What draws many of us to acting is the “play-acting” aspect of it: we like to dress up and pretend to be other people, with other people who like to do that as well. There is something wonderfully child-like about all of this, and in fact, Earle Gister, one of my teachers at the Yale School of Drama, liked to quote Nietzsche: “Man’s maturity: to have regained the seriousness that he had as a child at play.” To be able to abandon ourselves to a world of the imagination, and allow our inner lives, our moments of triumph and exaltation, and our moments of devastating grief and loss, to be laid bare in the process. This process of fearlessly sharing ourselves with child-like abandon is what draws most of us to this prodigious pursuit.
However, on the way to being able to do that is an enormous amount of hard work. The acting we consume on TV and in the movies has been air-brushed, so to speak, with musical underscoring, lighting, editing, and all manner of show biz magic. That’s not to say it isn’t good, but great care has been taken to make sure that it looks effortless.
Acting isn’t effortless, though, most of the time, and learning to act is even less so. Learning to act necessarily means being brought face-to-face with your limitations, so you can begin to see the need to get beyond them, and to understand how what is being offered you in acting class helps you to get beyond them. In any endeavor, acting or otherwise, this process of being confronted with your current limitations is difficult but absolutely unavoidable. There is no growth without this, no matter how you slice it, no matter what technique you are doing. And not everyone wants to go through that process, frankly, or at least acting, they learn, is not the craft for which they wish to subject themselves to this process.
The ability to face limitations, persevere, and ultimately move past them is an adult faculty. Children have to do some of it, as part of the process of growing up, but we tend to limit the amount of this that we ask children to subject themselves to, I suppose because growing up is hard enough, and because we worry that children don’t yet have the emotional resilience to handle this process.
Facing limitations, failing, and getting up again and soldiering on: the ability to do this is something that we think of as a form of maturity. Whether this is in a martial art, or in learning a musical instrument, or a foreign language, or whatever: the tenacity and the ability to keep going in the face of failure is a hallmark of the grown-up. The real word is a tough place for anyone lacking some measure of this.
And there are other ways in which acting, in spite of its child-like essence of make-believe, asks for adult characteristics. In a previous post, I wrote about how adults are more sensitive to context in the way they understand things than children are. This is very important for actors, as every scene is embedded in a larger narrative, the full script, that functions as a context. But beyond that, acting asks for the readiness to take on a complex task that requires an array of abilities. We must be able to read closely and carefully, from the character’s point of view. We must envision, with all of our senses, the people, places and things that make up the imaginary world of the role, and invest in that world, make that world of make-believe matter to us in the ways it needs to. We have to identify compelling goals to pursue as the character, that help us to become absorbed with our whole being, heart, mind, and body, with the scene at hand. We must identify the major milestones or shifts in the scene, and understand how we arrive at them and how we are changed by them. We must have the ability, as we develop a performance, to maintain the shape of that performance, so that important parts of it don’t disappear from one rehearsal to the next (a mentor of mine in graduate school, who had won awards directing Off-Broadway, said that it was ten years out of graduate school before she felt she was working with actors with whom she didn’t have to live in terror of what was going to deteriorate in any given performance. Ten years! Out of graduate school!)
There is a breadth and complexity to what I have described above that requires maturity to undertake and sustain. This is not child’s play, any more than playing a Mozart Concerto is, or playing a tournament tennis game.
It’s these “adult” aspects of acting that surprise many beginning students of the craft. Again, after all, on TV they make it look so easy.
So we need both: we need never to lose our child-like ability to abandon ourselves to the present moment of make-believe, and we also need the very “adult” ability to craft our work. Both are indispensable.
“Plans are worthless but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower
“The readiness is all.” – Hamlet