevers. How you think you gonna get to Florida?
13Ratso:I’ll get there. You just get me on the bus. I’ll be okay.
13Joe:Just when everything’s going my way, you gotta pull a stunt like this.
13Ratso:I don’t need you. Just get me on the bus. I don’t want nothing more from you. I got other plans for my life than dragging around some dumb cowboy who thinks he’s God’s gift to women. One twenty-buck trick and he’s already the biggest stud in New York City. It’s laughable.
Joe: sets his Stetson on his head.
14Joe:When I put you on that bus down to Florida tonight, that’ll be the happiest day of my life!
If we were to make a quick Roadmap of Joe’s major intentions moment-to-moment, they might be:
Line #11. “ I want to REFUTE my friend’s suggestion”
Line #12 “ I want to REMIND him of the impossibility of his suggestion.”
Line #13 “ I want to DISPLAY my disappointment at his inconsideration for my goal.”
Line #14 “ I want to HURT his feelings” or “I want to REJECT him.”
The important thing about these verbs is that they are what the actor can act. They can be realized verbally and physically in any way the actor chooses.
Now let’s look at what Ratso can play if he follows his Roadmap of Intentions:
Line # 12: “ I want to ISSUE a request.”
Line # 13: “ I want to GIVE A COMMAND”
Line # 14: “ I want to INSULT”
Stanislavski taught us that an actor cannot summon up emotions on call; s/he can only trick or lure them to the surface by physical activity, or as Nicholson says:
“I try to make (my intentions) even more important than it would be to the character, and that creates feeling.”
Feeling for the actor is an organic by-product of doing, it should never be a thing by itself.
One of the classic criticisms of Actors Studio training in the Strasberg Method era was that Strasberg’s pupils were so focused on being emotional that they often completely ignored their partners and the script. Therefore, when an actor sets out to learn a role rather than the emotions of the role, one of the most useful bits of homework s/he can do is to draw a Roadmap of intentions from the beginning of the scene to end.
For Joe it might be:
Line # 1: “I want to LIGHTEN things up.”
Line # 2: “I want to ASSUAGE my friend.”
Line # 3: “I want to BOAST”
Line # 4: “I want to AGREE”
Line # 5: “I want to DISCOVER the truth”
Line # 6: “ I want to CLARIFY”
Line # 7: “ I want to BE CERTAIN.”
Line # 8: “I want to REASSURE.”
Line # 9: “I want to INFORM.”
Line #10: “I want to REMIND him of his condition
Line #11: “ I want to REFUTE my friend’s suggestion”
Line #12 “ I want to REMIND him of the impossibility of his suggestion.”
Line #13 “ I want to DISPLAY DISAPPOINTMENT at his inconsideration for my goal.”
Line #14 “ I want to HURT his feelings “
LIGHTEN-ASSUAGE-BOAST-AGREE-DISCOVER-CLARIFY-BE CERTAIN-REASSURE-INFORM-REMIND-REFUTE-REMIND-DISPLAY-HURT are strung together like beads on a string from the beginning of the scene to then end. They are active verbs which when played result in clear and vivid action.
I always recommend that the actor set this string to memory before attempting to learn the words of the text. (Prof Palmer addendum: doing this requires a lot of script study. You cannot shirk on this.) Doing so is the most dependable guide to where s/he is going in the scene, and in a larger sense, in the play. Realisations of these intentions, of course, vary from actor to actor, night-to-night, take-to-take, because they are always dependent on what the actor receives in the way of reponse (BAU 3) from his/her partner(s).
The intentions may be the same: realisations never.
Every character in a well-written play begins with a prescribed destination The Super Objective. A desire to be or do. That journey is often interrupted by roadblocks and obstacles to be overcome by the constant shifting of Specific Intentions and Specific Realisations.
Each shift may require a change in colour: the use of voice and body in response to what is happening in the moment. These shifts, as we have seen, sometimes change drastically line-to-line. The actor who has studied these steps, set them to memory, has a distinct advantage: s/he is in relaxed and in a state of readiness where anything can happen.
By entering into the inner life and intentions of the character, the actor has tricked him/herself into the subjective state that the character is experiencing. The audience responds. What the spectator sees appears to be totally spontaneous and real.
But it is a trick, a wondrous bit of illusion in which the illusionist is the actor.
From work by By Norman B. Schwartz (with permission)
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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