In the excellent new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting by Evan Yionoulis, the chair of the acting program at Juilliard, Evan explores at length the concept of the underlying objective. I also teach this concept in my acting classes at Andrew Wood Acting Studio. It’s a sophisticated way of understanding the character’s motivation, and it’s quite challenging for students to learn.

She defines it as follows:

a longing for something the character can’t survive without because it proceeds from a deep void or gaping hollow in their lives. We call the quest to fulfill this need the character’s underlying objective.

In contrast to the underlying objective, she defines plot objectives:

Plot objectives are so called because they are connected to and may have fulfillment in the plot or sequence of events of the play.

I like to say that plot objectives can be thought of as plans that the character has to get the underlying objective met.

Understanding the relationship between the underlying objective and plot objectives is a significant undertaking, and I recommend reading the full chapter in Evan’s book to begin to understand this. But I wanted to call attention to two things from her discussion. First, the title of this post, which is also the title of the chapter on objectives from Evan’s book: “What will you listen FOR?” It’s a commonplace that acting involves listening, but one of the reasons that learning to work with the underlying objective is worthwhile is the way in which having an underlying objective sharpens the actor’s understanding of what she is listening for in a scene. If I know that I am listening for security from my partner, that will sharpen my apprehension what he is sending my way. I won’t just be listening to him, I will be listening FOR a particular kind of energy from him, an energy that gives me a sense of security.

What Are You Listening FOR

And this brings us to the justification for the underlying objective apparatus that Evan gives us. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to just pursue plot objectives and call it a day? Plot objectives are much easier to identify than the underlying objective. What makes learning to operate with an underlying objective worthwhile:

Many actors—and teachers of acting—speak of objectives solely in terms of plot. While plot objectives inarguably give the actor something to pursue that is concrete and doable—that’s why they’re helpful and necessary—without an
underlying purpose, the actor isn’t compelled to engage in the deeper listening that makes the character human.

An underlying objective compels us to engage in the deeper listening that makes the character human. That makes it sound worthwhile, no? But to be honest, I think she undersells it a little. An actor who has embodied an underlying need compels our attention through their vulnerability, in fact, through their visceral vulnerability. When an actor has embodied an underlying need, we understand in some mysterious way, at the level of our nervous system, that they are undertaking something worth watching.

Keep in mind that it’s a long road from being able to identify an underlying objective to being able to embody one, but as a wise man once said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.