Let’s conduct an acting EXPERIMENT. Disclaimer: I am not a scientist. Maths and STEM subjects were NEVER my strong suit in school, and analytic thinking is not my forte. That being said, right now I feel like scrubbing-up and getting the bunsen burner out, because I’m about to get scientific here, people. Let’s do some ANALYSIS. In this article I’m going to dissect the process I used to prepare for a role in a show that was cancelled because of Covid, and rejig my process for the upcoming remount of the show using Declan Donnellan’s ‘The Actor and the Target’. Goggles on, folks.
A Unique Opportunity: Remounting Hamlet after Covid
I find myself in a privileged position in the aftermath of the pandemic. Having suffered significant heartbreak after our production of Hamlet closed a week after opening in March 2020, I am now a few months away from the remounting of that same show. I have a rather unique opportunity: I get to start again. I get to take the knowledge, rehearsal and experience from our ‘trial run’ last year, then examine that experience with the aim of fortifying my performance this time around. I’d like to share this process with you.
A week of shows may not sound like a lot, but there is a goldmine of lessons in that little week for me to debrief on. The role I played was Laertes, the son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia, and (towards the end of the play) the adversary of Hamlet. This role challenged me deeply. It demanded detailed text work, complex relationships, emotional release and the ability to jump from one high-stakes scene to the next before diving into a (fantastically choreographed and physically demanding) fencing match at the end of the show resulting in my character’s death. (Spoilers. Sorry. Read the play.) My role is nothing in comparison to the demands of playing Hamlet, but it’s my role with my challenges to explore. I know that it’s possible to take my performance to new level of depth and truth and energetic sustainability.
There are many methods, acting teachers and processes out there for us to choose from, but for this exercise I’ve chosen the work of Irish director Declan Donnellan, and his book The Actor and the Target.
Declan Donnellan & The Actor and the Target
I first came across Declan Donnellan’s The Actor and the Target in my second year of acting school in Sydney. The practicality and clarity of Donnellan’s writing and method was exhilarating for me, as I had often engaged with writing on acting which was unclear and esoteric.
Declan Donnellan is a writer and co-artistic director of theatre company Cheek by Jowl. With his company he has staged over 40 productions, reaching over 400 cities across six continents. His directing credits span over many theatre companies and he has also directed for film. It’s fair to say he has a wealth of experience when it comes to theatre, directing and acting technique. His book, The Actor and the Target was first published in Russian in 1999 and has since been released in over 14 other languages.
The Actor and the Target tackles many aspects and challenges of the craft of acting from fear, stakes, mask work and the space, to commonly asked questions by actors, such as “I don’t know what I’m doing”, “I don’t know what I want” and “I don’t know who I am”. The primary thesis of the book is about the ‘Target’ – a specific and active focal point outside the actor to direct their performance towards. Having these challenges and questions acknowledged and explored by such a prolific director is truly a gift to the acting community. Engaging with it has deepened my craft and the tools I have access to drastically.
A few years back we wrote a short summary of the book, which you can find here: The Actor and The Target | Book Review.
Alternatively, Cheek by Jowl has made public the introduction to the book itself, which you can find here. For more information on Donnellan and his work, I’d recommend exploring Cheek by Jowl’s website.
The purpose of this article is not necessarily to give a full biography of Donnellan or summary of his book, so please head to the above links for more information. I’m more keen to dive into the practical application of his work!
My Experience: Best Thing, Ready For
Let me give you a little bit of background about my experience playing Laertes last year for context.
I learnt early on in my career from my first acting teacher that the best way to debrief with oneself on a performance is with the framework ‘Best thing/ Ready for’. Put simply, I’ll ask myself what were some of the best things about my experience of that performance, and what are some things I am ready for the next time I perform.
(Notice that I am not asking what was the best thing and what was the worst thing: focusing on the worst aspects of your performance is not conducive to being able to learn from your experience.)
Don’t worry I’m not about to give a soliloquy about how great I think my acting was. I just want to focus on what felt effective and sustainable within my performance so I can embrace those aspects the next time I play the role. One of the things I felt most secure about in this production was the fencing match at the end of the play. With the actor playing Hamlet and the movement director we spent many hours training and rehearsing to ensure that this part of the production was an effective telling of the story whilst being safe and sustainable for us as performers. Part of my work in the next few months will be rebuilding that strength and comfortability with the choreography.
Another joy of the production for me was my rapport with my fellow actors and how that enhanced my connection with them on stage. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of tremendous humans, both on stage and off. Everyone was so wonderful to work with and passionate about the project, and that feeling of ensemble carried onto the stage and enhanced the production as a whole. We will have some cast changes in the remounted production, so welcoming our newcomers into the ensemble will be paramount to success. This rapport allowed me to feel free and playful in my performance.
There are many other things I am happy with, but for now let’s move on to what I’m ready for:
As is often my primary focus when approaching Shakespeare, I spent much of my time in rehearsals ensuring I had understanding. I needed to ensure my understanding and delivery of the text was sound. I needed to understand the position or ‘function’ of my character within the story. I needed to understand the setting of the story. I needed to understand my characters background, history and relationships. What I’ve learnt from my week of performances was there was a depth to my performance which was missing. I often felt ‘in my head’ playing the role, unanchored in space and self conscious. I am ready for a deepening of my connection to the character.
One significant aspect I became aware of was the fact that, even a week into performances, the high stakes scenes in the story were starting to tax me energetically. I would need to do some work to ensure that I could give the same performance night after night for two months in the theatre. My character is required to process and respond to some BIG pieces of information during the play: The death of his Father resulting in his confrontation of the King, the news that his acquaintance, (and perhaps friend) Hamlet, the Prince, was the murderer, and the news that his beloved sister, Ophelia, has been driven mad and drowned in a nearby brook.
Phwarr. Even listing those elements of the story makes me ask myself, ‘How the heck do I do that?’. I am ready for bravery and confidence that I can tackle those high stakes scenes!
From all these factors I have condensed the challenges I need solutions for into five questions we can pose to The Actor and the Target.
My Five Questions
Now we’re really getting scientific, folks. Let’s mine a performative experience and an acting text to see if we can solve some issues.
So, without further ado, here are five questions I need some guidance on to help me tackle the next season of Hamlet:
- How do I feel more present and free as the character within the scene?
- How do I incite an emotional response to the given circumstances night after night as Laertes?
- How do I personalise and deepen my character’s relationship to the other characters in the story?
- How to I feel more connected to the World of the play?
- How do I deepen and clarify what my character needs and wants in the story?
Applying The Actor and the Target
1. How do I feel more present and free as the character within the scene?
“The more energy the actor can locate in the target, the greater the actor’s freedom.” – Page 25
Donnellan writes of the Target. The Target is the primary tool he has created for an actors’ use. The Target is the thing outside the actor which thoughts, intentions, objectives and actions are directed towards. The target is the source of the actor’s energy and freedom. The Target is just that: a target which all of the actors’ internal impulses should be directed towards. This concept will be incredibly useful for me. Reading about the target reminds me of the nature of my experience when I felt un-present and constricted: I was in my head. My focus was inwards and not on the target; the people, world, ideas, fears and constraints surrounding Laertes. I felt that my experience, given the high-stakes and emotional nature of the story, needed to be generated from within. I felt that it was my responsibility as the actor to provide these feelings myself.
Donnellan provides more council on this concept:
“You can never know what you are doing until you first know what you are doing it to.” – Page 17
“We cannot struggle to be present. We can only discover that we are present. Being present is given to us, like a gift, like a present.” – Page 35
he work I must now do is as follows: invest more in the target, then trust that work and it’s ability to allow me to be present. Laertes’ primary concern is with his family, so those are the targets which I must be most clear about. There are a number of rules about the target which will assist me greatly, including the following:
- There is always a Target
- The target always exists outside, and at a measurable distance
- The target is always specific
- The target is always transforming
These factors offer structure, and within that structure I may find freedom. My relationships to my family need to be detailed and specific, so I will be able to trust in that work and simply let it be once I am on the stage. All I then must do is place my attention on the target. Ophelia, as a target of mine, transforms drastically throughout the story of Hamlet. These transformations are devastating for Laertes, and in that devastation I, the actor, can find tremendous energy and freedom.
One final note which I find really useful on the issue of remaining present within the role:
“In reality we are present, we can do absolutely nothing to alter that. But we can fantasise that we are somewhere else. In fact we have evolved such ingenious devices to delude ourselves that we are absent that it is extremely difficult to switch them off. But certain principles can always help. First: as I am already present, I cannot actually become present. When I try to be present, it is a brilliant scam of Fear. For trying to do anything makes us concentrate and sends us home. Fear often uses this particular trick to confuse us, by getting us to struggle to become . . . what, in fact, we already are.” – Page 22
I am already present. Great comfort may be taken from that fact.
2. How do I incite an emotional response to the given circumstances night after night as Laertes?
“It is the actor’s challenge to believe, more than his partner’s problem to convince him.” – Page 37
This is the challenge which I face. The story requires me to dive into challenging circumstances: the death of my Father, the demise and death of my sister, the rise of my adversary. I must process the news of the death of my sister in front of an audience. As per the quote above, it is my responsibility to believe, not any other actor’s problem to convince me. I already am able to rely on the Target for energy and inspiration, so let’s see what other solutions Donnellan has to offer.
“At every moment there is something I stand to lose and something I stand to gain. There is something I need and something I must avoid.” – Page 74
Donnellan writes at length about the Stakes of a scene which a character faces. He explains how to concept of stakes is often misrepresented by actors leading to block, (Note – Donnellan refers to Irina a lot in his book. Irina is a hypothetical actor he is personifying to demonstrate his techniques for the reader. Irina is rehearsing the role of Juliet):
“It is a sad irony that a lot of blocked acting results from the actor being all too aware that the stakes are low. So the actor tries to ‘play higher stakes’. If Irina feels that what she is doing isn’t sufficiently exciting, compelling, fascinating, important, then she may try to make her words, her actions seem more exciting, compelling, fascinating, important. And an actor may feel that the best way to do this is to disconnect from the outside world and press harder on the pedal.” – Page 33
I can certainly attest to this experience. At times in performance I was all too aware of my lack of feeling the stakes: whilst I was supposed to be absorbed by the desperate situation of my character I was instead listening to the voice in the back of my head poking me, saying, “I’m not really feeling this. Are you? Uh-oh, if we’re not feeling it, we’re not doing a good job. I wonder if the audience knows we feel like a fake right now. uh-oh…” And so the downward spiral continues. Donnellan goes on to offer a solution:
“The actor can actually reduce the stakes for herself by increasing the stakes for her character” – Page 33
He explains further:
“First, the actor needs to transfer all that is at stake from what the actor sees, into what the character sees. Because the stakes for Juliet do not live inside Juliet. Instead, the stakes for Juliet are in what Juliet sees. So Irina needs to travel through Juliet to see what Juliet sees in the outside world. Irina must not stop in the character. Instead Irina must see through a transparent Juliet to see on the other side what matters to Juliet. What matters to Juliet is Romeo. So Irina needs to see through Juliet and see what is at stake for Juliet in Romeo. Irina must stop looking into Juliet, for all that Irina will find in Juliet is what is at stake for Irina! The actor must not see into the character but instead sees through the character.” – Page 33
Boom. Big revelations happening for me here. My experience was largely one of seeing into Laertes, not through him. I assumed that once I had been delivered the news of Ophelia’s death by Gertrude, then I was alone and I, the actor, was solely responsible for an emotional response and release. This clearly is not so.
I might instead invest time and work into seeing what Laertes sees. By doing this I am able to build the stakes for him in the earlier scenes of the play: what he stands to gain and what he stands to lose.
Through his eyes I will see the world and the characters and my relationships with them more clearly. With this clarity I, the actor, will be more free and sensitive to the slings and arrows sent towards Laertes. With this heightened sensitivity I may put my attention on the target and simply allow the emotion to flow from me as I see through the Laertes’ eyes.
One final thought on this subject from Donnellan:
“We can either show or see, but we can never do both, for the one must destroy the other. Seeing is about the target, showing is about me. As soon as we show, we pretend. And pretending is not acting.” – Page 81
3. How do I personalise and deepen my character’s relationship to the other characters in the story?
“Irina must abandon all hope of ever being able to transform herself into Juliet, or show us Juliet, and instead set about the miraculous but realisable task of seeing and moving through the space that Juliet sees and inhabits.” – Page 83
The answer to this question lies heavily in the solutions for question two: the Stakes and seeing through the character.
“Indeed a better question than ‘What is at stake here?’ is ‘What do I stand to gain and what do I stand to lose?’ “ – Page 52
Laertes has a desire to be (or at least appear) dutiful and loyal to his Father. This ‘want’ for Laertes left me feeling under-energised by the time we closed our first week of performances, suggesting to me that a deeper connection with Polonius, (Laertes’ father) was necessary for me.
In an early scene of Hamlet, Polonius delivers to Laertes several precepts – words of advice – to take with him on his travels. This scene was challenging for me simply because it required me to sit and listen to my Father silently for some time. I need to see more through Laertes’ eyes. How does he see his Father? What does he stand to gain and lose in obeying or disobeying his orders? How has his upbringing influenced the way he sees his Father? Next comes to mind the question of Laertes’ Mother – why is she not represented in the play or mentioned at all? Is she still alive? I can only assume not, given the tight-knit dynamic of the Polonius family.
Already, with the simple act of seeing through Laertes’ eyes and asking what he stands to gain and lose I am deepening my understanding of his situation and the relationship to the other characters in the play.
4. How do I feel more connected to the World of the play?
“Preparation takes many forms; whatever ignites the imagination is useful. Whatever deadens the imagination is to be avoided.” – Page 89
One of the gifts of theatre is it’s freedom. Often we play in an otherwise empty space filled only by our imaginations. Sometimes I find this fact more of a curse than a gift.
For our remounted production of Hamlet I’d like to feel more connected to the space; energised by its structure.
“The artist finds, rather than creates and controls.” – Page 130
Ok; good to note. That’s an important distinction to make at the outset: striving to create the world around me – imaginatively placing objects and references in specific places around the theatre – may further block my experience. Let’s look at further notes regarding the space:
“Irina has one space and Juliet has another. Irina must not be a victim of the space, but Juliet must be the space’s victim. Irina needs to discover what liberties and constraints the space permits and imposes upon Juliet.” – Page 65
“Irina may be able to do what she likes in the space, but Juliet may not. These targets restrict, constrict, mould, limit and impede all that Juliet wants to do. And out of this conflict is born the energy of the performance. Taken together all these targets constitute Juliet’s space, whether these elements are the balcony or the image of Montague. Irina must let Juliet’s body depend upon the balcony, the night, the image of Montague, before Irina can be free to move as Juliet. ” – Page 66
Bingo. Again, the space/ the world in which Laertes lives is a collation of targets. I just need to acknowledge these targets and allow them to influence me through Laertes. Some of these targets include:
- The vastness of the Castle in Denmark which the play takes place.
- The cold in the air.
- The contrast of my home with the palace.
- The snow falling on our heads.
All of these targets are once again outside of me, and through Laertes’ eyes I will see them in a certain light and be influenced by them. This is exciting to realise and I’m eager to put this into practise in rehearsal
5. How do I deepen and clarify what my character wants in the story?
“‘Need’ makes it clear that the target has something that we cannot do without, whereas ‘want’ can imply that we can start and stop wanting with a concentrated effort of will. ‘Want’ I can turn on and off like a tap, ‘need’ turns me on and off at its will. ‘Need’ more usefully reminds us that we do not control our feelings.” – Page 35
‘Pursuing an objective’ is an often cited phrase and technique first termed by Stanislavski. My experience with objectives is that they are not always clear and energising for me.
In the example of Hamlet, it seems that Laertes wants many things – at the outset he perhaps wants freedom and independence. He wants to go to Paris. He wants to live his life. All of these ‘wants’ are useful to note, as they influence Laertes’ character. But for me to act, these ‘wants’ are not specific or exciting enough for me.
How Donnellan phrases the above paragraph is useful. What I need to explore is beneath the surface of Laertes’ modus operandi. What is the fire deep within him which drives him? What is the resource he was starved of as a child, (affection, validation, challenge ect) which he now strives to obtain?
“The central danger in asking ‘What do I want?’ is that it demotes the target. The question implies that I can create and control my desire within some sort of concentrated centre.” – Page 36
Upon hearing the news of the death of his Father, Laertes is fuelled by revenge. A ‘want’ seems to diminish his experience. Vengeance has consumed him completely – in a way that is specific to Laertes himself. This specificity is driven by his need. If Laertes’ need is “To make my Father proud” – the news of his Father’s death in his absence would be catastrophic to him.
Need, rather than want, is the key for me.
Right, microscopes away, and don’t forget to wash your petri-dishes. (Is it clear I’ve never set foot in a laboratory?) Thank you for conducting this experiment with me. I find it useful to dissect texts about acting and practically apply them to a role. All too often acting texts are left in isolation untested – I hope in this article is some inspiration for you to seek the answers to your questions in acting theory, whether it be The Actor and the Target or another text which inspires you.
Acting doesn’t work unless it works, (for you!) There are many practitioners of acting in the world, many people who have put down their two cents on the craft in words. These books should absolutely be engaged with, but you should also feel the right to pick and choose the elements of these texts that resonate with you. Declan Donnellan’s The Actor and the Target resonates with me for its practicality and phrasing. It tackles challenges I’ve faced in a clear and actionable way, and I hope this article has been interesting and inspiring for you to conduct your own experiments in performance!