Stop acting like an actor
Start thinking like a human
Most actors approach their work thinking like actors. They look at scenes as performances they plan to give. They break their scenes down into segments making decisions on movement, intensity, emotion, volume, and pace. They memorize their lines with these ideas already determined and then get up to perform, hoping that if they’re slick enough, the audience won’t notice their meticulous preplanning. They hope that every move, laugh, or sudden outburst will seem spontaneous and a direct result of what happened the moment before. These types of actors try to be “in the moment,” but because of their predetermined preplanning, they’re stuck with a portion of their brain conscious of these preset plans. This part of their brain floats up above them watching every moment, and like an unseen puppeteer, pulls the strings corresponding to a cue sheet which was drawn up before their performance ever took place.
It sounds exhausting doesn’t it? I’m exhausted rereading what I just wrote.
Whether they want to admit it or not, this is what most actors do. They plan everything. Actors think that the more homework they do, the more notes they make, the more moves and subtle emotions they plan for each line, while carefully writing these notes on their scripts complete with arrows pointing to the lines which will bear the fruit of these ideas; the more “layered” their performance will be. Unfortunately, these types of actors are confusing baking with acting. Following a meticulous preset recipe can have fantastic results when you bake, but using a similar method when you act will generally leave a fibrous, wooden aftertaste in the audience’s mouth.
I don’t like acting. I don’t like watching actors act. It bores me to sleep. Literally. Any of you who have attended a poorly acted play know exactly what I’m talking about. I could have just finished a double espresso and be on the most exciting date of my life but 15 minutes into a play with actors showing off their multilayered performances and I’m fighting to keep my head upright. It’s like I’ve been hit with some invisible sleeping gas. It’s like I just finished eating the witch’s apple.
Don’t get me wrong; I love actors and I love theater. I just get bored quickly if I’m constantly reminded I’m watching actors acting in a theater. But people, they fascinate me. I could watch people interact for hours. When it comes to people, I’m interested in everything. I suppose, without realizing it, I’ve made them my life’s study. I’m the guy who can go to a large party and be content sitting alone, watching people interact. The way they dress, behave, flirt, get subtly jealous, or angry; I’m fascinated with all of it. There is plenty of theater in real life. Life is the lesson. Life is the story.
Watch a real life conflict unfold and everyone is mesmerized. Have an even greater conflict “acted” in a theater by actors who are also holding bats, knives, and yelling and you may find people snoring in the front row. Impossible? I’ve seen it.
How is it you can be at a dinner party attended by civilized, upwardly mobile guests, yet when the host turns to his wife and simply says, “I thought we discussed how you were going to cook the chicken,” the air gets so thick you could cut it with a knife? Yet back at the theater, the actors are screaming, and even with the help of their violent visual aids, can’t seem to scare the audience enough to keep them from falling asleep.
What is the difference? One is real life and the other isn’t? Agreed. So doesn’t it make sense that the closer we can get to thinking the way real people think when they confront their problems, situations, and conflicts, the better off we’ll be? Doesn’t it also make sense that if we continue to think as actors, using acting terminology, exercises, and concocted motivations, these things will find their way into our performance?
In this book we’re going to focus on your character’s concerns, not the actor’s concerns about how he’s going to play his character. What do real people do? How do they prepare for and confront problems? What do real people think about when they’re in a discussion or argument? The answers to these types of questions will be what will motivate and drive your performance.
Actors tend to make their work more difficult than it needs to be. They work way too hard trying to replicate what they’ve been doing since they were born: authentically living life. Why do most actors find it hard to be convincing doing what they practice everyday? Acting shouldn’t be as difficult as most actors make it. To prove my point, I’ll give you an example of how easy acting can be.
Suppose you were someone who had never done any acting at all and I told you I had a scene for you to perform. Here’s the scene: You’re at a party and you’ve had too much to drink. You insult some of the guests and then ramble on and on about how your parents wouldn’t give you the money to go to veterinary school and it broke your heart because you like saving animals. Then you dance around like a drunken fool until you’re asked to leave. As you know by now I’m not interested in watching an actor act so I want your performance to appear as real as anything we would see in life. I want your work to be seamlessly authentic. For a person who had never done any acting, this assignment would seem like a tall order, wouldn’t it?
Now let’s say I’m having a party at my house and you’re invited. When you show up at the door, that’s when I spring this scenario on you. I ask you to wait 10 seconds and then barge in like you’re drunk and make it up as you go. Here’s the deal: after you’ve done the bit and I ask you to leave, if none of my guests doubt the authenticity of your behavior, I’ll give you ten thousand dollars.
Do any of you doubt whether or not you could be convincing enough to pull it off and get the ten grand? Of course you could and it would probably be the sweetest, easiest ten grand you ever made.
Have I oversimplified what acting is? Not really. I gave you a fairly complex scene with a number of elements including acting drunk, and you were asked to convincereal people in a real setting. I’ll tell you what I didn’t give you, a chance to prepare, to plan, or to practice. We didn’t go over any silly acting concepts or thoughts to get you into your head. Instead, I gave you a task, a few parameters, and set you loose. Your innate ability to make people believe whatever you want them to believe took control and you didn’t need any acting preparation nonsense to do it. You also had FUN.
Granted, any acting you will be doing will more than likely involve lines that you will need to learn and very specific moments you’ll be asked to create. The purpose of the drunk party scene was to show you how quickly and easily one could create a convincing make believe situation.
I want to first empower the actor with the knowledge that acting is fundamentally easy. It should be attacked with confidence and joy. Most classes confuse. I don’t think this is the intent but rather the unfortunate result. They can be confusing because most acting classes are a mishmash of acting techniques created in the middle of the last century. In the guise of being serious about the craft, acting classes are more like sad, sullen places of worship. A place where secret languages are created to discuss acting, silly catchphrases whose express purpose seems more to confuse than clarify. A place where odd acting exercise rituals are imposed which seem to humiliate rather than illuminate.
Acting isn’t a religion; it’s a learnable skill. Every idea expressed in a class should be easily understood. It should all make sense. It should inspire. I’m going to share an approach with you that is void of any kind of acting jargon or terminology. There will be no antiquated theater exercises or games. I won’t ask you to pretend you’re walking across a floor of peanut butter or to pick the animal you’d be on a first date.
We’ll use an approach that is direct and more to the point, an approach that is tried and true, an approach that will be far easier to remember and utilize. We’ll use real life. We call it acting only because people are watching.