A DIAGNOSTIC TOOL FOR ART AND LIFE
John H. Lienhard
presents guest essayist Megan Cole
Today, our guest, Seattle actor Megan Cole, talks
about an acting technique that has surprising uses.
The University of Houston presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run,
and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Actors have a technique for
analyzing the content of a scene or of a moment in
a scene. The technique is called
Action-Objective-Obstacle. The idea is to
separate an event into its component parts in order
to see the event more clearly when we put the
pieces together again. It's especially useful when
we're not seeing clearly.
Here's how it works: the Objective is what we want,
the Action is what we do to get what we want, and
the Obstacle is what gets in our way. Yes, sorry:
there's always the Obstacle. It's what makes life
difficult and art interesting.
Let's say our Objective is to get someone's
attention. We might use such Actions as waving,
knocking, shouting, whispering, clearing our
throat, taking our clothes off, standing apart from
the group, and so on. To turn it around: if our
Action is, say, knocking, our reason for
doing this -- our Objective -- might be to announce
our arrival or to find where the wall studs are.
This is simple stuff.
Well, adding an Obstacle, of course, makes things a
little more complicated. If our Objective is to get
someone's attention, and our Action is, say, to
shout the person's name ("Hey, Joe!"), and the
Obstacle is that we're in a library ... well, the
Obstacle in this case changes the Action. We might
choose to whisper instead. ("Hey, Joe.") But even
the quality of that whisper will be affected by the
nature of the Obstacle. A whisper in a library is
different from a whisper in a sleeping child's
room. In any event, it's the Obstacle that adds
color, urgency, interest, complication. And there's
no human event that doesn't consist of all three
But what's the point of this kind of analysis? Is
it useful? You bet it is. It can, for example, be a
fundamental life tool. "What kind of person do I
want to be?" we might ask ourselves (that's the
Objective). "What do I need to do to be that
person?" (the Action). "What do I need to watch out
for on the way?" (the Obstacle -- which, of course,
may not lie outside ourselves.)
Or we can use the technique in smaller ways:
anticipating a meeting with the boss, answering the
telephone, having a heart-to-heart with a friend.
"OK, what do I want to achieve here? What'll I do?
And what could go wrong?" It's like taking a little
step back and giving ourselves space to get a
perspective on things.
And it works just as well after the fact as before.
It can help get us out of trouble as well as keep
us from getting into trouble, when we take
the trouble to remember it.
Because, in the end, what this acting-cum-life
technique is about is making conscious choices
about our behavior and attitudes. Viktor Frankl
wrote of "the last of the human freedoms: to choose
one's attitude in any given set of circumstances,
to choose one's own way." He knew what he was
talking about, and that capacity to choose lies at
the heart of our humanity.
I'm Megan Cole, and in the theatre, as at the
University of Houston, we give a great deal of
attention to the way inventive minds work
Megan Cole is a noted stage and TV actor and regular
visiting faculty member at the University of Texas
Medical Center in Houston. She originated the role of
Dr. Vivian Bearing in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play
Wit. She has also played recurring
characters on Seinfeld, ER,
Star Trek, and other popular shows.
toward the Objective
despite all Obstacles
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.