“Any game worth playing is highly social and has a problem that needs solving within it—an objective point in which each individual must become involved, whether it be to reach a goal or flip a chip into a glass.”Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theater. A Handbook of Teaching and Directing Techniques. Third Edition. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 1999. p.5
A character’s Objective is the “O” of the improv concept CROW or a “W” in the equivalent WWW that corresponds to the “what” of a scene (for me it’s the second one!) You may use one of its many synonyms – such as goal, motivation, desire or want – and in my acting classroom I tend towards the robustly energized phrase “What are you fighting for?” as it demands an equally vibrant answer.
In scripted theatre, a character’s objective is typically parsed from an extensive consideration of their actions, dialogue and all the clues and exposition scattered by the playwright throughout the text. This is a very backwards looking process in the service of discovering a forward looking energy to help your character strongly navigate the trials and tribulations of the plot. On the improv stage, however, we rarely have the benefit of knowing where our characters will end up and their backstories are typically invented as we go along. However, both traditions (and all those in between these two poles) benefit greatly from characters who are actively pursuing something as they move through their scenes. A lack of an objective predominantly translates into a lack of energy, purpose and commitment.
Although many others have certainly made similar observations and connections, I’ve used Charles Waxberg’s The Actor’s Script in my classroom for many years and want to acknowledge that his codification of essential objective ingredients has become almost second nature to my own approach. I also tend to utilize a hierarchy of character wants. If you’re unfamiliar with the term super objective, this usually refers to the greater goal that summarizes your character’s want over the whole dramatic arc, with smaller (sub)objectives typically steering any given scene, and then smaller yet tactics applying to a specific moment or scenic beat. When you’re playing in a long-form mode, having at least a generalized and evolving sense of what your character is trying to accomplish provides a much-needed touchstone as the improv swirls around and through you.
Two players sit on a park bench.
Player A: “Hi.”
Player B: “Hello.”
An awkward silence ensues…
Earmarks of a Strong Objective
When you are formulating your objective as a character, strive to make sure it is…
1.) Active. The gift of an objective is that it propels us into the unfolding action. Therefore, a passive or static objective will largely undermine this potential for motion. If your character’s want is internalized – “to be left alone” – or weak – “to be happy” – it’s unlikely that it will inspire exciting journeys or choices. I’m a fan of framing your objective with the language “I am fighting to…” for this reason as it tends to promote the deployment of powerful verbs and actions: “I am fighting to… enrapture… escape… impress…” Verbs of this ilk will encourage dynamic tactics while meeker or intellectual verbs (to wait, to consider, to wish…) will more typically withhold energy and attack. It can prove helpful to lean into actions that have a strong physical energy or connotation. To think, contemplate or muse are more likely to just have you standing passively rather than interacting with your world and fellow players.
Player A: (to interrogate) “Hi.”
2.) Positive. Pursuing positive objectives provides additional fuel to the above. It’s an easy trap to fall into playing what we don’t want in a scene, and this is a likely culprit for artificially manufacturing a lot of unhelpful improvisational conflict: my scene partner wants to go to the movies so I’ll make my objective not going to the movies. This might feel dynamic but at the end of the day (or scene) if we ultimately succeed our characters end up with nothing new or just continued stasis. Subsequently, it’s much more interesting to pursue an objective that is positive and embodies something that you do want (even if this is escape or freedom.) Both scripted and improvised plays seldom allow every character to achieve their desires, but the pursuit of even seemingly impossible dreams provides characters with an impetus to keep moving in spite of the odds. Objectives may not be rational – trying to pry appreciation out of that impossible boss or parental figure might never happen – but they must be worthy of your character’s time and energy.
Player A: (to get the truth) “Hi.”
3.) Connected. Strong objectives will cease to prove effective when they are not relevant to the current action and characters. In the scripted realm it’s a helpful trick to simply include your scene partner’s name in your objective statement: “I am fighting to reveal that Greg is a fraud.” Connecting explicitly to our fellow players onstage works equally well in the improv tradition; after all, if you don’t actively want anything that involves your scene partners, why would your character chose to stick around for any length of time? Even an insignificant server in the background is probably angling for a good tip or some job security at the very least. So while our improviser minds should strive to function as giving and generous scene partners – setting others up for success and joy – it’s also important that our character minds are a little unapologetically solipsistic in an effort to figure out how other characters can best serve our dramatic agendas (or, perhaps, how we can serve theirs as an objective can also very much be framed to assist the journey of another.)
Player A: (to force a confession from my lover) “Hi.”
4.) Dynamic. I’ve written about some of the pitfalls of this improv element here, but conflict is also a central tension in most crackling objectives. For our purposes it’s helpful to consider this ingredient as a source of tension or suspense. Objectives that lack some perceived conflict, in theory, could be immediately accomplished. If one character wants to kiss another character and they, in turn, want to kiss them back, then the scene could very well fulfill this promise within moments of its initiation. But, if both characters perceive that their scene partner is ambivalent or uncertain in their feelings, then this same scene will likely have room to flourish. Here it’s the perception of conflicting objectives that makes the world of difference. So when formulating your character’s wants keep in mind that they should assume some form of obstacle or challenge in their path (even if this belief is based on fear or misinformation.) Similarly, if you become aware of your partner’s objective in a scene, you needn’t immediately provide this pathway. It’s important that we accept the facts and circumstances, but letting everyone easily have what they want is unlikely to increase stakes and energy especially if such a move doesn’t ultimately serve our own character’s goals.
Player A: (to trick a confession out of my lying lover) “Hi.”
5.) Evocative. This objective facet might feel a little intangible but in some ways it is the most important. Once you’ve pursued an active, positive, connected and dynamic goal, you’ll want to make sure that it interests and inspires you on a personal level. You can “satisfy” all the other ingredients but still remain lackluster if the resulting pursuit isn’t something you particularly care about. Even if you are proverbially hiding under several layers of stage makeup, your work is unlikely to shine if you do not bring something (important) of yourself to the role and the stage. Attaining this goal can prove challenging to coach as, frankly, no one else can really solve for you what ignites your own passions and interests. But if you find yourself routinely playing characters that don’t seem to have any significant spark or pizazz, consider that you may be inadvertently leaving your own spark or pizazz behind as you enter the playing field. This also applies to the language that you use to define your goals. I might personally love the energy of “I am fighting to destroy the competition on the battlefield of love” but this might not speak to you at all, in which case this should not be your objective statement even if it ticks all of the other boxes.
Player A: (to gently coax a confession out of my soon-to-be ex) “Hi.”
Waxberg provides “consistency” as a sixth ingredient noting that a character’s goal can’t negate established facts and clues provided by the playwright. This notion is a little trickier in improvised works as, by design, they do not have one author or unifying voice, and this wonderful polyphony often results in some messiness or contradiction. It is a noteworthy goal to seek character consistency (and some consistent inconsistency too as I talk about here) and I think it’s helpful to also seek unity when it comes to the rules of the world and style of play. Furthermore, it’s good to keep in mind that we shouldn’t bend a character’s core unduly so that they resemble our own ideals or experiences when the action clearly expects or needs them to be something else. This can be particularly tempting when a character acts in ways that shake up our own moral compasses.
If I were to add one last objective facet that’s a little unique to the improv setting – as we can generally make our characters say or do anything we want – it would be that with very few exceptions in the healing arts, we should make sure our objectives reside behind the fourth wall of performance (or “within it” as Spolin notes above.) If our character is fighting to “impress that casting director” or “win back that ex-lover sitting in the third row” then we’ve likely undermined our scene work before it’s even uttered its first breath.
Connected Game: Get Them To…