“Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one but they think each others stink.”
― Simone Elkeles
Information is everywhere. There once was a time when part of what made people great was their ability to cultivate information, or rather, they knew how to find what they needed to know. Today, knowledge is still power, however, the access to information has created an influx of bad advice. In fact, my favorite piece of advice to this day is, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
Still, people offer up counsel with good intent. No one, except for scam artists and those bastard fake agencies like Wilhelmenia and John Casablancas, tries to set people up to fail. Yet, if you scour the internet for blogs, video essays, and podcasts then you eventually get tired of hiring the same, bland advice.
How many times can people say, “You have to set your goals,” or, “it’s about tactics and obstacles,” before you start to tune out? And, if the message isn’t reaching the receiver it is not successful communication.
With that in mind I figured I would break down three pieces of acting advice that are pretty sound, but at this point are cliche and have lost their meaning.
If you’ve taken any sort of actor training you’ve inevitably had that one teacher who was obsessed with breath work. Maybe they trained as a Buddhist for five years at a Tibetian monastery, maybe they just really enjoy Alan Watts trip hop, no one really knows. According to them there is no single greater tool to acting, or anything else for that matter, than breath. And so, an acting class becomes a breathing class with soft flutes playing in the background, salt lamps, candles, and Nag Champa setting the mood. The teacher leads you through a breathing workshop speaking in tones generally regarded for five year olds and sarcasm, and you lay on the ground wondering what the hell you got yourself into.
And while Wim Hof has taken over the self-help portion of the internet and appeared on a million podcasts at this point, it is so easy to tune out this invaluable tip. I think it is safe to say that breathing comes naturally, right? Then again, when thrust into intense situations be it a fight, a football game, or a finale we often short ourselves of breath. Althought the fact that from before we were ever able to construct a complete sentence we were being incorrectly taught how to breath by our parents, and you actually have an amazing piece of advice for actors.
Human beings naturally breathe from their diaphragm, however, over time we mimic the people we see around us and start breathing from our chest. When adrenaline hits out body and our anxiety raises, we tense up and shorten our breaths. Therefore, if your natural system is allowed to kick in and you are already breathing from above the neck, you are setting yourself up for a world of pain: literally and figuratively.
Additionally, look to your favorite comedians. Look at Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr, or George Carlin and you will notice that their standups feel relaxed. Even when they have energy or are yelling, they remain calm and use their breath. When you have control over your breathing you have control over your material. When you let your body dictate how you feel you have to settle for the results. For some people, it comes naturally. They are used to high pressure situations or they were blessed with a sense of cool. Maybe they’re a regular Spike Spiegel and they’re just like water, however, most of us get nervous. We want to impress people, we want the audience to like us, or the casting director, or the director, or we are some anal retentive perfectionist who needs things to work our the way we intended for the world to make sense. And while we must also learn to cage that monkey mind (save that for a later article) we would be well served in learning to tame that raging wave inside of us: our breath.
Anytime a teacher or a director gives you a note about your breath, it all boils down to how you use it. The odd thing is that unlike comedy and public speaking actors must learn to master their breath for various reasons. If you are King Lear raging about the wind while still speaking in beautiful verse it is going to take a completely different kind of breath than say Al Pacino chewing scenery in Dick Tracy.
Not only is it a useful tool to help you gain better control over your voice and body, but it is also a tip to help you get into other characters as well. While we must all learn that cool and confident neutral, that relaxing, calming breath that energizes our body, we as actors must also learn those enraged storms, those terrified catch breaths, or the nervous shortages.
So the next time you get that piece of hippie advice, “Just breath man,” know that they really are offering you us something useful.
Now, take that same exact feeling and apply it to a rehearsal, workshop, or class. You are acting your ass off in a scene only to have the director or coach to tell you to “Relax.” What the hell does that mean? Why would my character be “relaxed”? How do I relax in a scene where I am supposed to be angry, terrified, horrified, heartbroken, or any of the thousands of emotional states called for by scripts?
This is why “relax” is terrible advice. Not only does it serve no purpose in the moment, but it immediately invokes that defensive position that all of us feel when confronted in a moment of crisis.
So what do they mean? Much like breathing, we all have a tendency to “push,” or try and reach beyond our capabilities. And as performers we should be striving to reach our limits and move beyond them. In fact, if you asked most directors they will tell you they prefer working with actors who go for it and give them too much. They can work with it.
On the other side, however, is when we reach for emotions or for characters we telegraph what we are doing. We start acting.
Most people are more talented than they realize, however, they compare themselves to the people they admire. They may be a great actor, but in their mind they are no Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan, and so they push. They try to be somebody else, perform like some else. How many bad summer Shakespeare festivals have you seen where the actors are all declaring their roles? They are showing you how big they can act? How angry they can be? And how much of a copy of a copy of a copy they are of some Hamlet performed long ago?
It takes exactly 212 degrees Farenheit to boil water. Any less and it doesn’t boil, any more and it doesn’t matter. You can give it more juice, but 212 is all that is required.
We’ve heard a million cliches and sayings to help us through these moments. “Let it come to you,” and, “You are enough,” are two of my favorites. But I’d like to add another one to their midst and maybe I will hear it down the road, “Embrace the moment.”
If you're an actor, you’ve always wanted to be right where you are. At some point in your life you saw a movie or a play and said, “I want to be there.” And now, you are there. Only, it doesn’t look like you thought it would. In your mind, you thought that wonderful actor knew exactly what they were doing and delivered it perfectly. Here you are flubbing lines and sounding like a dying kitten. But the secret is that no one knows what they’re doing. No one knows how to play Hamlet until they play Hamlet. No one is ever ready. No one ever knows enough. And rather than try and push for something that isn’t there, embrace the moment and enjoy it.
It would be a fantasy to strike down this saying. As long as man continues to make dramatic art there will be people saying this to one another. And why not? It makes perfect sense. John Wayne did it, right? Look a man in the eye and tell him the truth, right? Don’t lie. Just go out there and be yourself.
Only, who knows who they are? The reason this is such terrible advice is because you are holding up the mirror to the abyss.
Rather than get into a Freudian v. Jung argument here about the self, let’s just say that human’s suck at knowing who they are, and if you don’t believe me ask your local $400/hr therapist. Most of us don’t spend hours analyzing our every choice, and if we do it’s a hellish world to live in. Still, we expect actors to know what this universally broad statement is supposed to mean.
What they actually mean is use your voice, use your sense of humor, use your life experience. Stop trying to conjure up some foreign idea of Robin Williams or John Barrymore and use your own paint brush.
So many people get into acting to explore other people, other ideas, other characters. They ask themselves, “What would it be like to be some else?” What if I could be confident? Courageous? Evil? Seductive? Funny? And they use the stage and screen as a vehicle to try on other hats. To escape themselves. And yet, time and time again what we find is that the person we discover onstage is not a different person, but one that is uniquely us. We are not playing an Iago, we are playing our Iago. We are not putting on the costume of Juliet, we are presenting our version of Juliet.
When someone tells you to, “Be yourself” what they are really saying is to take license of your character. I am not interested in seeing Snake Plisken’s (I didn’t want to use anyone’s real name) rendition of John C. Reily’s Macbeth.
When we paint with our experiences we are creating something that is uniquely human. Rather than put on a mask of someone else and hide behind it, find yourself in the character. Explore the same impulses you had, but explore them through your eyes. Shakespeare may have written Benedick, but he is my character to perform. It is my duty to honor the words, the blocking, and my fellow actors, but the part must be mine.
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.