Play the Stakes! It’s Life or Death!

Although most acting courses address playing the stakes of the scene, I really feel it is a topic that deserves to be refreshed from time to time. If you don’t think you know what stakes are, you probably do. They are easily intuited in daily life, and therefore, easy to dismiss or take for granted. But having a finger on the pulse of the stakes puts one on the road to a polished story arc and an honest, specific performance. So let’s renew our vows to the importance of stakes!

But, For Real, What Are Stakes?

Stakes refer to what is being risked in the scene. For example, in the tomb scene of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo has returned to Verona in spite of his banishment, risking capture and death to reunite with his love. His life, his future, his chance at wedded bliss, and the safety of his beloved Juliet are all hanging in the balance. Failure to achieve his objective brings about the direst of consequences. Therefore, the stakes in this scene are incredibly high for his character.

Why Stakes Matter

Having a firm grasp on the complexities of the stakes determines the believability of your character. In the previous example, if the actor playing Romeo meanders into the tomb with low or even middling levels of energy, he will appear callous, or stupid, and the audience will no longer relate to him or believe in his character. The momentum is interrupted, the audience disconnects, and the narrative is lost. So stakes matter. Here are some things that are helpful for me to keep in mind when I’m examining stakes.

Thoughts to Get You Started

Break it Down: First and foremost, naturally, is to identify your character’s main objective, (or super objective). Be as specific as possible, and simplify. Once you think you know what your character needs most, keep asking yourself why until you break it down to a basic human need, such as acceptance, security, power, etc. A good formula I was once taught is “I need (blank) by/through (blank),” thus identifying your character’s needs and modus operandi. Next, start layering in things like backstory and circumstance to let you know exactly how important it is for your character to achieve each individual scene objective. For example: In Pixar’s Finding Nemo, the protagonist, Marlon, wants to . . . wait for it . . . find Nemo. It is very important to him. Nemo is his son; that raises the stakes. Nemo has a weak fin; that raises the stakes. The rest of Marlon’s entire family was killed, with the implication that Marlon failed to protect them, and Nemo is all he has left, so guess what? Some stakes are being raised up in here. Circumstance and backstory add nuance.

Consider the Arc: Obviously it’s important to know your character’s personal stakes, but from there, try expanding your awareness. Consider if your character knows what is at stake for other characters, and how he or she treats that information. How do the stakes differ with each changing scene? Even in the darkest of tragedies, the stakes can’t always be at a ten, or the audience will burn out and the suspense will flatline. Identify the climax and then have fun playing with the build and falling action.

Grasp the Context: Like anything else, how you play the stakes is going to vary according the context of the performance. This is not to say that the stakes themselves necessarily change—a death is a death whether on film or on stage. But being aware of how context affects your performance can contribute to a polished production. As aforementioned, in classical theatre, the stakes are often very high and clearly defined. Characters who fail to achieve their objectives risk death, ruination, exile, or eternal damnation. (Think about how the role of religion in society has evolved from classical to contemporary theatre). Those stakes necessitate a different kind of commitment that the stakes represented in films and plays that are set in modern times. I don’t mean to say that contemporary characters care less about their goals. But risking the loss of one’s job is different than risking the loss of one’s life. Additionally, contemporary scripts are often more layered in subtext, meaning the characters might have to hide their true feelings. Keeping clear sight of the stakes in a scene will help make that subtext specific.

Prebeat and Environment: As we touched on before in the example from Romeo and Juliet, the prebeat, or the moment before, helps tell the story of the stakes. Keeping in mind all the specific work you’ve done on your character’s backstory and objectives, how an actor enters the scene has a huge affect on how the audience perceives the stakes. In A Streetcar Named Desire, if Stanley Kowalski stumbles into the “Stella!” portion of that scene without the proper stakes, it is not going to mean anything when he bellows his wife’s name; no one is going to take him seriously. We as an audience need to see the cumulative effect Blanche’s presence has had on him, the threat to his manhood, the specific nature of his need for Stella, and how the events of that night have led him to this state, and the potential for that build all starts way back at the beginning of the poker scene. If Stanley’s stakes aren’t simmering when Stella and Blanche interrupt, it’s going to be an uphill battle. Furthermore, we need to see how the environment influences the stakes. The fact that all this starts in Stanley’s kitchen, the heart of his domestic domain and the symbol of what he feels he must protect, raises the stakes. Layering in the lateness of the night, the amount of whiskey consumed, the presence of Stanley’s friends and colleagues, and even the heat and humidity of the night serves to clarify the nature and intensity of the stakes.

Physicality: Physicality will announce the stakes of the scene before anyone says a word of dialogue. The higher the stakes, the fuller the physical commitment. You can be crying your eyes out and if your body isn’t fully engaged, it won’t read as honest. So start thinking about how the stakes of the scene might affect character’s breathing, or where you are holding tension. Does your character have to conceal what is at risk? How might you physically hide your personal stakes, and how you might physically betray them? If the stakes are so high as to feel foreign to you, beat a pillow while screaming text or run up a flight of stairs to get back in touch with how it feels to have blood pounding in your ears. Violently twist a towel tighter and tighter and internalize that twisting feeling when you have to struggle not to give away your stakes. Whatever works for you, just start putting the story of the stakes in your body.

Without stakes, there is no point to telling the story. It’s true that they sometimes seem self-explanatory, but the more we as actors attach nuance and clarity, the more we serve the narrative. So dig in and have fun, this is what we’re all in it for, after all.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com