A prospective student for my Los Angeles acting class presented me with a question recently that I thought was worth discussing. She said that when she first starts to work on a scene or monologue, she is able to be fresh and spontaneous, but the more she rehearses, the more she starts to feel stilted and stuck in certain ways of delivering the lines. She wanted to know what I suggested with regard to this.
I have a few thoughts. First of all, it’s important to recognize that we all have an inner critic, a part of ourselves that judges what we do and usually finds it wanting. There’s nothing to be done about this directly, except to accept it. By accepting that the critic is there, we have a chance of muting it a bit. If we stop trying to get rid of it or fretting about its input, it loses some of our power over us.
Beyond this, it’s important to focus on working off of the partner. Stanislavsky posited that all actors face the challenge of self-consciousness, the inhibiting awareness of being watched and scrutinized and evaluated and judged. He further suggested that the way out of this self-consciousness was for the actor to put their attention outside of themselves, usually on their scene partner, and to engage in the solving of some problem, or in the achieving of some objective. If the actor succeeds in doing this, then she is getting input from the partner, and she responds to that input as she speaks her text. Because she is working off of what comes from the partner, which is going to be a little different on each take, her responses in turn are going to be a little different as well.
In the approach that I teach in my acting class, we try to identify a “hot” need that the actor can embody and pursue from the partner. If the actor truly needs something from his partner, something “hot” or visceral like love, respect, acceptance, worth, control, freedom, or security, this will naturally incline the actor to direct her attention to her partner and keep it there. And again, the more the attention is on the partner, the more the actor is being fed impulses by the partner, and the more likely her work will be fresh and spontaneous.
There are some other technique, such as points of concentration, which I teach in my advanced acting class, which can help maintain the freshness of a scene as it is rehearsed, but the main thing is to work off of the partner. That’s what keeps things alive.
“Most of acting is about preparation, so that if you are armed with a visceral understanding of this character, you can get to set and essentially just play and be in the moment. And I’d say or do anything formed by that understanding.” – Jeremy Strong
A lot of people are attracted to the playing and being in the moment part of acting, but as Strong says, in order to do that playing and being in the moment effectively you need to have an understanding of the character that is visceral, that lives in your gut. In my Los Angeles acting class, a big part of what I teach is how to do that preparation to achieve that visceral understanding. It starts with the Five Questions framework, in which the actor is asked to identify and organize the given circumstances of the character as provided by the writer. The actor can use his or her imagination to extend and enrich those circumstances in a process called “fanning the flames.” The Five Questions culminates in the question of what the character needs, and we try to a identify a “hot”, visceral need that the actor can pursue as the character. Then I teach the actor the processes of particularization and personalization, so that he or she comes to know the world of the character and the character’s experience intimately, with sensory richness, and comes to care about what makes up that world in the manner that is appropriate to the character.
All of this is the instrospective work of the actor. It’s the work that the actor does alone. It’s the daydreaming and the thinking. It’s what orients him or her to be ready to play and be in the moment on set.
What do you go to acting class to learn? Camera angles? Eye lines? Cold reading? Audition technique? How to get an agent?
These are all good things to know about, but to my mind, acting class should be about acting, first and foremost, as this casting director notes. And what is acting about? Well, there are many definitions of it, but the most straightforward one I know is the following: acting is entering into a character’s circumstances, coming to care about the people, places, and things that they care about, pursuing what they pursue, and being impacted by what impacts them. Those four things: circumstances, care, pursuit, and impact. That’s the heart of acting, whether you’re acting in a film, a sitcom, doing voiceover, or shooting a video game.
First, circumstances: what are the facts of the character’s situation? What has happened to them in the past? What choices have they made? Where are they? When are they there? What do they hope will happen next? What do they most fear will happen next? In the first sessions of my ten-week Los Angeles acting class known as the Essentials workshop, I teach a framework for collecting and organizing the circumstances known as the Five Questions. This framework will guide you through a thorough and penetrating examination of the character’s circumstances, which is the essential foundation for your creative work on the role.
Next. care. The character’s world is full of people, places, and things that are significant to them. Lovers, friends, siblings, children, bosses, mentors, rivals. A wedding ring, a beloved car,a favorite T-shirt, a trove of love letters. The house where they grew up, the church where they were married, their workplace. All of these people, places and things have significance for the character, but at the outset of the process, they are devoid of significance for the actor. So the actor must personalize; them, using the process Uta Hagen calls transference, which is the finding of equivalencies between the elements of significance in the character’s world and elements in the actor’s. Through this process, the actor comes to care about the elements of the actor’s world.
Third, pursuit. Characters have intentions, goals, and needs. These needs spur them on to pursue the fulfillment of those needs, by taking risks, confronting, insisting, and contriving, among other gambits. It’s your job as actor to connect with the character’s need in yourself and undertake the pursuit of its fulfillment, relentlessly. “Play to win!” is the mantra that students in acting class hear from me time and again.
Fourth, impact. In the course of your pursuit of fulfillment, you will bump up against the world and get feedback from it, specifically from your scene partner. It’s your very important job to listen for this feedback (in a sense, listening is the whole ballgame), and to allow yourself to be impacted by the feedback you receive, to be open and vulnerable to it. An actor who is not impacted by what comes from the partner, who is immune to what comes from the partner, will not be a very interesting actor.
These four elements comprise the essence of acting, no matter the technique, no matter the context, no matter the medium. And it’s these four things that you should go to acting class to learn and practice.