by R.S. Mellette
I was a junior in acting Seminar Class. The production that year was The Merchant of Venice, so we did nothing but Shakespeare five days a week, two or three hours a day, every day for two semesters. By the end of the first semester we had each rehearsed and polished a two-person scene, four monologues, and a sonnet which we were to present to the class in a two day marathon for finals.
Ed, my scene partner, and I spent one evening working on our piece and then helping each other with our monologues and sonnets. It was a rehearsal that would change my approach to acting, the arts, and everything.
It began with our scene, Oswald and Kent from King Lear. I was Kent, Ed Oswald. The scene wasn't working. It just laid there. Here we were, two actors trained to the level of Navy Seals in our craft, and yet we couldn't make a scene from Shakespeare's greatest play entertaining.
It was Ed who stopped. "This isn't working."
"Yeah, I know."
We refocused and tried again. No help.
"What would our teacher's say?" asked Ed. "Let's get back to the basics." He quoted from freshman acting class. "What do I want?" Then he answered his own question. "I want to get from here," where he was standing, "to there," the other side of the stage.
"And I want to stop you."
Without another word, we started from the top.
The scene popped. It had energy, humor, character, tension—all the stuff the same words were missing before. Why? We got right to the basics of all art: Objective and Obstacle.
The universe is a funny place. It only has three colors. In paint, these are Red, Yellow, and Blue. In light, they are Red, Green, and Blue. From those three colors alone, you can make every other color there is. With paint you mix down to black, with light, you mix up to white.
In the Arts we have Objective, Obstacle and I add Tactics as a third variable. With these three primary nouns you can create every interaction between all living things.
A writer turns blank paper into believable characters by giving them clear objectives. Their story is made exciting with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and their characters defined by the tactics they use to overcome those obstructions.
An actor breathes life into those characters by personalizing the super objectives, and like a fractal equation, pushing down, down, down, down, until every moment of the performance has a clear objective, obstacle, and tactic for success.
Traditional dance is the same as theatre. Modern dancers and choreographers sometimes like to think they can create "moving sculpture," where there is no story or reason for the performers to do what they are doing besides the beauty of the movement, but I maintain they are wrong. If a single dancer is on the stage, then we, the audience, wonder what he or she is trying to tell us. If another dancer joins, then we begin to guess what they mean to each other. In that case, I suppose you could say that their objective is to have no relationship other than parts of a human sculpture, and their obstacle is our natural desire to find a story. Their tactics then become wearing ever increasingly ridiculous leotards.
In music we see the same writer/actor dynamic in the form of composer/performer, but each performer is also his or her instrument. Paul McCartney decides a standard trumpet doesn't achieve his objectives in Penny Lane, but heard David Mason's piccolo trumpet on a BBC TV show. Composer, performer and instrument all came together to overcome the obstacle of the perfect mix. The notes play with each other, or counter to each other, to achieve their mathematical place in the cords.
So whether you are facing the blank page, or editing a third draft, keep the basics in mind. Ask yourself, are the characters' objectives clear? Are they doing everything in their power to achieve those objectives? What tactics are they using—and which ones will they refuse to use—to obtain their goal?
Answer those questions for every sentence in your work, and you'll be well on your way to a good story told well.