Why Conflict is Always a Fight

tug-o-war1If you have enough at stake, it’s always going to be a fight.  (If you don’t have enough at stake, you don’t have a play worth performing.)

“Fight” is the operative word.

Conflict is not verbal debate.  It is emotional tug of war.  It is you trying to get what you want in any given moment, what will make you happy.  Sometimes you get it, and sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes you think you’re getting it, only to have the other side give a big yank, tumbling you to the ground.

The person you are in conflict with may simply not want to give you what you want.  Your boss may not want to give you a raise; your distant father may withhold the love you desperately need.

Or the conflict may revolve around conflicting desires, like whether to cremate mom or bury her at sea.  You may want us to move across country so you can accept a transfer, I may want us to stay here so I can care for my aging parents.

Or the conflict may revolve around us wanting the same thing:  that last piece of cake; the Ming vase; the same man.

It’s important that you identify what it is that you are fighting for so that you can go to war for it.  And as in all wars (the play as a whole), there are battles (scenes).  You don’t have to win all the battles to win the war.  You just have to win the last battle.  So sometimes you’re pushing forward and occupying enemy territory.  And sometimes you’re retreating.

It is the swing from “Now I have the upperhand” to “Oops, I didn’t see that coming, what the heck am I gonna do now?” that makes plays and movies thrilling to watch.  If you do nothing but win in every circumstance that you encounter, we’ll lose interest.  However, if you face challenges and we aren’t sure how you’ll overcome them, we’ll pay attention.  It’s Boy Meets Girl, Boy Gets Girl, Boy Loses Girl that we want to see.  If the course of true love runs smooth, then who cares?

Think of The Odyssey.  Yes, Odysseus overcomes every challenge and difficulty that comes his way and finally reaches home again, but each time a challenge arises, we’re not at all sure what’s going to happen or how he’ll succeed this time.

Good storytelling bounces back and forth between success and failure for its protagonist.  If a play is a “war”, there are battles and retreats; skirmishes and bloodbaths; reconnoitering and entrenchments; strategy sessions and re-evaluations.  The flux between these elements builds and releases tensions.  Quiet scenes allow the audience to rest and recover between dramatic moments.

The playwright is responsible for creating storytelling that fluctuates in terms of “where the power is” – that is, who is winning and who is losing at any given moment.  But it is your job, as the actor in the play, to recognize the fluxes and to honor and highlight them appropriately.




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