Secret objectives make realistic scenes

Secret objectives

A few Saturdays ago I was running an impro workshop on ‘Keeping it Real’ – how to improvise scenes that were realistic featuring real humans on the stage.

One thing we found very helpful was the use of playing secret objectives in scenes, especially ones that were connected to the other actor. We found this made the scenes captivating and playful, and realistic.

Best to illustrate with an example from the day….

Two actors were going to play a scene together, set in the kitchen/break area of their workplace.

Before starting the scene I took the male actor to the side and whispered to him to play the following objective, so that nobody could hear:

Try and get her to agree to go on a date with you that evening, and end the scene with her voluntarily kissing you on the cheek.

I then took the female actress to the side and whispered to her to play the following objective:

You want to leave your job and go travelling. You want your friend to give you his whole hearted approval by the end of the scene.

When the scene played out it was very enjoyable to watch. There was a strong complicity between them as she talked about travelling while he attempted to support her dreams but also tried to suggest going on a date.

The clash of long-term dreams and short term plans, different objectives and different motivations lead to some really realistic stuff.

At the end the sight of the male actor trying to get a kiss on the cheek was hilarious, it was like clowning but within the realms of reality.

Interestingly enough we found over the day that having an objective attached to the other actor, and physical objectives, really brought improvisation to life.

We also found that just picking objectives at random worked really well, you didn’t have to tell anyone else and it gave life to the characters early on. Sometimes objectives arise from the scene, sometimes you can inject them in and they come to life anyway.

We found it was also important to play the objectives hard and not give up on them. Striving for objectives at all costs and exaggerating their importance seemed to generate comedy. Having a massive clear objective outside of the scenes seems to generate epic tales. Having lots of mini objectives within the scene seemed to generate reality. Usually when we talk to people in real life we want something, consciously or subconsciously, be it love, sex, money, status, approval, friendship, contact, anything really.

It was also pointed out that in impro sometimes a truth from another actor can make your chosen objective meaningless. For instance you could be playing the objective “I want to get a hug from my Father” only to find in the scene that they aren’t playing your Father, as they have endowed themselves before you have. In this case we found just sticking to the truth of the feeling and subtly shifting the basis of the objective to fit still worked. For instance now you want to get a hug from them, because your Father suddenly vanished a long time ago. Playing these micro objectives seemed to keep characters ‘alive’.

In case you’re wanting to know more about objectives they kinda get used more in scripted acting but I think they’re very helpful in impro, especially in longer narrative pieces where if you have a strong objective it can carry you through a long story.

In scripted acting it’s roughly like this, although I forget the exact terminology:

Life Objective – What do they want in life? What drives them? Might start off subconsciously and they only discover it during the play.
Play Objective – What do they want in this play? What drives them in this story?
Scene Objective – What do they want in this scene and why? How does getting something in this scene serve their overall objective?
Line Objective – What do they want in this line?
Action – What do they actually do and say to get it?
Obstacle – What’s in their way? This is also on multiple levels.
Behaviour – How do they carry out their action and line?

In scripted acting actors often start at the deeper objectives/life/play objectives and build the character from their, from the inside out, until they fully understand each action in the scene.

Interestingly enough I find that impro is the other way round. In impro you don’t know anything when you first go on stage. You don’t know who you are, so you can’t know your life objective or play objective as you don’t even know who you are.

So in impro you can actually start with behaviour and actions. Just do something, anything. Kiss someone, hug someone, run out the room. You can find out why afterwards. What this workshop demonstrated though is that you can also make leaps and just pick scene objectives and go with them, and it’ll still make sense.


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