What do fighting with your boyfriend, wondering if someone
will like you, and murdering your children all have in common? Positive Choices.
By B.T. (Brett) Ryback
You probably think you know what Positive Choices are. “I make positive choices all the time,”
you tell yourself, “like when I tip the barista at Starbucks, or when I go to a
yoga class instead of eating a pint of chunky monkey.”
However, “Positive Choices”, when referring to characters in
plays, doesn’t mean “doing nice things”, or even doing things for a “good
Positive Choices allow an actor to fathom a character’s
objective on a line-to-line basis, in order to truthfully play the actions
taken in pursuit of that objective. (Holy Terminology, Batman, let’s try
that again!) Positive Choices help us comprehend
what we want, in order to know why we do what we do to get it.
When faced with obstacles, people in real life (like
characters in plays) pursue our objectives wanting things to work out, for
ourselves. That’s the basic idea
behind Positive Choices. In order to play the truth, you have to
know what the Positive Choices are.
- Sometimes the action is given to us – in an argument, let’s say, between you and your boyfriend/girlfriend/cab driver. The action (i.e. screaming your head off, banging your fists on the table, demanding he not take 8th ave.) is given, but the objective is not necessarily obvious. Try this once – in the midst of a fight, take a meta-moment and ask yourself, “What do I really want?” A few choices might emerge – you’re either [looking to] make the other person wrong/hurt their feelings/be as ugly as possible OR you’re simply [looking to] be heard. All are possibilities, but the latter is the Positive Choice (and probably the truth.)
- Sometimes the action is not so clear, like when singing a
solo song in a musical, let’s say.
Making positive choices can help with that, too. Take Amalia’s song “Will He Like Me?” from
She Loves Me (book by Joe Masteroff, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, and Music by Jerry Bock). She exits the shop around the corner,
on her way to meet Dear Friend, and begins to sing:
Will he like me when we meet?
Will the shy and quiet girl he's going to see
Be the girl that he's imagined me to be?
Will he like me?
Will he like the girl he sees?
If he doesn't, will he know enough to know?
That there's more to me than I may always show,
Will he like me?
What action do you play? Let’s pick two choices an actress could make about this song. A.) Dear Friend will probably NOT like her. Her action in this case might be that she’s [looking to] convince herself NOT to go on this date – which is particularly useless because not only does she go on the date, but the audience WANTS her to, and wants HER to want to, as well. Which leaves us with the more Positive Choice B.) Dear Friend will totally like her, in which case her action might be [looking to] to get on top of her nervousness so she can have a good time.
- Now let’s take a really tough example: understanding Positive
Choices in the midst of truly bad behavior. For this we turn your
favorite filicidal mother, and mine, Medea.
Take the speech before she heads into the house to kill her children.
MEDEA: My friends, I am resolved upon the deed; at once will I slay my children and then leave this land, without delaying long enough to hand them over to some more savage hand to butcher. Needs must they die in any case; and since they must, I will slay them - I, the mother that bore them. O heart of mine, steel thyself! Why do I hesitate to do the awful deed that must be done? Come, take the sword, thou wretched hand of mine! Take it, and advance to the post whence starts thy life of sorrow! Away with cowardice! Give not one thought to thy babes, how dear they are or how thou art their mother. This one brief day forget thy children dear, and after that lament; for though thou wilt slay them yet they were thy darlings still, and I am a lady of sorrows. (MEDEA enters the house.)
“I am resolved upon the deed? Needs must they die in any case?” Mm-hmm, I don’t buy it for a second and neither do you, Medea, m’darlin.
So what is the objective here and what action might she take? Sounds to me like she’s trying to convince herself to do something she doesn’t want to do (obstacle).
So the Positive Choice (yes, that’s right – Positive, even though we’re talking about murdering her children) would be that she’s [looking to] believe she’s doing the right thing.
This is a difficult topic to truly understand, so for a
complete master-class on Positive Choices, watch the “interview scene” from Monster, starring Charlize Theron. And then go out and rent the rest of this movie immediately.
 Line-to-line is really important. For the purpose of this posting, Positive Choices don’t attempt to explain major acts over time (for example, “Mama Rose pushes her children into show business because she, herself, wants to be a star” is NOT an example of positive choices in this instance.)
 You’ll notice I use the phrase “looking to” when describing an objective. This is due to another actor-y thing called “living in the question.” In other words, you may know your want, but whether or not it’s going to materialize is unclear to you. Saying I’m looking to [insert want here] allows you to pursue it, without knowing how it’ll work out.
 This is a good time to bring up an important point regarding a character’s “obstacles.” Playing Positive Choices doesn’t mean your obstacles disappear. The obstacles are STILL THERE. Positive Choices remind you to play an action towards overcoming them, instead of playing the obstacle itself. Think of it like this: If someone is confused (ob), they’re [looking to] understand (PC); if someone is nervous (ob), they’re [looking to] be calm (PC); if someone is dying (ob), they’re [looking to] live (PC). The obstacle is accounted for, but you play the Positive Choice. Think the Greeks are nutty cuckoos who have no bearing on modern day real life? Think there’s no real person like Medea and why should we bother to understand the actions she takes? Remember Susan Smith? Andrea Yates? That’s what I thought.
B.T. (BRETT) RYBACK is an actor, composer, and award-winning playwright. He wrote the book to Darling, as well as the music to Liberty Inn, and the play Weïrd. This summer in Los Angeles, he will be making Positive Choices alongside actor Chris Pine in The Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Mark Taper Forum.