Clearly Your Intention
People usually do not speak merely to fill "dead air," church business meetings notwithstanding. We speak in order to accomplish something - to clarify, to warn, to inform, to comfort. So why is it that so many play or sketch rehearsals focus on trying to get the lines to "sound right" or get the actors to "feel right" rather than exploring why the characters are speaking? The job of actors is to dig into the characters and feed the lines with intention. (What are you trying to do? Whom are you trying to affect?) Usually, poorly acted sketches can be blamed on actors lacking clear intentions.
Even for a short scene, we need to understand the character's "broad intention" (what he or she wants from life) as well as the smaller intentions that feed the beats of the script (what he or she wants in this moment). Characters modify these smaller intentions in the course of the script, but they always relate back to the character's broad intention. I like actors to arrive at rehearsal with some ideas about their character's intentions. Then we use rehearsals to clarify intentions. I always push for the clearest and most concise intention we can find.
As an example, let's say someone is playing the part of Jesus in an Easter production. The scene is Golgotha, and the actor is getting ready to submit to his executioners. What is Christ's intention? When I think about Jesus in terms of his "broad intention," the strongest one that comes to mind is "to love." That shouldn't surprise most of us, for it is a part of God's essence. "God is Love" (1 John 4:8). But more than his essence of being, it is also God's motivation for sending Jesus to earth (John 3:16). So let's say that Jesus's broad intention is "to love." But what about the more immediate intention of Calvary? May vary depending on the script, but can you see that an intention like "to obey" will play drastically differently than the intention of "to die." Based on Gethsemane, we can see that Jesus was not eager to die, but he was eager to obey. Therefore "to obey" seems to offer more dimension to the portrayal, and may offer the actor an intention to which he can better relate. We cannot necessarily relate to wanting to die, but we can relate to wanting to obey God despite the cost. Here are four thoughts to aid the process of discovering the strongest intentions.
Active: Intentions are always something that we can activate. Passive intentions are commonly states of being: "to be happy," "to be angry." These sorts of intentions will make a character reactive and prone to isolation rather than engaging the other characters. Passive intentions can be translated into active ones. For example, "to be happy" can become "to live a full life;" "to be angry" might become "to correct." In examples like these, sometimes the desired "emotional state" will help clarify the intention that leads there but to simply "intend" an emotion is uninteresting to an audience.
Positive: You cannot act a negative intention because these sorts of intentions end up turning in on themselves and producing bland results. For example, an actor intending "not to die" will tend to "act fearful." Take that intention and turn it into the positive—“to live," "to survive" or "to endure." There may be obstacles to that character's intention that produce fear (like ability or a powerful opponent), but fear becomes the result, not the intent.
Concise: Complex intentions are hard to act. If an intention like "to resist all opposing forces using all that is at my disposal" would better serve an actor if it was distilled to a phrase like "to prevail," "to overcome," "to defeat" or the like.
Balanced: If an actor's intentions become so specific that they change from line to line-or even within each line, not only are they hard to act, but they are nearly impossible to remember. If on the other hand, the intentions are too general, they tend to make a character vague and unfocused. Finding one broad intention for a script and one smaller intention for each beat within the piece will serve an actor Well.
Asking questions is the best way to help actors find their intentions. "What do you want?" "How do those wants (intentions) conflict with the other characters' wants?" "How do your intentions complement them?" "How do your intentions change in your journey through the script?" "How are they reinforced?" A well-written script is very important to every scene's success, and it will contain clues to the character's intentions. Pay attention not only to what the character says about himself, but what other characters say about him.
The whole idea of boiling down the characters' intentions into few words is similar to what Jesus did with the Law when asked what the greatest commandment is. Christ took what the Jewish rulers had made into a cumbersome and voluminous set of rules and gave the world two simple tenets that encompassed all of the Law and the Prophets. Active. Positive. Concise. Balanced.