Objects For Actors
Lee Strasberg believed that the object, and the resulting concentration from attention to it is the basic building block with which the actor works. By concentrating on an object, the actor establishes a sense of belief and faith, becoming involved in what he is doing. This in turn leads to unconscious experience and behavior.
DEFINITION: An object can be anything, imaginary, physical or fantasy, upon which the actor has chosen to concentrate.
It can be a remembered sensory object, such as heat, cold, pain or a particular sound. Or it can be a relationship, past, present or ” hoped” for. It can be your scene partner(s). The quality of the air you breathe can be an object of concentration. Objects can include anything offered in the script by the playwright, a shoe, a photograph, a dream you once had, a place you once visited, or something as simple as multiplying, adding, subtracting or dividing numbers mentally (or on paper, or with a calculator). An object, then, is anything on which the actor can concentrate.
Learning the Alphabet Before You Write
Most beginning actors are eager to jump into a scene and “play” it “fully” from the first rehearsal. They don’t realize that before the concert violinist is accepted into the symphony, he had to learn to play his instrument, starting with learning the proper way to take the violin out of its case, how to hold it, position it under his chin, learn the awkward position of holding the bow, applying just the right amount of resin to it, and drawing it in a perfectly perpendicular movement across one string before even thinking of placing that first finger at the precise point necessary to sound a pure tone. After hours of practice, he is ready to perform “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”.
I encourage actors in the early stages of our work to choose only one “object of attention” when presenting scenework, and to concentrate as fully as possible on whatever the object might be. As an example, if an actor is working on a Tennessee Williams play, and the script indicates it is very hot where the story takes place, the actor might choose working on “heat” as his object of concentration.
I spent several weeks in Montgomery, Alabama on two different occasions. I was there with Melissa to help her move the contents from her departed grandmother’s house, to our house in St. Louis, Missouri. Originally from St. Louis, and having lived in Los Angeles for 21 years, I thought I knew what heat was.
It was so hot in the house, without air conditioning, that I could only pack one or two boxes before I would have to take a rest. On some days, I could only work two or three hours, before I had to give it up for the day.
And during this time, I was always aware of how the heat was affecting me, just in case I would “need it” in my work. Besides the intolerable stream of salty sweat constantly running down my bald head right into my eyes, and the hot, smelly, waterlogged tee shirt and shorts and underwear, and the lack of tolerable oxygen, I was also affected emotionally by the heat, and became an intolerable grouch with Melissa. Little things that normally wouldn’t bother me, or might even make me laugh, became monumentally aggravating for me.
If the actor will begin by creating just that sense of heat in the Tennessee Williams play he is doing, he will be creating behavior and “character” that he could not possibly think up by objectively saying to himself, ” Oh, it’s hot. I’ll bring a hankie and wipe my brow once in a while”, and may find that simply creating the heat can carry him through entire scenes.
Relaxation, Concentration & Objects
Within the following “story” is found the “secret” of all great acting
When a cat is observed in the kitchen toying with a piece of string, we see it is using only those muscles necessary to concentrate on its object of attention, the string, in order accomplish its specific “task”: to conquer the string. All other muscles are completely relaxed.
Then the dog runs in from the other room, looking for food. Suddenly the cat’s body springs to life, but still uses only the muscles necessary to concentrate on its new object of attention, the dog, in order to accomplish its specific task, which has now changed. He has momentarily forgotten the string, and his new task is now: to back the dog down.
The dog’s object of attention, which had been “food”, now becomes “the cat”, and his previous task, to sniff out food in the kitchen, now becomes: to challenge the cat. We observe closely that the dog is using only those muscles necessary to accomplish this task, and he’s not looking around to see if anyone is watching him.
With the same object of attention, the cat now uses the muscles necessary to accomplish his next task: to scratch the dog’s eyes out. We observe that the cat is so fiercely concentrated that nothing we do might distract it from its object of attention.
But the dog is not impressed, and while still concentrating on his object of attention his new task becomes: to kill the cat.
At this moment, and not before, the cat, while concentrating on the same object of attention, will call upon every muscle in its body necessary to accomplish its next, and possibly final task: to kill the dog.
Realizing the cat’s full determination, the dog decides it’s not worth losing an eye before it kills the cat, so it makes a subtle transition to its previous object of attention, “food”, and its final task becomes: to save face. So the dog growls viciously for a moment, sniffs the air briefly for food, pretends to hear a burglar in the next room, and leaves as unpredictably as he entered.
Never trusting a dog, the cat maintains the same object of attention momentarily, then begins slowly relaxing the muscles it has been using. After reclaiming its territory, the cat notices the string dangling from the cabinet drawer. At this moment the cat’s concentration is again focused on its original object of attention, the string, and accomplishment of its original task: to conquer the string.
What does the actor learn by observing the cat? The actor learns that the cat only uses the muscles necessary to accomplish whatever it is that the cat is concerned with in the moment.
And the actor learns that whenever the cat is concentrating on an object of attention, it has no concern for the observer, even though the observer is very interested in the cat, who is very watchable in that state of concentration.
And because the cat and the dog were very watchable in their “relaxed” state of concentration, the story of “How the playful cat could have been killed by the mischievous dog if it were not prepared to give up its life to accomplish its task” was presented with crystal clarity to the observer.
THE LESSON: Relax, choose an object, concentrate on it fully, and fill every micro-second of your life onstage with a logical sequence of the objects of your attention.