Problem, Objective, Task

Jul 19, 2022

“If you want to paint anything worthwhile you shouldn’t be afraid of stepping up the pressure.

-David Hockney

Konstantin Stanislavsky did not have a high opinion of his own writing. The Russian actor and director was aware of the provisional nature of his findings on acting because throughout his life, he was always moving on to new ideas and abandoning old ones. Once set down, he felt that what he had written no longer had anything to do with his practice. Only two of his books appeared in his lifetime – My Life in Art and An Actor Prepares – and they were only finished with the abundant help from others. An Actor Prepares, his first book on acting, appeared in English in the United States and England in 1936. Stanislavsky died in 1938.

Enormous dissent exists amidst theater scholars about the particulars of various translations of Stanislavsky’s writings on acting, especially around the words that Stanislavsky used to describe what it is that an actor does. One word that is particularly contentious and appears often in his books is, in Russian, zadacha.  The initial English translation of An Actor Prepares, by Elizabeth Hapgood in 1936, translates zadacha as, “objective.”  Largely due to Stanislavsky’s influence in the United States and other English-speaking countries, having an “objective” went on to dominate actor training for many decades. The “objective” is essentially a goal that a character wants to achieve. Before entering a scene, an actor is required to have in mind an overarching objective (such as, to be understood) towards which all of their actions are directed. This is often worded in the question, “What do I want?”

For many years I resisted the dominant concept of an actor’s “objective,” and the words “what do you want?” The concept felt far too psychological and even solipsistic. I was happier to borrow the idea of “task-oriented activity” from the postmodern dance world. The choreographer Yvonne Rainer made a dance piece and then a film, in 1973 and ’74 respectively, entitled This is the Story of a Woman Who. The concept behind the title was particularly useful to me. Rather than over-dramatizing or over-psychologizing an action, simply do the action. “This is a story of a woman who stands up. This is the story of a woman who turns her head. This is a story of a woman who crosses the room.” Fulfilling a task seemed far more compelling and spacious to me than “wanting” something.

Decades after Hapgood’s initial translations were published, new documents and manuscripts from Stanislavsky’s oeuvre appeared in Russia during the post-Soviet “thaw,” and new translations, new discoveries and insights came to light. Substantial differences between the English texts and the eight-volume Soviet Editions of the Collected Works were discovered. It became clear that Hapgood had made many cuts and modifications to Stanislavsky’s original manuscripts in order to speak more directly to the American reader. The British scholar and writer Jean Benedetti spent the latter part of his life trying to correct Hapgood’s mistakes through research in Russian archives and examination of Stanislavsky’s own manuscripts. According to Benedetti, Hapgood had failed in her version of Stanislavsky’s writing to provide a distinction between zadacha, or what she called objective, and deistvie, or the action taken to achieve that objective.  He pointed out that she was also quite unaware of Stanislavsky’s eventual retreat from psychology and his movement towards physical action. It was Benedetti, in his new versions of Stanislavsky’s writing, who first proposed changing the translation of zadacha to “task.”

The theater scholar Sharon Carnicke is internationally acclaimed for her groundbreaking research on Stanislavsky and, more recently, her illumination of Active Analysis which was created by Stanislavsky late in his life and developed by the renowned Russian director Maria Knebel.  Carnicke prefers to translate zadacha as “problem.” She points out that in everyday Russian speech zadacha means “problem.” In the theater, and for Stanislavsky, the solution to a problem lies in action. And so, a problem leads to an action. Carnicke writes, “By defining a problem, which originates in the circumstances of the play, the actor logically discovers his or her action. By placing attention on actions, the actor gains focus and confidence on the stage.” 

Recently I discovered that combining all three English translations of the Russian word zadacha into a three-pronged process is effective, useful, and practical.  The first step is to recognize the problem. The second step is to define an objective. The third step is to complete the task required by the objective.

Just now, as I was writing, I looked up and noticed that a framed photo is tilted on the wall near me.  The fact that the picture is not properly hung bothers me. I get up to straighten it.  The problem is the off-tilt nature of the picture. My objective is to straighten it. I get up to perform the task.

Some problems are small and can be easily worked out. Other problems are complex challenges that require collaboration, creativity, and a considerable amount of effort to solve. During the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, there was a popular saying: “The people with the problems are the people with the solutions.”  If you are fortunate enough to have a problem, the first step is to define it. Next, you have to arrive at a clear objective. Finally, you need to figure out what to do. What is the task?

Nora Helmer, in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, is married at a time when Norwegian women lacked reasonable opportunities for self-fulfillment in a male-dominated world. Her suffocating marriage causes her life to feel unbearably constrictive. Her problem is her struggle between wanting to hold her family together by any means possible and breaking away from her oppressive home life to find independence.  Her objective is to become her own person, to be honest and free and not tolerate a false marriage. Her task, then, is to leave. Despite an unbearable choice, to self-actuate or to stay within the family, the door slams behind her with a certain finality.

Towards the end of his life, Stanislavsky abandoned his old methods, finding them too heady and cerebral, and he decided that actors should not sit around a table discussing the circumstances of the play for too long, but rather they should get onto their feet as soon as possible and work out the play in an embodied fashion. This approach became known as, in English, Active Analysis. 

Sitting around a table together, studying the play, can feel quite expansive, fascinating, and even comfortable. It is the moment when the tables are cleared away that the pressure rises precipitously. Staging begins and every choice feels monumental. Where do you enter the stage and how? You must have a forceful reason to enter. And then, if you stay for more than a moment, you must have an even more compelling reason to remain onstage. The problems accumulate and every new encounter generates more problems, which, in turn require new objectives and tasks.

A large part of my job as director is to pose compelling questions. Good questions are essentially problems to solve. During a rehearsal process I purposefully present obstacles for actors to solve through action. With designers as well, I propose provocative problems that require imagination to resolve. Often, I begin a design meeting by saying, “Here is a list of things that I know and here is a list of things that I do not know.” I present a similar list to actors at the first rehearsal. Then I continue to pose questions, or challenges: How can we embody this huge play in a small, cramped space?  What does hubris really mean?  How do you enter an environment for the very first time?  Stanislavsky proposed the actor’s biggest problem of all, and it goes something like this:  You are in a living room with someone you care about, you are about to declare love for the very first time. The moment is exceedingly intimate … and there are a thousand people watching. Now that is a problem!

Problems create pressure which, in turn, requires focus and energy, assessment, patience and listening. Solving problems in groups brings the advantage of diverse thought and perspectives to address the same predicament and entails taking a series of steps together in a certain order and seeing things together as a process. For me, rather than handing people solutions, it is better to encourage them to take up and remake their own world, a lesson for participatory democracy and community. Ultimately, problem solving opens doors.

We inhabit a world of problems. Despite the particular challenges of our current political, economic, and cultural environment, now is not a time to shrink away from the problems as they arise, even though they may seem more monumental than ever before. Be sure to identify the problem, not the assumption about it, see it clearly, form an actionable objective and be clear about what the task is. Let us not be fearful of the pressure and challenges that arise when encountering a problem.

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