"What's my motivation?"
Though I have never worked with anyone who succumbed to this cliche, I sometimes question the almost universal notion among theatre-types that an actor must in every way be working towards a scene's stated objective.
I am not for a moment advocating a method of acting wherein motivation or objective are tossed aside. On the contrary. I want all characters to behave with intention, so as to bring a show to life. I just happen to think that this goal can be achieved through a determined focus on character, as opposed to that character's objective.
Let's examine a scene from a fictitious play.
A wimpy husband enters a room where a wife is already seated. The husband makes himself a drink or something, and the wife reads the paper. The husband sits down, and a conversation ensues about what the wife is reading. During the discussion, the headstrong wife decides to take some action that the milquetoast husband is against.
At first, the wife appears as though she will get her way as always. Yet the topic at hand is very distasteful to the husband, who is taken by surprise by his wife's plans.
An argument starts between the two of them. The scene ends with the husband storming out of the room with more boldness than he has ever shown before.
I think the objective of the scene itself is quite clear; the scene exists to allow the husband to assert himself for the first time.
Yet consider, simply because the playwright included this scene for that purpose, does that mean the actor playing the husband should proceed to play the whole scene with that knowledge? After all, when his character enters the room, he has no intention whatsoever of making such a shift in his personality. Should the actor make this his "motivation" for everything in the scene?
I know it flies in the face of convention, but I say, no.
Despite the fact that a specific goal or motivation may not always be present, an actor's character IS always present. Ergo, if one remains focused on the perspectives, views, attitudes, traits, and nature of one's character, one is better able to respond to stimulus while "in character." This allows the character to "discover" an objective, as opposed to the actor "having" one.
Now, from a logical standpoint, I realize that an actor knows how a scene is going to play out before he performs. We call this, memorization. Yet I have found that far more organic performances come about as a result of just thinking about who I am on stage than have come about by asking, "What's my motivation?"