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The Five Questions

Anyone who has ever worked with me as an actor, director or playwright will have heard me talk about The Five Questions. This is the foundation for Visionbox’s approach to theatre training and text analysis and was introduced to me by Earle Gister at the Yale School of Drama. The questions have become my own practice in acting, directing, and teaching. They are simple and not easy. Anyone can understand them, but I think it takes ongoing practice to fully apply them to our work.


Here they are:


Who am I? (Character)
Where and when am I? (The Given Circumstances)
What do I want? (Spine, Super-Objective, Objective)
How do I get what I want? (Action) (How do I want to make you feel in order to get what I want?)
What do I do when I do or do not get what I want?

Today I am going to focus on questions three and four:


Plays are not about themes or storyline. Good plays have what Harold Clurman called a spine. The spine of the play is the human need that propels the whole story. Each of the characters then wants something that pulls them through the whole play that is connected to the spine that we call the Super-Objective. And in each scene the character has an objective connected to the Super-Objective. What an audience experiences consciously or unconsciously is the playing out of the opposing objectives of characters in a scene. One character wants something that is often in opposition to what another character wants and we watch this like a tennis match following who will win, who will lose, or is it a tie? 


Question number four is probably the most important part of all acting technique and analysis. This is the question we focus on in rehearsal on our feet. Moment-to-moment, based on each line of text, the actor must articulate or intuit the “actions.” As Hamlet said, “we must fit the action to the word.” Actions are not about what a character is feeling, but what a character is doing because of what they are feeling. To me this particular way of approaching the moment-to-moment life onstage is the greatest aspect of Earle Gister’s work and we articulate the action as “how do I want to make the other character feel in order to get what I want?”


As Hamlet said, “we must fit the action to the word.” Actions are not about what a character is feeling, but what a character is doing because of what they are feeling

One of the misconceptions about acting is that it is primarily connected to what the characters are feeling throughout the play. Often, directors will ask actors to articulate what a character is feeling at any given moment and ask them to show those feelings. But acting is called acting for a reason. It is not called feeling. Again, what actors must uncover onstage is what a character is doing because of what they are feeling.


Having a reliable practice is an essential aspect of all artists’ work. No matter the script or project, these principles have given me a way of approaching all table work, rehearsal, and performance. They have also given me the tools to pass on to students and professionals throughout my career. The ultimate aim of any technique is to find the truth onstage. Actors and directors are essentially interpretive artists. Our job is to understand and illuminate the playwright’s work. A brilliant speech teacher, Edith Skinner once said, “there are many choices, but there is one best one- the one the writer intended.”


-Jennifer McCray Rincón

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