What is great acting?

For me, great acting begins when an actor is so believable that I forget I’m watching an actor acting. I get so swept up in the sincerity of their work that I accept them as the character they are portraying. They seem spontaneous in thought and action. I don’t feel like I’m hearing rehearsed lines. Their work commands my attention. It makes me care. It makes me want to see what will happen next. It’s honest. It never seems contrived. It’s as real as anything I’ve ever seen in life. In short, it seems like real life unfolding before my eyes.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, it is our job as storytellers and actors to “hold a mirror to life.” In an age when more people watch TV and movies than read books, we actors and storytellers have a fantastic opportunity to socially and emotionally educate our audiences through the stories we tell. We can, through the characters we portray, hold a mirror to life and say, “Look what we do; look how we behave; isn’t this good; isn’t this bad?” And doesn’t it make sense that our stories will be far more effective and entertaining if the audience accepts us as the characters we portray? Aren’t we better storytellers if we can blur the line between playing the part and spontaneously living it?  Isn’t that what we as actors try so hard to do?

It’s been said that we never offer the audience a slice of life; we offer them the frosting, the most concentrated, sweetest portion. I’d be inclined to agree with that. There is no currency in boring, bland tales no matter how believable they may be.

So then, can we first agree that we are looking to portray characters as vital, interesting human beings, as real people in real situations with no hint of an actor playing a part? This may seem like an obvious statement but I think it best that we clearly and firmly agree on what it is we are trying to achieve.

Fitting the guideline stated above I’d have to admit that the best work I’ve ever done has been in life. The dramatic, comedic, romantic and sometimes tragic moments I’ve encountered while living my life have been without a doubt the most sincere, most connected work I’ve ever done. In fact, I aspire to be as present and as confident when I’m acting in a scene as I am in life. In real life, I’m never concerned with my inflection or how I’m standing or where my hands are or when I should sit. Yet these things always work themselves out and I never seem to need a “do over.”

I’m familiar with many techniques and approaches to acting, techniques that actors swear by and treat with religious reverence.  Yet these same actors still struggle with confidence, clarity in their work, and nerves in their auditions. When I ask these actors about their approach and why they’ve chosen this particular path to follow, their short obvious response is, “It makes me a better actor.” But I never leave it at that; I always follow up with clarifying questions:

“When you say a better actor?  How?  In what sense?”

“It helps me to be more effective in my work, my scenes.”

“When you say more effective do you mean more of whatever is needed in a given scene in order to help you get what your character needs or wants?”


“So if you have to be more persuasive, angry, loving, sad, understanding, scary, unyielding, ruthless, whatever; this approach theoretically helps you get where you need to be in order to get what you’re after in the scene?  It gives you an edge? It enhances your communication? Perhaps it makes you more dynamic?”


“Sounds like an effective and worthwhile technique.”

“It is.”

“Great. So let me ask you; in life where the stakes are even higher than anything you would confront in a fictional setting, do you use this effective, secret weapon technique to aid you in getting what you want?  Do you use it to help persuade your landlord into giving you an extension on your rent? or to let your neighbor know you’ve had it with the loud music at 3 in the morning? or in communicating to your partner how much you love her? or to display the proper amount of grief at a funeral even if you feel none?”

My inquiries are almost always met with blank stares; but these are fair questions. If you knew of an approach that would make you more effective, more persuasive or more powerful in your communication why wouldn’t you use it to prepare for life’s important scenes? The truth is, if I ever even suggested any acting approach in order to aid a friend in a real life scenario, they’d look at me like I was crazy or they’d get angry with me for not taking their situation seriously enough.

I’ve walked into the biggest, most important battles of my life without ever going over notes or doing tongue twisters or relaxation exercises or imagining myself as an animal or playing opposites or focusing on inner monologues. I’ve never worked out when I’ll sit or when I’ll look out a window to convey that one particular idea or when to wag my finger when I say that one accusatory line. Ever. 

What I’ve discovered is, that rather than over think and over work an acting approach that has little to do with the real way humans deal with life’s dilemmas, it was better to simply focus on what people actually concern themselves with and leave the rest to instinct. After all, I’ve been honing those instincts and ability to get what I want from the moment I was born. From the moment I first cried for my mommy’s milk, I have been practicing the most effective ways to get my point across and get exactly what I want.

Shouldn’t there be a method of approaching our work that falls more in line with the way humans actually confront conflict?   Must we always be given a ton of information before we act only to hear, “Okay now, forget about all that and just act the scene.” Can’t we just be given the information we need to remember, as in life?  Must we always have to resort to a lot of exercise malarkey and acting calculus to achieve what we so effortlessly achieve everyday in life?  Of course not; otherwise how is it that actors with little or no experience can turn out critically acclaimed work?

So what do we need to know? What is the information that drives us so effortlessly through life’s encounters?

To get that answer, inquire within.