Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter
Being an actor is easy.
Unless you listen to the $200/hr. New York acting instructor. According to them, there is one method, one approach, and one “secret.” Until you sign up for another class. And another. And another. And suddenly your hobby starts to look like the lobby of the Church of Scientology.
Like many things in our culture today we have built up walls around something that is literally child’s play to make it seem sacred and essential. Schools act like Hogwarts and offer you their magic method, yet, in reality, it is someone telling you the rules of pretending; however, like basketball and football, the game is best enjoyed when the best are playing what they love to do.
If you are solely in the “art” of acting, this article isn’t for you. If you are looking for a how-to guide for acting, this article isn’t for you. But, if your curious about how to approach this game, then maybe this article is for you, because, when you really look at it there are three simple questions to ask yourself.
Are you an actor?
Ask yourself, “Am I an actor?” If your answer is no, thank you very much go and enjoy your favorite sitcom. If you are not itching to get in the game, if you are not dying to live on stage or on screen, then you are not an actor. Indeed, you are free to play at the local community playhouse or try your hand at an improv workshop. Hell, enjoy all the fruits of workshops, classes, and performances, but do not subject yourself to the life of an actor if you don’t identify as one.
Proust would say most people spend their days in a state of existential crisis. Actors are certainly no different. Many people expend most of their energy on calming their anxiety about acting. They go to an audition feeling like a fraud, or waste energy in rehearsal hoping no one knows they have no idea what they are doing. Well, if there was a monologue above every actor’s head in rehearsal plus the director, I guarantee most of them would read, “What the hell am I doing?” Yet, here’s the counterpunch: Are you an actor? If yes, then great you will figure it out. And if not, that’s okay too. We have to take our swings. What if Ted Williams or Wayne Gretzky had stopped hacking away?
Note: I am not suggesting that “acting” is an identity. Good hell, if it weren’t for structure, then an additional for the actor would be: get a life outside the theatre. Actors must be alive both on and out of frame.
What would an astronaut do?
Now that we’ve established that you are an actor, the next step is simple: what would an astronaut do? This is not some pun about living in the stars, but rather, bringing down the art fo something tangible.
Many charlatans will approach you in your life as an artist with “The Secret.” Like the saying goes, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Instead, see yourself and your character as the clay and learn to mold it yourself. A great director can make mediocre actors good and good actors great, but you cannot rely on that director showing up to every rehearsal, because odds are he ain’t.
Every day wake up and ask yourself, “How do I get better,” and, “ If I was a professional actor what would I do?” Should I read a play? Should I write a scene? Should I study Shakespeare? Should I audition? Should I search for work? Could I stage a reading? Is there a workshop for that? What skills do I need? Stage combat? Yoga? Voice? Dance? Circus?
How do I tell this story better?
Above all else remember that you, as an actor, are a storyteller. If you forget this one simple fact and put the cart in front of the horse, you are doing the greatest disservice to the audience. Imagine if you showed up to a Sixers game expecting to see Joel Embid and Ben Simmons take on the Celtics and rather than playing the game they worked on experimental dribbling drills, trick shots, and stretching. What would you do? Personally, I’d ask for my money back. Why? The obligation was not complete. Every time someone walks into a theatre they are paying to be engaged by the story. It can be a funny story, a dramatic story, or even a sad story, but they are paying for a story. Too often, actors get caught up in their own petard and see the method as the point. Acting is not the purpose of theatre. The artist is not the hero. We create the magic for the audience. We serve at the pleasure of the story. The most straightforward acting tool I can offer anyone is to ask themselves in rehearsal, “What does this story need right now?” Whatever the answer to that question is, do that. Typically, you will find the needs of the character and the needs of the story are one and the same. Writers will see the age-old adage of the plot is character and character is the plot.
Am I an actor? What would an actor do? How do I tell this story better?
Acting is fun. If it weren’t, then none of us would do it. We would have chosen a more lucrative, easy life path that included a quick rise to fame and fortune. Unfortunately, we tasted the nectar of creativity and found it delightful. Or, more likely, someone laughed at one of our jokes onstage and here we are.
Ernest Hemingway best summed it up with the quote, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” Therefore, it is up to the student to teach himself. Yes, there are fantastic acting programs and teachers across the world and if you feel something calling you to study with them go, but go for the experience, not for the prize. If your title is that at the end of your bank account and the journey you will become an actor, see question one. All actors train themselves. What works for one person, doesn’t work for another. While the human body may function like a violin, it doesn’t always tune like one. Different approaches strike different chords with different people.
Bonus: Follow the Fear
If you stuck around until the end then, like a Marvel movie, here’s one acting tip for you. My favorite question to ask myself when preparing a character is, “Should I do this?” You know that tingly feeling you got as a kid when you did something you weren’t supposed to do, or that pit in your stomach when you are about to do something stupid or dangerous? Or say something your not supposed to say? Or make a joke you are not supposed to make? That. That is the secret sauce. Typically, characters in plays are not balanced people. If they were, there wouldn’t be a play. So, like the fools of Commedia, trust your gut. If you find yourself saying, “ Nah, I shouldn’t do that,” for the love of all that is holy do the opposite. Follow the fear. On the other side of the wall is drama. In life, we make safe, conservative choices 90% of the time, however, drama is about the other 10%. We want to see the danger. We want to look at someone walking on a tightrope, and the greatest gift you can give your director is that you don’t play it safe. So, the next time you are in rehearsal trying to rationalize our character or think out how to build a moment, shut up and listen to your gut. Try the wrong choice. Go for the option that scares you. Odds are, that feeling is guiding you to the right choice for the stage.
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.