Thursday, January 07, 2010

breaking it down

I received a really nice compliment last night on one of my old blog posts, the somewhat contentious the trouble with Mamet's practical aesthetics. In an earlier comment, someone (these were all anonymous posters) had asked me to describe the way that I approach objective in my classes, since I had supplied such an exhaustive critique of the approach Mamet recommends.

Here was the request for explication:

I'm curious though as to what rules you've come up with for choosing a strong NEED (and to see an example of how it's applied to a scene). You don't have a book I could be referred to and I can't take your classes since I'm not based in the U.S., so it would be great if you're willing to share your insights to the acting community here.

I responded (I'll include my response below), and received the following response to my response, from a newcomer to the thread:

I have an MFA in acting and find your writings remarkable. Your analysis is the most concise and applicable information I have encountered and I am overwhelmed by your generosity in posting it online. Truly well done and thank you.

Naturally, it felt good to get a compliment like that. Mark Twain once said he could live for two months on a good compliment; ditto for me. Reading that compliment made me think that I should do a blog post and include the comment that elicited that compliment. I do it with a little hesitation, because this point i one of the things that makes what I teach truly distinctive, and there is a temptation to hoard it for my students only. However, I know that putting it out there will be the better choice karmically, and I hope it will make some of you consider studying with me. So here goes:

Thanks for your comments.

I once asked one of my mentors at Yale whether he would write a book, as it seemed to me that what he presented in class and in scene work was truly visionary, and the world would be the better for becoming acquainted with what he had to see. He chuckled and simply said "No." Astonished, I asked him why not. His answer was that what he was teaching couldn't be taught in a book.

I say that to frame what I am about to write. I appreciate your interest in what I have written, and so I am going to do my best to oblige you, but I am skeptical about how well I can make myself understood in this kind of format. That's only because I think to a great degree the concepts I teach have most of their meaning in the context in which they are used. But I will walk you through some things.

The first things about the underlying objective is that it is a need, not an out come. So for Blanche DuBois, arriving in New Orleans, the fact that she wants he sister and brother-in-lew to welcome her into their home, and the fact that she hopes to find a husband, are outcomes. THey are what we refer to as plot objectives. Getting Eunice to orient her and let her into Stella's apartment, once she learns Stella is not around, is also a plot objective, albeit much shorter term. But both of these things are outcomes Blanche would like to bring about. The question is: what is the need that drives her to pursue these outcomes?

It is axiomatic to this approach that there is only one need that remains the same throughout the stage-life of a figure or character(our term for a character is a "who-am-I" ). This is kind of an astonishing demand, but it is justified (and this I do not discuss with my students unless they ask) by the fact that the writer is presenting a distillation of a person, not a person in total.

Anyway, the underlying objective, which we also call the play objective, the life objective and the scene objective, are ALL THE SAME. The scene objective and the life objective are the same. They do not change. A consequence of this is that the scene objective does not change over the course of the scene. This is a crucial point. The need pursued by the actor stays constant. Plot objectives can change, but scene objective remains unchanged. In fact, the reason that we discard one plot objective and take up another (ie change course) is because the new direction promises to provide more of what is needed than the old one.

Another point is that the underlying objective has to be HOT or visceral. It can't be cerebral. I tell my students to avoid Oprah-talk like "approval, understanding, validation, support." These are really pop-psychology euphemisms for thrue needs, and it's not necessarily that they are wrong, but they won't light a fire in anyone. I tell people to try to speak in the language of the morning DJ, ie be as plain spoken as possible, to "dumb it up", not to be confused with dumbing it down.

Secondly, the thing pursued must be positive. I use what is called the dating game test. Someone proposes that Hedda Gabler's UO is "control." So I say: "Bachelorette #1, what she cares about more than anything else in the world is control. Do you want to date her?" This is a way of getting the students to recognize that they have not provided an empathic account of what the who-am-I needs when they provide an answer like "control." The UO has to be something attractive to pursue, which Stanislavsky actually says in his list of criteria in the Units and Objectives chapter in AAP. A major premise of this entire approach is that the actor's talk to herself about the role must be legitimating of what the actor will have to pursue in the role: judgmental talk has the opposite effect.

Finally, I (and my teachers) demand (and this is critical) that the UO be phrased in a particular way. This is absolutely mission-critical. The UO should be phrased EXACTLY as follows: "What I need to GET FROM the world, my life, my partner is my..."

One reason the UO needs to be phrased in this way is that the GET FROM sets up the listening or "receiving" that the character does in the scene. In each moment, the actor/character is asking for what she needs, and then checking to see whether they are getting a piece of it in a way that is TOTALLY INDEPENDENT of any and all plot outcomes. This is the most important point, and the most difficult to explain. What it does NOT mean is that what the actor is listening for at each moment is whether or not she has successfully moved an inch closer to realizing some plot objective (this is the convention conception of what it is like to pursue an objective), but whether, in that moment, in an immediate way, she has gotten a small piece of the same thing she will get a big bucket of if she gets one of her plot goals.

When I ask students to suggest an underlying objective for Blanche, they suggest many plot objectives (find a husband etc), but they also say: happiness-- begging the question, we all want happiness. but what is happiness for Blanche. That is what we are trying to say. Security-- too Oprah-ish, also fails the dating game test, in a big way. Comfort-- tempting, but also doesn't really pass the dating game test: someone who values comfort above all else seems to be selfish and lacking in aspiration or ambition. Love: we all want love, but unfortunately the word doesn't have enough teeth, by itself it is more Oprah talk.

When they pose plot objectives, I call them on proposing plot objectives, and then ask, "what will that give you?" I tell them that is the appropriate question when a plot objective arises.

One way to get to the UO is to think about what has been lost. Everyone has a past, and there are always important clues in that. Blanche has lost Belle Reve, and her place in that world as a sought-after hothouse flower of refinement and feminine bounty. These are the treasures she was born into, her birthright, her "beautiful dream", this is the source of belonging for her. So as Blanche, I can pursue my belonging, my birthright, my lost way of life. I can look for that in one way from Stella, in another way from Stanley, and in another way from Mitch. When I tell Stella about all that has happened, each moment she listens attentively, each moment she empathizes and expresses sympathy, I get a piece of my birthright, because she is according my the respect and care she owes me according to our common origin. Similarly, if she welcomes me into her life, tells me I can stay as long as I want, that I should treat the house as my own, and tells her husband to just deal with it, I get a huge bucket of my birthright. If she acts like I am being melodramatic, then she is refusing to give the losses their weight, and I lose a piece my birthright. And if she chooses Stanley the Polish proletarian over me, then I lose a colossal piece of my birthright. What I pursue in each moment independently of the plot, and what I pursue through plot objectives, are one and the same.

There is not one answer to the UO question for any character, but there are many that will not work. The ones that are "ready to hand" generally derive from the student looking at the situation from outside of it, and it is only after they have tried these ready to hand ones on for size, and seen how they fail, that they will begin to make headway towards finding one that comes from a bond between their own gut and the circumstances and language of the play.

It can also be good to try to look for bits of language that characters use to try to clinch negotiations and close deals, and make use of them. I use a two page play by John Patrick Shanley in which a character complains that he was at a "nice, silly party, about to get somewhere with a nice, silly woman" when he was dragged away by his best friend, for reasons that have yet to be explained. So the acotr might pursue "my nice-silly". Since it turns out that the character is asking not to be subjected to blid-faith tests of friendship, but rather to be taken as is, "my nice-silly" works well. Grammar can even be abused and often should be, so that someone might pursue "my fresh" or "my clean".

There is a lot more to it, particularly in understanding how the UO is to pursued from various partners, but this is at least an introduction.

I hope you enjoyed this. Let me know if you have questions in the comments and i'll do my best to respond.

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