What’s the end game?

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Do you know much about Stanislavski? How about Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner or Stella Adler and The Method?

If you’ve ever seen a movie starring Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman or, yes, even a later Marilyn Monroe vehicle, you’ll know something about this acting approach – a naturalistic way of performing in which an actor uses their own emotions, psychology and history to delve as deeply into becoming a character as possible.

This contrasts to the kind of character acting espoused by notable theatrical legends like Lord Laurence Olivier or Dame Maggie Smith.

And while we’re on the most inimitable ‘there is nothing like’ this dame, let me digress for a moment to recall Dame Judi Dench quoting her long-time friend’s response when they were both promoting a film in New York and were asked about the Meisner school of acting, “which is based on ruthless self-exploration,” recalled Dench, adding, “Maggie in her unique way, said, ‘Oh, we have that in England too. We call it wanking’.”

Other famous actors have been equally dismissive, though perhaps a little more elegant in their analogies. Charles Laughton, who had worked with Bertolt Brecht (a theatre practitioner famous for emphasising the artifice of his plays and productions), once opined, “Method actors give you a photograph”, while “real actors give you an oil painting”. (My emphasis is in italics.)

Whether in pursuit of self pleasure, photographic verisimilitude or something else altogether, The Method is an American evolution and adaptation developed by those teachers mentioned above of an approach first proposed and explored by the Russian actor and director, Konstantin Stanislavski. He detailed his thoughts and process  in three volumes of the ground-breaking book, An Actor’s Work (published in the US in a heavily abridged version as An Actor Prepares in 1936).

Yes, yes, but what does this brief and no doubt illuminating dip into the history of performance styles in the twentieth century have to do with promoting your business or telling your story? Well, while both The Method and Stanislavski’s approach have undeniable flaws – it was Lillian Gish who famously pointed out, “It’s ridiculous. How would you portray death if you had to experience it first?” – there are elements that can be very useful if we extrapolate them and apply them to other scenarios.

To do so, let’s look at one particular element of the Stanislavski approach, the system of Objectives. In this system, actors are required to break down their characters’ actions during a play, scene by scene, and objective by objective, and to identify what it is in each scene that they want to achieve. It can be as simple as getting their clothes out of the washing machine or as elaborate as devising a way to sleep with the boss’ wife. Whatever it is, that must be the overriding impetus for everything they do in that scene. That action, that want, must inform or influence their every action and speech.

However, there is something that is much, much bigger than this. And that of course is the super-objective, which is the character’s overarching goals and desires – the main thing they want to achieve or accomplish throughout the entire play. While Hamlet’s objectives appear to be as simple as directing the troupe of visiting actors to give superlative performances, his super-objective is to avenge the death of his father. And in that way his super-objective is actually influencing his scene by scene objectives. When he directs those actors it is in order to change their script to recreate the scenario of Hamlet’s usurping uncle Claudius murdering Hamlet’s father by pouring poison in his ear, and thus shame and provoke his uncle and further his plan for vengeance.

Hamlet is a long… long play – Shakespeare’s longest, in fact. It contains 4042 lines, which is about one thousand more than the average Elizabethan extravaganza. But for pretty much every one of those 4000-plus lines (at least every one after he has encountered the ghost of his father telling him the dreadful secret of his untimely death), Hamlet is driven by that super-objective. Yes, he may waver and suffer from crippling self doubt from time to time, even going so far as to contemplate chucking in the towel and shuffling off the mortal coil (“to be or not to be” and all that), but his devoted love for his father and passionate desire to right the wrong of his slaying is the powerful fuel for the tragedy’s trajectory.

In this we are all Hamlet. Well, not literally, obviously. Unless we’re Simba, the Lion King. He is also Hamlet. But the rest of us, whose uncles did not kill our fathers and then flagrantly marry their widowed sister-in-laws, still have super-objectives in our own lives.

I once knew a young colleague who had mapped her whole life out by her early twenties. She was already married and had planned what kind of house she would have, where it would be and how many children she intended to produce. She also studied at night to increase her qualifications, so that she could be promoted to the position she had in mind. Did she accomplish all of these things? Yes, by her early 30s. I’ve never seen anyone with such a clearly defined super-objective and the will and the fortitude to attain it.

Do you know what your super-objective is? For yourself? Common ones are like my colleague’s goals – family, own home, career advancement. Perhaps yours is to earn enough money to be able to retire at a relatively young age, so that you can then spend your free time building yourself a mudbrick house or travelling to spend six months in the Peloponnese every year. Maybe you’re more like the woman in that commercial who looks winsomely at the camera and says, “I just want what I’ve got now.”

But what about your business? What are your long-term goals and aims for that? What is the super-objective? If you can’t answer that question, why are you even in business? OK, that may be harsh. You may have fallen into your current line of work or wound up there by default, but relying on happenstance or going with the flow is not a great way to ensure long-term success.

Now is the time to really consider your super-objective and make some decisions. Take the time to really think about it. Write down your thoughts and possible scenarios. Make columns for ‘like to haves’ and ‘must haves’. Also make a space for right out there, castles in the air, flights of fancy thinking. When you know what is impossible, it may be easier to work out what is not. But remember some of the most successful and innovative outcomes probably sounded utterly implausible when their creators first expressed their plans.

Perhaps have a brainstorming session or three with people you trust and/or other stakeholders. Because until you know where you want to be at the end of the play, your scenic objectives will only get you so far and they won’t add up to an overarching end goal.

As the world turns, external forces may compel us to adapt or change our goals. After all, not many of us saw COVID-19 coming in the way that it did. So this isn’t about being rigid and inflexible with our eyes on a fixed prize, but with a considered and definite super-objective spelled out and written down, we have something to work towards.

What we need is something to inform our day-to-day objectives and something to pick us up and keep us moving forward when the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” threaten to derail us. Oh look, we’re back to Hamlet again. Funny that…

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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