Desperate people do desperate things. Behind every crazy crime story or tale of stupid criminal is a real person who, unfortunately, was in a desperate circumstance that drove him or her to desperate actions. Often, a carjacker steals a car because he desperately needs a vehicle. A thief steals because he desperately needs money. Of course, not every example is criminal. People who are desperate for attention, solitude, thrill, or love will do desperate things in order to achieve what they crave.

Desperate people do desperate things.

It’s no surprise that desperate actions are very entertaining and intriguing. Desperation grabs people’s attention (that is sometimes the goal, actually). Why? Because the onlooker wants to know if the desperate person will be successful, or if he will fail—and either way, it will be majestic.

Desperation doesn’t raise the stakes—it shows that the stakes have already risen to uncomfortable levels.

And this is where we as actors can step in and manipulate those levels for an even more compelling performance.

Hopefully, you have already determined your character’s objective. You know what he or she wants most. Have you considered what would happen if your character doesn’t achieve that goal?

In a recent role, my character’s objective was “to prove that I can be fun.” His last name was literally “Smith,” and he was an assistant manager at a hotel. The play, in short, saw him and his fiancee and her parents roleplaying a murder weekend for the benefit of some writer’s-blocked authors. I decided that this weekend, then, was the last and best chance to prove to his fiancee that he could be fun, spontaneous, and exciting.

To raise the stakes, I imagined a five-point scale. At 1, the lowest stakes, I simply put the inverse of my objective: “I don’t prove that I can be fun.”

Level 1 Stakes:

I don’t prove that I can be fun.

To take it up a notch, I ask the simple question, “If that happens, what could happen next?” If you are a worrier by nature, this step in logic should feel familiar. In fact, embrace your worrying nature for this exercise. It will come in handy!

Level 2 Stakes:

My fiancee and future in-laws will think I will always be boring.

“If that happens, what could happen next?”

Level 3 Stakes:

My fiancee and I are in a loveless, dull relationship.

Level 4 Stakes:

My fiancee leaves me.

Level 5 Stakes:

I never find another woman to love me, and I die alone.

At this point, the Level 5 Stakes (or highest level, if you’ve come up with a different number of levels) should reflect your character’s greatest fear. Perhaps even your own greatest fear.

When you go into rehearsal, consider your new scale of desperation. Jump right to the top and see how effective it is. Take it down a notch for the next run, if you want to. For me, Level 5 didn’t feel right. But I could see Level 4, my fiancee leaving me, as a rational fear. She became my focus for every action. I glanced over at her to see if she was watching. I had to prove to her that I could be fun, because I knew the stakes, and they were high.

Desperation drives humans to great lengths, and it demands the attention of many witnesses. In theatre, the audience is full of witnesses who want to see you strive with full knowledge of what is at stake. And whether it ends in victory or defeat, all eyes will follow your journey.


When have desperate times called for desperate measures in your life or in the life of your character?

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