I am both an Actor and a Director. I have tought acting skills in my role as the Director of the Performing Arts Ministry at my church, and continue to take a mentality somewhere between coaching and teaching a great deal of the time that I am directing, depending on the skill level of the talent I’m working with.
I am always impressed when an actor has good instincts – that is, they have an innate sense of what will be effective and appropriate for the character to communicate the desired message(s). Some degree of this can be tought, but a great deal of it must come from the actors experiences, expertise, and what they were born with.
Conversely, I am rather put off when an individual considers themselves to be an actor, but seems to have poor instincts and isn’t actively pursuing improving their craft.
I don’t care how good you are – you can (and should) always pursue improvement in anything you are passionate about. And if you aren’t passionate about it, you probably shouldn’t continue to do it.
Further, I am simply frustrated and generally angry at someone who considers themselves to be an actor but can’t take direction. By this I mean – you’ve just performed a scene, and the director says something like “OK, good. I just need you to ramp up your anger a lot toward the end there. Take it over the top for me.” And the actor nods like they’ve understood, and then performs the scene again – and nothing has changed. Nothing! It’s exactly the same. So the director attempts to clarify, “OK, I didn’t see the anger I’m looking for. Do you understand what I’m asking you to do?” The actor nods. Director, “OK, tell me what I’m asking for.” Actor, “You want me to be more angry at the end of that scene.” Director, “Yes, exactly. She’s just ripped your heart out. You’ve just realized that you’ve spent the last 5 years building a relationship with someone you thought had reciprocal feelings for you, and it turns out she only appreciated the things you did for her, the things you bought for her. She used you. She has no feelings for you whatsoever. You’ve wasted 5 years of your life and invested all this energy and emotions on absolutely nothing. So, there’s a part of you that’s sad, that’s heartbroken; there’s a part of you that’s shocked; there’s a part of you that’s bewildered; there’s a part of you that feels like you’ve just been hit by a bus; but most of all, you’re angry. And all of these emotions get wrapped up and vented in anger towards this callous bitch. Do you understand?” Actor, “Yes, completely, thank you.” So the actor does the scene again, and OH MY GOD!!! Nothing changes! This so offends my sensibilities that I want to shoot the person between the eyes. Get off my stage, get out of my life, get out of this profession, and go deliver pizzas for a living, you have absolutely NO future in this business.
On the other extreme, and the one which lately I have had the extreme pleasure of working with a small handful of these actors, are those that take their craft seriously, work at it, and are genuinely good. They have great instincts, they think through the details of every choice they make – their physicality, their vocality, and their timing; they provide repeatable performances, with excellent believable choices, and when you give them direction, they take it; and they leave the rest of their choices intact, only changing what you’ve asked them to change. They understand the difference between stage acting and film acting. They support their fellow actors. And even when they are working with someone who is not at the same level as them, or who is not giving them everything they should in terms of a performance to play off of, the actor still responds as if they are, and gives a great performance regardless. The actor who, on their worst day, when they just don’t have the proper motivation, drive, energy, enthusiasm, sleep, emotional state, etc. to be at their best - when they “phone in” a performance – is still amazing and fantastic.
However, all of that being said, my experience as both an actor and as a director has changed me. It has altered my perception in ways that can never be undone. This is both good and bad.
I find myself constantly wearing my actor’s hat in daily life, observing emotional reactions, physical choices, timing of various messages and how they are effective or ineffective. I am constantly noticing new facial expressions, subtle quirks of someone’s personality, etc., and storing that information for potential future use.
I also find myself watching movies, TV shows, and stage-plays differently. I am no longer able, unless it’s the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th viewing of something, to actually “watch the show” – to fully enjoy the story and the plot – without focusing on the acting, the choices, the continuity, the framing of the shot, the lighting, the sound, the background, the music, the editing, etc. But mostly I focus on details. Subtle communication, expressions, continuity errors.
TiVo has, of course, allowed me to take this to the extreme. And I drive my kids crazy. I’m constantly pausing, rewinding, saying “Did you notice that? Watch.” I’m the type of OCD idiot that notices how a persons’ shirt is buttoned in one scene and changes as the cut to a different angle in the same scene.
All of this also affects my ability to respond to what should be simple questions, like “What’s your favorite movie?” (or top 3, or whatever.) My response: “Based on what criteria? Based on story? Effects? Acting?”
I’m not much of a fan of Adam Sandler’s typical juvenile humor and the movies borne out of that. But I really enjoyed Spanglish, because I found there to be some excellent acting, some amazing non-verbal communications. I really really liked this.
I also enjoyed the “Hush” episode of Buffy (don’t be hating.) According to Wikipedia, “After reading critical response to the series that praised the dialogue as the most successful aspect of the show, [Joss] Whedon set out to write an episode almost completely devoid of speech. Only about 17 minutes of dialogue is presented in the entire 44 minutes of ‘Hush.’” Regardless of your take on the acting skills within the series, this episode stands out and is a study on non-verbal communication.
The final episode last season of “Gray’s Anatomy” was absolutely breathtaking for me in terms of the acting. I cannot remember a single aspect of that episode that didn’t succeed to an amazing degree to capture the emotions and intent of each character. I could watch it over and over and over.
Many different teachers have many different takes on what the acting experience is all about, and what the “job” of an actor is. I believe that acting is about effective communication. Yes, thinking goes into it. Yes, believing factors in. Yes, experience has an impact. As do many other factors… But in the end, it doesn’t matter what you’re thinking – no-one can tell what you’re thinking. Likewise for believing. And no-one knows what experiences you’ve had, or how they’ve shaped you. No-one knows if this performance draws on specific experiences you’ve had, or if you’ve been able to incorporate third-party experiences into your performance. What matters in the end is what the audience can experience from your performance. What do they see? What do they hear? How are they moved emotionally?
As an actor, you are performing for exactly one reason – to communicate. If you are not there to communicate something, you are wasting your time and everyone else’s involved. The same is true if you are not succeeding in your attempt to communicate.
I don’t mean to suggest that every actor has to nail it every time. That’s ridiculous and unrealistic. But you have to want to, to try to, to work to. There’s a difference between trying but failing, and not trying.
And the best two pieces of advice I would give to every actor are:
1) Watch other actors. Primarily good actors, but also bad actors. It’s all about learning. A great friend quotes C. Hope Clark as saying “if you do not have the need to read, you don’t have the right to write.” The point being that, generalized to any creative work, you must by constantly learning how to improve your craft by watching those who are both better and worse than you to learn what you can do better and what not to do.
2) Watch yourself. Record yourself, and then go back and review it. Run through a performance in front of a mirror. Scrutinize your performance. Ask yourself, “Did I achieve what I intended to achieve? And was it as effective in my performance as it was in my mind?” And then decide what to do with the answers to those questions. I cannot tell you how often I’ve made a choice for a specific facial expression, or gesture, or stance, etc., and then when watching it back realized it didn’t come across as I intended. The facial expression wasn’t realized the way I pictured it in my mind, or my body language didn’t match my intentions, or something.
Enjoy your craft. Enjoy watching other people performing. Study. Scrutinize. Learn. Improve. Care.
And above all, please, actors – Leave the drama on the stage. Trust me… The world needs (and wants) no more divas.