I watched the first ten minutes of the NBC's live Jesus Christ Superstar this morning, the Overture and Judas's opening number, "Heaven on Their Minds." One thing struck me hard about Brandon Victor Dixon's performance of the song: he's lost Judas's intention.
Intention is the core of any acting performance. What is the character trying to do? Drama is all about people who want things from other people.
The song is a warning: Judas is scared, and he wants Jesus to cool it before the crowds get out of hand and everyone gets killed. And in the movie, that's how Carl Anderson performs it. He's warning Jesus, in song. He barely takes his eyes off Jesus.
Brandon Victor Dixon barely looks at Jesus until two thirds of the way through the song. He's got an amazing voice and he's doing all sorts of American Idol gymnastics with it. But what he is not doing is warning Jesus. He is singing about warning Jesus. He is, as my old acting teacher Joanne Baron would put it, disconnected from his imaginary circumstance and the characters around him.
Intention is big. Intention is huge. The single most important thing you can do as a director is make sure that the actor is clear on their intention. What are they trying to do? Adjustments are important ("now try doing it as if..."), but intention is the backbone, and without it, there's no drama.
Video games are all about their "verbs." What does the player get to do. Shoot? Climb? Punch? Break? Loot? Pick locks? Persuade?
Drama writing is also all about intention. As David Mamet puts it: "Who wants what, why can't they get it, why do I give a shit?" My formula is slightly more detailed but it's the same idea. A story is:
a. a character we care about
b. who has an opportunity, problem or goal
c. who faces obstacles, an antagonist, and or their own flaws in resolving (b)
d. who has something to lose (jeopardy) and/or
e. something to gain (stakes).
f. A story is told to an audience.
So: acting is about the actor convincing themselves they want something, and reacting with emotional truth when they discover (surprise! hopefully) that they can't get it.
It is literally that simple. If you can get that, you've done 80% of your job as a director.
(Casting is the other 80%.)
Dramatic writing is about characters wanting things. It is literally that simple.
If your character wants things and can't get them, you have drama. If your character is not trying to get things from the other people in the scene, then there is no drama.
Now, I said it's simple. I didn't say it's easy. Intention is really easy to forget. There is probably no pro writer who hasn't struggled with a beautifully written scene that doesn't work, up until the point where their trusted reader pointed out, "there's no dramatic conflict." There is probably no pro actor who hasn't lost their intention in a scene because they were focused on their adjustment ("as if") or their accent or their divorce or whatever.
But it is that simple. The first question you should ask yourself as a director or an actor, if the performance isn't working, is: are you, or is your actor, trying to get something from the other person? The first question you should ask yourself as a writer, if the scene isn't working is, is the character trying to get something, and is something stopping them?
If not, fix it.