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):
1. 3 medicine bags - One of these is a gift from Mark Rylance. I hold this in my hand, close my eyes, and say the names of my own ancestors. The names of those who have inspired me, ranging from actual living teachers and peers, like Mark, my former classmates, my mentor, Felix Ivanov, Gandalf Murphy, or older names like Shakespeare, Beethoven, Thoreau, Schiller, Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King, Woody Guthrie, the list goes on and on, and evolves nightly. But I say their names, draw them to mind, and summon up the collective energy of their legacies and I thank the gods for letting me have the opportunity to stand in the same tradition as they to the best of my abilities. I received another Medicine Bag as a gift working on the Broadway production of August: Osage County. This bag reminds me of that great experience and that I actually participated in it, it reminds me of what I have achieved already and to have faith in my abilities. The 3rd Medicine bag is from my friend, Cochise, who has an enormous heart, is a little mad, and reminds me that theater requires some chaos.
2. Engraved Stone- I have this rock which has a quote from Martin Luther King. It says "Not everyone can be famous, but everyone can be great through service, for service is Greatness." I hold this stone, and I think about all the people I've met on the road doing Mercy Killers. All of the incredible activists who have spent decades fighting for human dignity. I also bring to mind the stories of people on the road whose lives have been upended by medical and financial difficulties and I bring to mind those in my own life who have endured great suffering. This is all to remind myself, that the show is for them, not to further inflate my own ego or feed my narcissism. This is important for me personally because I struggle with those tendencies.
3. My Dad's Eagle Scout Badge- I actually carry this one on stage with me in my jacket pocket. My dad is a person I admire greatly. And having his Eagle Scout badge with me reminds me not only to be prepared, but also, lets me know that when something comes along that I'm not prepared for, to relax because I've got my Dad's spirit looking after me.
4. My Grandpa's high school class ring- My Grandpa, Leo, was a workingman. He ran a train in a steel mill in Steubenville, Ohio. This connects me with my ancestors- working people- farmers and steelworkers. This reminds me to enjoy my labor and take pride in it.
5. Tarahumara belt - I got this handwoven belt when I was 23 driving through Mexico. My buddy and I drove 53 hours from Columbus to Acapulco. On the way, we stopped in Creel, a Tarahumara village in northern Mexico. My final paper in college was about Antonin Artaud's visit with the Tarahumara where he took part in their sacred rituals. The experience had such a profound impact on him that when he returned to France, he was quickly locked up in a looney bin. Once the Dr's determined he was functional, he was released and he wrote some very important essays which became the foundation of his cutting edge work in the theater. This belt reminds me that the theater has its roots in the rituals of indigenous cultures. That these rituals have been an integral part of the life of the tribe, that they protect the soul of the people, purge sickness, ward off evil spirits, and restore balance to the Cosmos.
6. Three necklaces from my mom. My mom made these necklaces for me, so this is self explanatory.
7. Guitar pick - This was from my sister's beau, Pascal, who is a virtuosic blues guitarist. When he wakes up every morning, the first thing he reaches for is his guitar because he loves to play it. And he is constantly striving to improve his technique. It's good for actors to have musician friends because it reminds us how lazy we are with our craft and that we too ought to practice our scales and aspire for virtuosity. 8. Singing bowl. This one is very personal to me, so I'm not going to explain the specific origins of its significance. But I strike it and listen to the ringing and it reminds me of my own frail, deeply flawed humanity, and that despite my own failings, on a fundamental level I wish everyone in the universe well.
There are other "bits and bobs" on my altar, each with its own story, and each one grounds me and reminds me, in the midst of the difficulties and madness of pursuing a life in the theater, why, tonight, it is the only thing I want to do, the thing that I must do, and that I must do to the best of my abilities.
I've often heard directors or actors joke in rehearsal about not taking things too seriously. "Just relax, we're not doing brain surgery here," They actually use this exact phrase. When I'm done making contact with my totem objects, I think, "No, we're not doing brain surgery. We're doing something much more important and difficult. Which requires 100 times the concentration." A preposterous sentiment, to be sure. But supreme objectives sometimes demand a touch of madness.