If I'm Being Honest, I'm Being Truthful!
Updated: Apr 5, 2019
We’re going to talk for a moment about being honest and truthful, and this one’s not really that tricky. It’s another one that is probably going to seem obvious once we lay it on the table. The question isn’t really how to be honest and truthful, the question is who are we supposed to be honest and truthful to.
In a scene, we might think we owe it to our scene partner to be honest and truthful to them, and occasionally that’s going to be exactly how it has to be done. I would argue that in the majority of scenes, and even in our real lives, it’s far more important to be honest to ourselves, to our own character and goals.
Because this means responding in a way that is absolutely true to our character in the scene, what we would feel, do, or say in that moment as that person. Not what we the actor think someone might expect us to do, but something that is based on a gut level response that is founded in everything we know about our character, our wants, needs, and desires.
We go into a conversation wanting something out of it. If we’re honest about it, we enter every conversation with an objective… sometimes it’s to be the smartest or funniest person in the room, sometimes it’s to win an argument, to earn respect, or even to make the other person leave. It doesn’t matter what our objective is, it matters that if we think about it, there is always is one, and sometimes it might make us uncomfortable when we realize what it is.
We also go into every scene with an objective. In a scripted scene we have time to plan for that, the luxury to really analyze the reason we’re talking to someone. In real life, like improv, we don’t get that. We have to decide the moment we see someone walking up to us what we want from the impending interaction. We still have an edge in life over improv though, because in life we often know the person approaching us, so we know who we enjoy talking to and who we want to get to business with quickly and move on as fast as possible. The beginning of an improv scene is a very different experience for us, because we have to start collecting information immediately about our partner and figure out who they are to us and what we want. Then we can start to respond in a way that is true to our character in that situation (assuming of course we have our character nailed down, did I mention this can be more challenging in improv).
Now, I’ll keep telling you that improv is a great skill to have as an actor, and practicing improv is one of the best things we can do to strengthen ourselves as actors. This is one of the reasons I believe it. When we start a scene with nothing, and have to discover all these things on the fly and then react to each offer in a way that is honest and truthful – to our character – we are doing something in the moment we normally have history or script analysis to guide us into. We are without a net, and every time we do this in improv, in the moment, we are building on our ability to read people and situations more effectively.
Let’s say you are eating lunch in the breakroom, someone approaches that you personally find off-putting and even annoying. This guy only wants to talk to you when they want something from you and the fact that you’re sitting with lunch in front of you doesn’t mean a thing. Like it or not, they’re going to interrupt you, it’s coming. Your objective may be to end this conversation as soon as possible and continue eating lunch in peace. So you may be as curt as you can be, without being a jerk, but enough to make the point that you’re on break and you may help after lunch.
Now, same situation, except it’s a person who has done a lot to make your job/life easier. You don’t just like this person, you respect them. You are driven by a different objective now, it’s not just about eating lunch in peace, this person deserves your attention, you owe it to them and you want them to know you’re there for them. So, truthful to the new objective, stop eating, hear them out, and do what you can as soon as you can even if that means reheating your lunch again when you’re finished.
Same lunch only now it’s the most attractive person in the building, and you have a crush on them. The objective is now to get them to love you, so maybe you’re willing to forgo lunch altogether. Really, it’s just leftovers and you were just finishing up anyway, so just go ahead and do what it takes. You can finish it at your desk later satisfied that you made a good impression.
Each time the situation is the same, but our reaction to the other person in the scene defines how we react. And the honesty is in the way we treat each one based on our personal objectives and desires. And these are easy calls, each one is clear, from our objectives to how we feel about the person who we’re talking to and how much we’d be willing to sacrifice to make them happy.
Imagine the challenge if they all walk up to you in succession, how do you deal with it when they are each coming at you and you feel like you’re juggling objectives. You never juggle objectives, a scene has one goal. If we wrote this scene where our poor protagonist is trying to enjoy lunch and is approached by each one in turn, and they have to deal with each new arrival while the last is listening, you will have one objective for that scene. It could be “I’m finishing my lunch no matter what,” or it could be “to make you feel guilty.”
Whatever you choose, stick to the truth of your character in that situation. If you’re going to eat your lunch no matter what, you could just look that pest right in the eye and chew with your mouth open until they get the point. When your helpful buddy arrives, maybe offer him some chips so he can snack while you finish before you both go off to work on his problem. The office crush will require some delicacy; you want to help them immediately so you might start packing your lunch back up in order to save it for later. That last one might feel like it missed the objective a little, but if you consider that your truth is you would do anything for your crush, it makes sense that you would carefully pack your lunch back up so you could finish it later.
Each time, each scene, each possibility, it is our own heart and objectives that we have to honor and be truthful to.