If there is one acting technique I see transform the craft of my students and fellow actors more than anything else, it is the use if the almighty intention. Don’t get hung up on the word, some actors call it their “action” or as teacher / director Bobby Lewis apparently used to say, call it “spinach” if you want, the meaning is the same, it’s just important that you use it. But it truly is the acting technique that will set you free.
So what exactly is an intention?
An intention is what your character does to break through an obstacle to get what they want. Every character always wants something in every scene. Maybe they want to get the most popular kid in school to like them, or they want the love of their life to kiss them for the first time or maybe they really want that ice delicious cream cone their mother refuses to buy for them. How your character goes about achieving that big want is through intention.
Intentions are always active verbs or verb phrases. So, for example, if I really want that ice cream cone, the obstacle is my mother and my intention in this case might be to beg or to throw a tantrum. Or I might choose an intention that excites me even more and go for a verb phrase like to play the part of the perfect son.
How do you choose an intention?
The truth is, this isn’t technically an acting technique. It’s a tool, I suppose. You simply want to ask yourself, what do I want the other character to think, feel or do? In our ice cream cone scenario, maybe the young boy starts out wanting his mom to feel irritated and frustrated by him, so he plays to throw a tantrum. When that doesn’t work, he might want his mother to feel proud of him, like he really deserves it, so he chooses to play the part of the perfect son. If you get stuck on a general word like “beg”, try using the thesaurus to look up other words that might activate you more.
Remember, we aren’t robots! An intention that works really well for me might not excite you, or carbonate you, as one of my acting coaches, the great Larry Moss loves to say. The only way to know what will work for you is to try it out in rehearsal.
How do you apply it?
If I am playing the part of the little boy who wants the ice cream cone, maybe my line in the script is, “Please, Mom, can I have it?” If I wanted to try the intention to beg, I would think about playing that specific action while I say the line. An intention might only last halfway through a line before you switch to a new intention, or it might last a whole page.
How do you know when to choose a new intention?
You select new intentions to play when your character changes tactics to get their want. So when your character realizes their intention isn’t working, they had better try something else! Ever heard someone say a performance was too “one note”? When that happens, the actor has usually gotten stuck playing one intention for too long, instead of trying different tactics. So, if it didn’t work when you threw that tantrum for the ice cream cone, you would choose a new intention, perhaps to play the part of the perfect son. Just make sure the intention makes sense for your character and for the material you are working on.
The other thing I know about intention is that you have to actually DO it in order to learn it. Acting is an experiential thing. To rehearse and try out any acting technique you’ve got to get up on your feet!
Want to know why it will set you free?
Without intention, you will make a common mistake that many young actors tend to make by instead asking yourself: How should I sound when I say this line? This is a sure fire way to quickly put your audience to sleep. It will make your acting boring, inactive and “acty”.
Lastly, a very important note about intention. When you are giving an performance, you forget all the work you have done so you can LIVE it. Working with intentions is for performance. The work you have done will still be there to join you.
Want to get some hands on practice? Sign up for a coaching session or one of my online acting classes.
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