BWW Blog: Michael Milligan of Off-Broadway's MERCY KILLERS - Summoning the Supreme Objective

Representing the Stella Adler Studio of Acting is a great honor and responsibility. Stella Adler along with the other members of the Group Theater revolutionized the American Theater scene. Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg, Bobby Lewis, Elia Kazan, Clifford Odets, Sanford Meisner, Lee J. Cobb, these names are legends to drama students and theater history buffs. And when one looks at the legacy they left behind through successive generations of students- Marlon Brando, Elaine Stritch, Warren Beatty, Estelle Parsons, Robert DeNiro, James Dean, Al Pacino, Paul Newman, the list goes on and on, one begins to get a sense of the impact the Group Theater has had, not only in America, but the world.

The Group was formed in 1931, and its founding members were profoundly influenced by the work of Konstantin Stanislavsky, the great Russian director who, for actors, is the father of realism and the modern theater. The Moscow Art Theater took New York by storm when they toured the US, and the Group was devoted to using the Stanislavsky system to support the works of contemporary playwrights and create a new, vital, uniquely American theater. The impact of the Group can not be underestimated, despite the great debate among its descendants over what exactly the Stanislavsky system was, is, or should become. It's quite possible that the volatile tension surrounding this question was a source of the great creative energy that erupted from the Group for the ten years of its existence.

Words like intention, action, obstacle, objective, super objective, tactic, beat- these have since become the vocabulary of the actor's craft. It is an actor's lifelong work to investigate the essence of these words, what they really describe in the very metaphysical and personal process of creating a character. A few years ago I came across a little known concept while reading Stanislavsky that I had never heard anyone mention before. Actors are quite familiar with the idea of "Objective." The idea is that every character has an Objective in a scene, which consists of what it is they want, what they are trying to get. And this Objective in a given scene is connected to the character's Super Objective, which is what the character wants or is aiming at through the entire play. This is very important to discover as it represents the overall organizing principle of the character's psyche or soul, which once it is discovered, becomes the key to unlocking and identifying the character's behavior moment to moment throughout the play. I compare it to Kepler studying the seemingly chaotic planetary motions, trying to discern the underlying structure. So, this little known concept which I discovered in Stanislavsky's writings was the notion that in addition to a "character" having an "objective" in a scene and a "super-objective" over the course of a play, it was Stanislavsky's observation that the finest actors also had a "Supreme Objective," which was something they carried with them from role to role in all of their work. As artists they had their own "Supreme Objective" which was very personal and unique to their own personality, and might be something like "to reveal the truth," or "to bestow beauty," or "embody greatness," or "to awaken the soul." I found it rather incredible that I had not heard anyone really talk about this in an acting class. But once I read it, it seemed so apparent, something I had sensed in brief moments of my own artistic life, but never heard articulated. I have had the pleasure to work with great artists whose lifetime of work so clearly springs from their own "Supreme Objectives." But it has seemed a bit mysterious to me, like something a person was just born with. While I believe a certain amount may be a gift of the gods, it has been my observation that another portion is the result of a person's own inner work and cultivation. I found the strongest example of this principle in the work of Mark Rylance. I had the privilege to observe this great artist while working on two plays. I think a lot of people have this image of Mark as a kind of genius sprung, like Dionysos, fully formed from the thigh of Zeus. However, my experience of Mark is as the hardest working artist I have ever met. Although perhaps it would be more appropriate to say the hardest "playing" artist I have ever met. A person whose life and art extends from a whole hearted commitment to a kind of supreme objective which is very real and tangible to him, the emanations of which manifest through his performances. I found Mark to be extraordinarily generous in extending the opportunity to partake in this "Supreme Objective" with him. I will not discuss the details of this Master's secret methods, as they belong to him and it is not my place to unveil the mysteries of his craft, nor do I have the hubris to pretend that I even understand them. However, I do feel comfortable sharing a little about the inspiration gathered from working with him, the practices I have developed as a result, and the cultivation of my own, small sparkings of "Supreme Objective." Many actors develop little pre show rituals for themselves that to the outside observer would seem bizarre, perhaps even a little insane. But from the inside, the efficacy of these metaphysical procedures seem as indispensable as brushing one's teeth. So, for me, I have gathered together a little shrine that I take with me wherever I perform, set up in whatever dressing room I have, and spend time with before every performance, contemplating it to remind myself of who I am and why I am in the Theater. It is a collection of little personal objects that are very meaningful to me, that I have invested a great deal of imagination into, and that when I touch them, or look upon them, I can't help but be reminded of the roots of my own particular strand of humanity. They are a kind of recipe of soul stuff that feed me, keep me inspired, and mindful of my own supreme objective, humble as it may be. Here is a list of some of the ingredients (please see the following picture):

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Guest Blogger: Michael Milligan Michael is a performer who has been writing and acting for the theater for over two decades. Milligan has appeared on the Broadway stage as Little Charles in August: Osage County, De Bries in La Bete, and as a ‘raver’ and understudy on Jerusalem. Off-Broadway credits include Will Eno’s Thom Pain and The Golem with Robert Prosky. Other New York credits include the world premiere of The Empty Ocean with Harold Clurman Theater Lab, and Nightlands with New Georges.

Milligan has performed his one man show, Mercy Killers, around the US in places such as Columbus, Cleveland, Albany, Athens, Toledo, Minneapolis, Duluth, Burbank, Hollywood, Stockton, Nevada City, San Francisco, Washington D.C., Charlottesville, Dayton, Rochester, Mankato, San Diego, Sacramento, Philadelphia and more in a variety of settings including professional theatres, student unions, union halls, doctors’ homes, and the House of Representatives Hearing Room for members of the Minnesota legislature. Mercy Killers received a 2013 Fringe First Award during its recent run at the Edinburgh Festival- the performance also garnered a rare 5 star review from the Scotsman.

A reading of Milligan’s verse play, Phaeton was presented by the Harold Clurman Theater Lab featuring Mark Rylance, David Hyde Pierce, and Joanna Lumley. The play was later presented by conservatory students at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and as a part of the NYU graduate acting program’s ‘Studio Tisch.’ His adaptation of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf has undergone several workshops and readings featuring Jay O. Sanders as the enigmatic Wolf Larsen. Milligan got his start writing stories for his mother, who is a professional storyteller in Central Ohio.

Milligan received his training from Juilliard where he won the John Houseman Prize for excellence in classical drama. His love of Shakespeare has taken him around the world performing the bard for the Shakespeare Theater, Royal Shakespeare Company, Shakespeare and Company, Cincinatti Playhouse, St. Louis Rep, the Utah, Alabama, Illinois, Colorado Shakespeare Festivals, Milwaukee Shakes, Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, and New Jersey Shakespeare in roles as diverse as Hamlet, Mercutio, Romeo, Angelo, Cassio, Dromio, Lucentio, Antipholus, Mark Antony, Edgar, Orlando, as well as many spear carriers and shrubbery movers. Milligan is a sometime instructor of Shakespeare at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

He has also appeared at many of the nation’s top regional theaters including the Guthrie, Westport Country Playhouse, Charlotte Rep, The McCarter Theater, and Folger Theatre in Washington D.C.