In acting classes, actors hear a lot about “stakes.” Stakes need to be “high”, stakes need to be “raised”, the scene needs “urgency”. Unfortunately, though, actors often aren’t given a whole lot of help with how to accomplish these instructions. “Raise the stakes!” At worst, actors walk away with the notion that raising the stakes means they should “act harder”, do the scene more “urgently”, in a more “high-stakes” way, as if they had an internal “stakes” knob that they could just turn up to 11. Such an approach is doomed to fail; for one thing, it invites the actor to put his attention on himself and his own performance, which will produce self-consciousness and artificially revved-up work, not work informed by deeply personal investment in the situation at hand.

Some approaches will tell the actor to use what they call an “as-if”: the actor is told to come up with some kind of hypothetical situation involving cast members of the actor’s real life to somehow inject the imaginary situation of the scene with gravity, urgency, importance. This invites the actor to divide her awareness between the as-if scenario and the situation of the scene. She can focus on the scene, but then she is not getting the stakes from the as-if, or conversely, she can focus on the as-if, but then she is not being truly present to the scene. How about this: find a way of looking at the scene, understanding it, that reveals the human interest, the drama, the compelling aspects of it, so the actor can give the scene her full attention and have it be suffused with urgency that gets her juices flowing and ours?

How about that?

Nothing like having your cake and eating it to, as a mentor of mine at Yale used to say.

The point of departure is that any situation that anyone has bothered to put into a script, to dramatize, to ask us to examine, is inherently dramatic, high-stakes, and compelling. And even if, for a given scene in a given script, that is not the case, we have little choice but act as if it were. So what we need to do is articulate those stakes for ourselves, describe them, characterize them, so that our way of looking at the scene and the situation of the scene prompts us to act it in a way that honors these stakes. Not a simple thing to do; in fact learning to develop such a view of a scene is a whole skillset in itself that needs to be studied and practiced, but we can at least, with what have said so far, see the soundness of the goal of mastering this skill, as it will allow us to give an account of what is at stake in the scene that does not require us to focus on anything other than the scene at hand to achieve deep investment and existential urgency in our acting work.

Learning this skill involves new terminology, principles, rules of thumb. It’s a practice you have to be initiated into, and it’s a big part of what I teach in class at Andrew Wood. I am not going to attempt to present all of that here, but I will talk about the most important principle, and that is that while it is always tempting for the actor to focus on a particular piece of the circumstances in a given scene, a particular problem or crisis facing the character he is playing as the source of the stakes in question, in fact what is more important is the relationship. The crisis or problem or difficult circumstances are most important to the actor as an indication of the state of the relationship. Consider the situation of Blanche near the end of Streetcar: she has been raped by Stanley while Stella is in the hospital giving birth to Stanley’s child. We learn from a conversation we watch between Stella and Eunice, the downstairs neighbor, that Blanche has told Stella what happened, and that Stella does not believe it. We don’t get to watch that encounter between Blanche and Stella, but let’s imagine for a moment that that encounter were part of the script. Blanche has a lot riding on getting Stella to believe her about what we know really happened. Blanche doesn’t know that she is at risk of being carted off to an insane asylum, so we can’t say that what is at stake in her convincing Stella of her story is avoiding being put away. Presumably, though, she knows that the future of her relationship with Stella depends on it, because Stanley is not going to want Blanche around given what has happened, whatever the specific means he will use to achieve her banishment. So we could say that Blanche has to convince Stella of the truth so that she doesn’t lose Stella to Stanley.

This is starting to sound compelling, perhaps, and also starting to sound like we are concerned with relationship more than circumstances, which is where we want to be. But in truth we are still dealing with circumstances: Stella will either still be in Blanche’s life in some way, or she won’t. If this is what the actor focuses on while acting, then in some sense she is focused on the future, the future new life with Stella, away from the rapist Stanley. Stella would then be important in the scene only as a guarantor of this future life. But Stella means something to Blanche, right here, right now, that is independent of this hypothetical future. Stella and Blanche grew up together in another world that is now irrevocably lost. They had the same parents, the same aunts and uncles, the same friends, the same teachers, they shared a whole world that know one else will ever know. And further, Stella knows Blanche intimately and sees past her faults. Anyone who doubts that can look at the scene earlier in the play when Stella defends Blanche to Stanley when he sarcastically japes, “Delicate piece she is.” Stella retorts: “She was. She is. You didn’t know Blanche as a girl. Nobody, nobody, was as tender and trusting as she was. But people like you abused her, and forced her to change.” In Stella, Blanche has someone who knows her and appreciates her unconditionally. And when she interacts with Stella, she has the opportunity to receive that unconditional appreciation. So in the imaginary scene with Stella, in which she tells Stella what happened while Stella was in the hospital, the actor playing Blanche should be alive to whether that spigot of unconditional appreciation is flowing or not. Because the flow or lack thereof will speak about her future prospects, but also because that flow speaks about her standing right now. Is that deep and ancient bond with her sister still intact, or has the well run dry? The status of that relationship, its intact-ness or lack thereof, is the true source of immediacy and urgency in the scene. Stella’s saying she believes the story or not speaks about that intactness, but so does every other moment of our imaginary scene, and the quality of attention that Stella offers in those moments. If Stella will not love Blanche right now, then when?

I have written previously about the Jeremy Rifkin’s book The Empathic Civilization, in which he maintains that the consensus in modern psychology is that the most fundamental human drive is for relationship, for meaningful connection with others. We need to see and be seen, hear and be heard, appreciate and be appreciated. At the end of Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the young boy appears and says that Godot will not be appearing that day, and asks the tramps if they have a message for Godot. To which they reply: “Tell him…you saw us.” Our deepest fear would seem to be being shut out of the circle of human warmth and reciprocity, of being told we have no place. So the bonds of relationship are extremely important, even if we only see that importance most clearly when those bonds are threatened or broken.

All this to say: stakes come from the relationship, not directly from the circumstances or outcomes we are promoting or attempting to forestall. Circumstances are important, even essential, but they derive their importance from being the contexts in which our relationships play themselves out.

So a simple piece of advice for actors might be: make it work, whatever the situation. Scripts depict conflict, as Aristotle famously posited. But conflicts are nothing other than breakdowns in otherwise successful relationships. So in any scene, work towards making things work. That’s not to say that you never let anybody have it or bash skulls together in a scene: scenes call for this kind of action all the time, and it can be very satisfying to watch. But it’s only satisfying if the actor understands that letting people have it or bashing skulls together is another way of attempting to make something, a specific relationship, work.

Because in the end, as in the beginning, and everywhere in between, the relationship is what is truly “at stake.”