Acting has been defined by many people and in many different ways. It has variously been described as impersonating, pretending, imitating, interpreting, feeling, creating, being, behaving, imagining, empathising, reacting, believing, doing, playing … and even as acting!
Sir Michael Redgrave, in his book ‘The Actors’ Ways’ defined acting thus:
“The essence of acting is the power to act. Thought or emotion may or may not be present – but the basic will of an actor must be, quite simply, to act; not to think, not to feel, not to exhibitionise, not to make some personal statement – though he may do one or all of these things …. But to act!”
Stanislavsky’s makes the point slightly differently:
“Never lose yourself on the stage. Always act in your own person, as an artist. The moment you lose yourself on the stage marks the departure from truly living your part and the beginning of exaggerated false acting. Therefore, no matter how much you act, how many parts you take, you should never allow yourself any exception to the rule of using your own feelings. To break that rule is the equivalent of killing the person you are portraying, because you deprive him of a palpitating, living, human soul, which is the real source of life for a part.”
Sanford Meisner defines acting as follows:
“The foundation of acting is the reality of doing”
And from an actor friend who is also a renowned coach, and who has narrated over 900 audiobooks:
“Honesty and moment to moment truth are the cornerstones of great acting. And once you learn how to fake that, you’ve got it made!'”
What acting definitely isn’t, is a place to hide, though this is a common misconception and many would-be head into the profession because they are trying to hide – they dislike something about themselves and believe that by ‘putting on’ a character’, their own character will be hidden behind the curtain of their performance. In fact, good actors actually reveal themselves to an extraordinary degree. Dig into the quotes above and they reveal the same truth. An actor creates a reality within an imaginary world; everything that happens during a performance is grounded in reality even though the world being created is not real. This is why great writing survives and continues to flourish. Shakespeare created situations and settings that were purely imaginary but the feelings and actions of his characters have a universal truth based on human emotion and experience.
Thus an actor creates and then inhabits a believable creature who feels, speaks, behaves with truthfully within the remit of the script (or improvisation) for the duration of a performance however long or short that performance may be. The actor cannot force a performance … tension is or trying too hard absolutely kills the creation. You have to be relaxed and even vulnerable otherwise how can you accept what is going on around you and build on it? When playing a role, the actor is in’ in that moment with the facade of being entirely real, he must be totally accepting of the moment making every decision, making every action and reaction as if with absolute spontaneity as though everything is happening for the first time; and as though every thought and action is fresh and new.
Of course, most performances have a script so you are speaking lines that have been written by someone else so acting is interpreting an author’s words, and about communicating to the audience what has been written, devised or improvised. You do this by taking ownership of the character you are playing and by using your imagination and your own remembered experiences and emotions to make the character’s thoughts and emotions utterly believable and truthful to that character, and then sharing them effectively and credibly to whoever is watching or listening. drawing the audience into the performance. You’re not demonstrating anything – you just are!
What makes an actor’s creativity unique, is the ability to do this amazing thing on cue. The audience arrives, the curtain goes up … and there you are, in character, complete, compelling and credible – and you do this amazing feat night after night, performance after performance, retake after retake, no matter what else has happened during your day, no matter what mood you’re in, or what stresses you’ve been under.
This calls on technique … as do many of the actor’s skills. Of course actor’s stage technique is subtly different from the technique required on a film set or in a recording studio. On stage the element of artificiality is increased because projection is involved – both emotional and vocal, but otherwise, performance techniques are surprisingly similar across all platforms, stage, film, television, radio and voice acting.
WHAT IS ACTING TECHNIQUE?
A large part of my training at drama school centred around an actor’s technique. It is complex and is not something that can be learned overnight. Before working on texts, we spent many weeks learning how to be ‘truthful’ within the totally artificial creation of an improvisation. To take what is given by your improvisation partners and to build on that while responding truthfully. (Accept and build). Slowly, scripts were added and we began to use what we had learned (including what we had learned about ourselves) when speaking someone else’s words. We worked on motivation, interpretation and vocal technique – two incredibly intense years, five days a week from 10:00 to 18:00 of classes, tutorials, masterclasses, rehearsals, workshops and performances – and very often rehearsals or performances during evenings and weekends. So what I am sharing here is a tiny taste of what I learned from many wonderful teachers during the totally immersive experiences of my drama school training.
Probably most important thing I learned was that no matter what kind of performance you’re involved in, no matter where the performance is taking place, no matter whether there is a live audience or a camera or microphone, every single thought, action and emotion you experience has to appear ‘new’ and must be ‘truthful’ within the context of the piece. This is the artifice of the actor, because nothing within a performance can ever actually be ‘new’ because you’ve already read the script, gone through a rehearsal process, you know what happens next, you know your lines and the lines of the other actors, so how can it be new? Each time you perform a piece you must be constant to some degree and you must be able to re-create and repeat that performance: In film, television and recorded media there will be retakes, pickups, cutaways, close ups, corrections all need to ‘match’ the original performance, but it must appear fresh and spontaneous every single time. Although a stage performance may appear to be more immediate, (there is no second chance, no retakes just the next performance) it must still be consistent. Imagine what would happen during a carefully staged fight if one actor suddenly changed all the moves.
So part of an actor’s technique is the ability to re-create the moment afresh while still remaining totally aware of what is going on around him. The tempo and atmosphere of each particular performance will be subtly different from last night’s or last week’s – and will have certainly grown from the first read through and will change from the way it was during rehearsal. Thus each live performance takes on it’s own life – it gathers energy from the audience and the way in which every unique set of circumstances affects those taking part (and those watching) will cause each performance to be subtly different.
Actors talk about the fourth wall … this is the imaginary wall that separates the audience from the stage. What happens on stage is secure within that creative space, but the fourth wall is not solid, it allows the actor to be aware of the audience, almost subconsciously. You’re totally involved in the creative space and the imagined world on stage, but you must also be aware of the audience’s reactions otherwise you will ‘tread’ on laughs, kill moments of suspense by coming in too tightly on a queue, or talk through applause.
This heightening of the senses and awareness of what is happening alongside you and which is quite separate from what you’re doing on the stage is a difficult concept to get to grips with … especially to less experienced actors who often feel that they’re only ‘really acting’ when they’re totally lost in the role. While this may result in what appears to be a very ‘effective’ performance in which the actor truly feels every emotion and suffers every pain, is in my opinion, self-indulgence rather than ‘acting’. The actor who comes off stage feeling wonderful because they have been ‘feeling’ it, crying real tears, who has been on the verge of losing control perhaps, is thinking only of themselves and their own performance. They are not involved in the play as a whole, they’re not thinking of their fellow actors, the will of the author or the needs of the audience. Furthermore they will not be able to sustain their performance over a long period of time, nor repeat it night after night (or take after take).
The actor’s job is to play the truth so that the audience becomes emotionally involved, experiencing the feelings that the scene dictates, thus the audience weeps – not the actor! It is not the actor’s job to emote, to feel it themselves during the performance, that is what rehearsals are for, when you are finding your way around a script, becoming familiar with the words, learning about the character and their emotional journey. Rehearsals are the discovery period. When you get to the performance itself, whether that performance be a one-off (i.e. a recording for television, radio, film or voice over) a short run, or an extended one, that is when you reach back to the rehearsal period to remember and recreate your original discoveries.
A good actor re-creates ‘the truth’ – or rather ‘an appearance of truth’ – in performance after performance, take after take, so that each and every time they perform, what they are doing is totally believable, convincing and compelling – but, at the same time, is also absolutely under their control. I don’t believe that the best actors ever totally ‘forget’ what is going on around them … including what is happening to the audience. The actor remains aware: aware of where the focus of the audience’s attention should be, aware of where the laughs are, aware of the demands of the author and of the ebb and flow of the script; they retain the ability to not only hear the other actors as if for the first time, but to react to them truthfully within that moment, as if afresh. Although each performance may appear to be identical, each is in fact subtly different.
However, consistency in certain areas is very important. You are ‘in the moment’ during a performance, responding to the audience, to the script, to the other actors … but certain things within that performance must be consistent. Obviously, your physical characterisation … your accent, your characterisation must be consistent from one scene to another otherwise your performance will not be believable. You must also be consistent technically. Changing the mechanics, moves, pace or positioning of a stage fight for example is potentially dangerous. Changing your performance to such a degree that it throws the other actors is selfish and unprofessional.
When working in film and television, you are often required to repeat a scene several times … especially on a single camera shoot … and your performance must be consistent across every single take … if you gesture on a certain word, you need to repeat that gesture exactly, on the same word, in the same way on every single take, otherwise the different takes will not cut together.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
You have to begin the creation process with what you know … and though you may well be a great observer … what you are able to observe in others is only the outward manifestation of what is happening inside them. It is the same with creating a character … the soul of a character has to develop from within … and where better to start than with yourself?
Begin with yourself and find what you have in common with the character you are playing … that is their centre, the stick in the middle of a candy floss – ‘cotton candy’ to my American colleagues. The centre is what holds a character together; the development growing outwards from that central core into a rounded and believable ‘whole’, is the sugar being spun, layer upon layer. Those layers are built during the rehearsal process as the character’s emotional journey begins, as you find the character’s unique voice; as you learn more and more about them, from the text, from their reaction to others, from other’s reactions to them and from their actions, behaviour and understanding of the situations in which they find themselves; the conflicts and problems, joys and rejoicings, hopes and dreams that they encounter through the course of the script, layer upon layer of doing, understanding, imagining, knowing and creating. And at the centre, the foundation, is the actor himself.
People think that acting on stage at least, is of necessity, ‘big’ … projected … exaggerated, larger than life – that it must be so in order to fill a large space. Venues vary enormously in size, (I have played in theatres where the front row of the audience is only a foot or so away from the stage,) but also the content and context of a piece of work (as well as the fashion of the time) often calls for a much more intimate experience. Ultra realism seems to be one trend at the moment, and is spread across all type of production from Shakespeare to Pinter … but that ‘theatrical’ realism is far from being real. At the heart of every successful naturalistic performance, is an actors’ technique. The ability to make dialogue or lines that are incredibly familiar appear to be a spontaneous thought, to bring something new to even the most hackneyed speech, and to be ‘in’ that performance as if everything is happening now for the very first time, that is an extraordinary skill that actors spend years perfecting.
For me, what marks out the best actors is an emotional concentration and intensity, a kind of heightened yet controlled energy, a dynamism and focus that brings the performance alive. Great film actors demonstrate this intensity and concentration perfectly … think of Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, Anthony Hopkins, Robert De Niro, French actors Jean Reno and Marion Cotillard, Ralph Feinnes, and in his more recent performances, Tom Hanks. Their performances are truthful and subtle yet have a stillness, an intensity, even a sense of danger that compels you to watch them and listen to them, while all the while appearing to be totally effortless. All of these cinema greats are renowned for their dedication and research, for going that extra mile and Pacino and Brando are known to be ‘method’ actors if you wish to use that terminology.
Reams have been written about Stanislavsky or ‘the method’: I don’t intend to go into this in greater detail, but I do think it is worth placing ‘method’ acting in context. At time that ‘the method’ first came into vogue, it was against a background of a very stilted and formal style of acting, even in film … think of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson in ‘Brief Encounter’ … Constantin Stanislavsky along with other practitioners of the time, Peter Brooke and Jerzy Grotowski and Antonin Artaud were hitting back, bringing a modern approach and were breathing a much need energy and honesty into acting, and although their approach has largely stood the test of time, I do think that we have moved into a new acting era, where ‘the method’ is combined with a new technicality that leads to a more ‘theatrical’ experience. Perhaps this has come about because of the proliferation of musicals, where ‘the method’ in its purest sense, isn’t really an option; or to the more physical type of acting as in the wonderful National Theatre Production of ‘War Horse’ where puppetry has ascended to a whole new level.
ACTING AS A CAREER
I think it goes without saying that acting (and I include voice acting) is a precarious profession that it is vastly overcrowded; the majority of actors are out of work for long periods. Regional producing theatres are few and far between, and though there appear to be lots of opportunities for voice actors, for the jobbing actor the competition is fierce. Only a very few actors are able to earn enough from acting alone to live in any kind of comfort, few gain any kind of public recognition let alone fame, and it is a lonely, tough, depressing and difficult career path to follow. However, as long as you have the talent, are prepared to work your socks off, to train and work hard, and are willing to put up with not getting the job you auditioned for over and over again, and if you have the hunger, the desire and the feeling that there really is nothing else in life that you would rather do, then, who am I to try to dissuade you?
A caveat though – if you don’t have that absolute determination and desire, that conviction that there is nothing else that you could possibly consider doing or being other than an actor, then my advice would be to look for an alternative career. Making this choice doesn’t mean you have to give up on your dreams altogether, there are many ‘part time’ actors … especially in voice work. Lots of successful voice actors also have a ‘day job’. It isn’t a case of all or nothing. In theatre too, most professional actors have a second string to their bow – and in addition there are many part time actors who have a day job and are very successful members of community theatres or amateur groups many of which do excellent work.
If you are absolutely determined to attempt to earn your living through being an actor, then there are two things that I think are absolutely vital:
If you’re looking for a career in theatre, film or television, then I believe training is essential, preferably at an accredited drama school. The time is long gone when a stint as an acting ASM at a local repertory company was deemed to be sufficient training for a life as a professional actor as those opportunities simply no longer exist. Most accredited drama schools in the UK offer acting training as three year BA degree course. Every full time acting course involves much more than just acting. You will learn improvisation, dance, movement, period dance, stage fighting, choral speaking, microphone technique, singing, physical theatre, mask work, radio acting, singing, mime, voice work, technical skills, interpretation, theatre history, verse speaking and much more. There are even courses specifically for those with a talent for musical theatre … with a greater emphasis on dance and music. Most drama schools are in London, though there are some notable exceptions: The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, the Royal Scottish Conservatoire (formerly the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) in Glasgow and The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff.
Drama school is not an easy option and getting into drama school is extremely difficult. If you can successfully get through the rigours of the drama school audition against the immense competition that exists for a very limited number of places, you should congratulate yourself.
Secondly: Have another string to your bow … I promise you that there will be long periods of unemployment between acting jobs and you need to be able to support yourself.
Of course the whole idea of ‘acting training’ begs the question as to whether someone can actually ‘learn’ to be an actor. Without talent and ability I don’t think truthfully that acting can be learned. You can be taught skills and technique that an actor needs, but the raw talent has to be there in the first place.
WHAT ABOUT VOICE ACTING?
I’ll be looking at voice acting in more detail in a forthcoming article.