How Stage Conflict Works

coupeHow does conflict work, from an actor’s point of view?

I want something.  I want that raise.  And I want it badly (remember, we need to raise the stakes as high as possible.)  I want the raise, because I can’t afford a new car without one.  I have a 50 minute commute every day; my car is essential to my life.  It has been in the shop three times in the last two months, and the cost of repairs are draining me.  The older the car gets, the more fuel it seems to burn, and it wasn’t very fuel efficient to start with.  Plus, this is the seventh used car I’ve owned.  Every car I’ve ever had has come to me scratched, stained, and worn.  For once in my life, I want a car I’m not ashamed to take a date out in.  I want a car that I think better represents me to the woman I hope to marry.  And there is a car that I just saw in a commercial, and then the guy down the street got one, and I fell in love with it.  With everything about it.  The exterior lines, the interior features.  And the color.  They are making it in my favorite color.

I need this car desperately.

So where’s the conflict?  It’s all the obstacles, the roadblocks that get in my way and conspire to keep me from my heart’s desire, that little coupe with my name on it.

The first obstacle is my own bank account.  No matter how I try to work the numbers, I can’t find a way to scrape up a deposit that will also give me manageable monthly payments.   I just don’t have the money.

So I try to get a loan from my family members.  They all turn me down, for one reason or another.

I try buying a lottery ticket, but I don’t win.

I look for a part-time job, but either I can’t find one, or the ones I find won’t pay me enough to help me buy the car by the deadline I’ve set for myself.

So I’ve got to ask my boss for a raise, but I’ve never asked for a raise before.  I don’t know how to go about it.  So I ask my friends for advice on what to say.

They tell me, and now I rehearse what to say to my boss.  And I set up a meeting with him.  But I get cold feet and cancel.

My friends encourage me to try again.  So I reschedule the meeting, and this time I show up.  I stammer out the words.  And my boss says no, he doesn’t think I deserve a raise.

Now I’m angry, because he was so dismissive of me.  I go home and create some charts and other evidence showing that I have saved the company more money than I am asking for.  I ask my boss for another meeting and present my argument.  My boss agrees to give me a raise.

In the above scenario, everything in italics are tactics that I use to try to get what I want.  In boldface are the obstacles I run into that make me change my tactics.  Underlined are what happens when something I do is successful (that is, when I get whatever it is I am striving for with the associated tactic.)

So it isn’t just a matter of playing your verbs.  Another part of the equation is the obstacle you run into, the roadblock that makes you change direction, makes you change verbs.

In other words, you don’t change verbs just for the hell of it, for variety.  You change verbs because you are forced to.  In your character’s estimation, whatever he is doing isn’t working to his satisfaction, and so he tries something else.  But the reason he decides it isn’t working has everything to do with the other person and how he feels about what they do and say.

That means that receiving the message – “I’m not giving you what you want, buddy” – is critical.  You can’t change your tactics without recognizing that your scene partner isn’t cooperating.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, because it’s one of the only things that really matters in acting:  Everything you do, and every single word you utter, has a reason for existing.  It is caused by something that happens that you are forced to deal with in that moment.  Nothing is arbitrary in plays (and very rarely in life).  Everything is a reaction to something else.

 

 

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