If someone is currently trying to sell you some complicated method of dieting that is guaranteed to deliver results and cost a ton of money or special pills and powders, don't buy it. Likewise, if some school or God forbid agency is selling you an overcomplicated method to being a "great" actor, or promises you fame in fortune, don't buy it.
First of all, acting is simple. Despite actors wishing to be shooting stars, the fact of the matter is that we are all people. In fact, it is when actors forget they are people first and actors second that we, as the audience, feel a distaste for their performances.
I love pragmatic approaches to most things. What is the action I need to follow? What are the habits I need to build? How do I do the job in its fundamental way? This can be a tricky thing in any art form because artists like to believe in the cosmic forces that inspire them, and while there is a place for the divine muse, that place is not in the beginning stages.
So what are the practical lessons someone needs to be a good actor? If I was to break it down into three undeniable actions, it would be: observe, listen, and give. While this may sound like the three verbs of a self-help blog, hear me out.
Observation is the first practical secret of acting. In fact, it's the secret of all artistry. When you are a child, and what is art but attempting to live life through the eyes of a child, you learn from observing the world around you. Sure, our parents try to teach up language and games, but we learn from mimicry.
Perhaps that is where all drama and acting comes from, our innate ability to mimic; however, that is another article for another day.
In his book "The Inner Game of Tennis," Timothy Gallwey writes that the secret to teaching tennis is not to teach it at all. The secret is to let the student learn from observation. Gallwey learned through years of practice that his students performed better if they watched better players serve rather than him attempting to teach them technique. He would tweak and adjust, but ultimately all of his students performed better when he let their natural learning method take precedence; that is when he allowed them to mimic.
Think of the ease of which a child can imitate a relative or pick up on the habits of a teacher and reproduce them. If you wish to be an artist, you must look at the world through the eyes of an artist. We must learn to see the beauty of the world and take note of what we find beauty in. What attracts you? What garners your interest? What inspires you? Sparks your curiosity? Fills you with awe? That is where your heart lies, and if it is, in fact, storytelling, then move on to number two.
*Note: There is no shame if acting, drama, or comedy are not your thing. There are many more lucrative forms of art and entertainment. Think of all the podcasts created in the last decade or all the great comics and novels written. There is no "highest" form, and if anyone attempts to tell you otherwise, shoot them, metaphorically speaking, of course. Remember, if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
Second, and this may seem counterintuitive, given the nature of the job, the actor must listen. Stephen Covey, the guy every manager quoted to their subordinates back in the 90s, wrote several of his famous habits centered around the subject of active listening. "Seek first to understand then to be understood," and also, "to be interesting, be interested." He was an advocate for active listening long before the new wave of mindfulness took hold. His point is sound, however, which is why it stuck around.
We are most interested in people who are interested in us. Everyone loves talking about themselves, try it the next time you are at a party. Rather than rolling on about your life, keep prodding the other person with questions about their life and watch as they light up like Jubilee.
Actors are guilty of this trap. Ask them about their method and be ready for a four hour conversation. We've all been on the receiving end of someone's diatribe, unable to get a word in and merely a sounding board for their monologue. While you would think this would serve the actor, it doesn't. Audiences are made up of people, no brainer, and people don't want to see narcissists parading around on stage.
What makes for riveting work is when the players on stage or on camera are fully engaged in the scene. In order to be fully engaged, we must be actively listening to our scene partner. If all we are doing is thinking of our next line, we cannot take in the other character's lines and their impact on us, let alone respond naturally to the comments. If you are so involved with your internal monologue that you are not listening to the insults or praise being thrown your way by the other characters, you're ahead floating around waiting to speak. The job is not to wait for your turn to talk, the task is to fill those moments in between with life, and the easiest way to do that is to listen.
Finally, the last tip is to give. This can be as simple as saying your lines as written, or it can be as glamorous as an improvised response, but the point is to give. If you are present, observing, and listening, then you are already giving your full attention to your scene partner, who is more than I can say for most actors. Ask yourself, what does the other person need? What do they want? How can I set them up to succeed?
In improv, the golden rule is to make your partner look good. If you are doing that, then the scene will work. Insult humor is so easy, it's the lowest of low hanging fruit. Plus, no one wins. Sure, when you are with your friends, it's fun to exchange barbs, but in life, insults are a pissing contest. It is our hierarchical desire to impose our will on other people and makes ourselves feel superior. This is not the road to good acting.
Indeed, in the game of drama, these sorts of tactics are used in the script; however, we, like actors, must separate ourselves from the character. At all times, an actor is a professional. He doesn't need to send dead fish to his castmates to make them think his character is crazy, that's not talent that's an asshole.
Giving actors take in all the information they have: the script, their life, the scene, the situation, the stress, the other actor, their character, everything. Then, they ask a simple question, "What does this scene need?" If you are focused on giving the scene what it needs, whether that is by finding your action or by using what you've learned from listening to the other actor, then you will always be alright.
Lastly, all of this can be taken out with the trash at any given moment. If your director needs you to go over and pick up a box of pizza, then you go over and pick up a box of pizza. No need to infuse anything more into the scene than that. Remember, acting is a collaborative effort. Always check your method at the door, even if that method is pragmatic. I want to work with people, not with robots following orders given to them by professors, teachers, or, worst of all, bloggers.
Acting is fun. It is a game. Like any game, the goal is to entertain ourselves and find the joy of life. Never forget that lesson when you are working. Don't take yourself too seriously. All it takes to poison the well while working is one jerk who believes they're doing something other than playing make-believe.
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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.