Objectives & Obstacles
An acting lesson in character motivations and the conflicts which arise in a scene
This lesson will focus on obstacles. For objectives visit the Breaking into Showbiz archives at Pageantry magazine for my article, Objectives, Objectives, Objectives. As you read on, keep this in mind: If it’s true in life, it’s true in acting!
Whether acting in a play, movie, or television show, a performance consist of three requirements:
1) Objectives: What your character wants
2) Obstacles: What is preventing your character from achieving their objectives
3) Action to overcome: What your character needs to do to eliminate any obstacles
If my day goes smoothly, I can quite honestly say my life has been without drama. I may have had a few minor obstacles, a slight traffic jam or a need to refill my gas tank. However, nothing major has disrupted my life.
Now let’s look at a different day. While driving to an important job interview, I am in a four car fender bender which requires the police and insurance cards. While continuing on to my appointment, my tire deflates and I have to abandon my vehicle alongside the road and call an Uber. These delays make me very late for my job interview, thus upon arriving at my destination, I discover someone else has been hired moments before. I remember my car is still on the freeway, so I call a tow truck which brings my car to the mechanic. The mechanic informs me the accident has caused considerable damage to my car. At the same time, my phone rings and it is my insurance company telling me the car which caused the accident has no coverage; I’m liable for all repairs under the $1000 deductible. To top it all off, on the windshield is a ticket for abandoning my car on the roadside. My life is anything but drama free.
A good dramatist may take scenario number two and expound upon the situation. When the mechanic opens the trunk of the car, he finds a dead body and now we are looking at the start of a film idea. The protagonist has more than a lost job to worry about.
Drama isn’t always tragic, it can be very funny. There is an old Laurel and Hardy short film titled The Music Box. (Watch it on YouTube) It’s a half hour of these two great comic performers attempting to move a piano up several flights of stairs. There is one objective, to deliver the piano, and there are many obstacles the two face in order to accomplish this goal.
There are three types of obstacles:
Physical Obstacles: You need to enter your apartment and you can’t find your keys. You have a broken leg and you need to get somewhere quickly. Or, perhaps, you have a headache and you have to make an important decision.
Emotional Obstacles: Your objective is to convey very painful news to someone you love or very good news to someone you despise. Your emotions are making it difficult to achieve your objectives. Perhaps you need to comfort someone while you, yourself are feeling very sad. How frequent in your everyday life have you had to restrain an emotion because it would be ill-advised or inappropriate at the moment?
Psychological Obstacles: Nearly all psychological obstacles are emotional in origin. Nevertheless, there will be those characters who need special research. For example, portraying anyone with an intellectual disability. All characters must be researched on some level, but this type of character would require more because of the uniqueness of each disorder. They must be researched to understand what their individual obstacles may be.
Obstacles may manifest themselves in a more everyday way. Actors are interesting when they allow their characters to display normal human behaviors. This consists of tiny obstacles and the accompanying actions to overcome. You itch, you scratch. You’re uncomfortable, you shift in your chair. Your muscles ache, you stretch. These are all acceptable character behaviors when they in no way interfere with the focus of the scene.
A Scene Study
(The oldest brother of four boys returns home from work to be greeted by his Aunt who informs him his father had died that afternoon.)
Joey’s overall objective is to prepare the gentlest way to tell his younger brothers about their father. His overall obstacles are distractions like his Aunt Kate and the need to make dinner for his brothers.
Aunt Kate’s objective is to create order out of chaos. Her obstacles are her insecurities about being useless and her need to be in control.
Kate: Your father’s gone.
Joey: (After beat.) Where’s Mama?
Kate: Your sister and brother-in-law are with her at the hospital. I would have stayed. Those two young people should be home with their little baby, but your mother said she didn’t want her nag of a sister around.
Joey: She knew that I’d need your support and that I wouldn’t want to hear the news from anyone but you. (Joey takes a few deep breaths) I have been practicing how I’d tell the boys when the time came and now the time has come.
Kate: You need to keep an eye on your mother when she gets home. She’s very fragile. Losing our mother first and then within months her husband, Al. She’s not used to being on her own. The responsibility may be too much. Being someone’s little girl her whole life has not prepared her for what’s to come.
Joey: I know Aunt Kate. I’ll do my best. (Joey is seemingly engrossed in opening cans.)
Kate: (Not offering to help.) I’m also concerned about Alfie. Your other brothers are predictable. Tommy will get angry and destroy a lamp or smash a mirror. Your sister and Frank will calm him down. Jackie will break down in sobs and Mae will hold him and comfort him long after the tears have stopped flowing. Alfie, on the other hand, will disappear and no one will even notice he’s gone.
Joey: You don’t think I’ll look after Alfie?
Kate: You will be too busy taken care of the rest of the mess. You won’t notice he’s missing until everything has calmed down.
Joey: (Lost in thought and correcting Aunt Kate at the same time.) Taking… taking care of… not taken.
Kate: That’s what you heard, a misspoken word? Do you know how insulting that is?
Joey: What? (Realizes what he said.) I’m so sorry Aunt Kate. That’s just reflex. We correct each other’s grammar all the time. Momma doesn’t follow many rules strictly, but grammar is one of them.
Kate: You’re lucky you’re not wearing those canned peas.
Joey: Now you can understand where my head’s at. (Picking up each can.) So far the kids are having peas, lima beans and beets for dinner.
Kate: Put them away and grill the cheese sandwiches for heaven’s sake.
From the very onset of the scene, Kate takes control. She doesn’t wait for Joey to fully enter from his day at work before she begins speaking and is abrupt in the way she informs him of his father’s death. Kates exhibits her fear of not being appreciated after being rejected by her sister in the hospital. She is the big sister and needs to be treated with the respect due her. Throughout the scene, she espouses a knowledge of a family which is not her own and dictates how Joey should behave. All of this behavior is the way she overcomes her insecurities.
Joey on the other hand doesn’t react immediately to his father’s death, but instead asks about his mother. He fears having to tell his brothers about their father. He deals with the obstacle of Aunt Kate by placating her at every turn. At the same time, he seeks the right words to tell his brothers. He also has the physical obstacles of washing up after a day at work and choosing the food for dinner. There is also the chore of opening the cans with a handheld can opener.
If there are no obstacles, there is no scene!
The above is just an example of the work we do as actors and this work takes knowledge of the objectives and obstacles the characters face. The De Niro’s, Streep’s, Day Lewis’s of the world consider themselves students of their craft. Learn all the tools needed to become the best in your chosen profession. I wish success to all.