Learning to act involves learning your way around (at least) two realms of understanding. The first. what I like to refer to as the “knowing-what”, involves having a grasp of what acting is, what makes it good, and what the actor needs to analyze and imaginatively examine when approaching a role. The “knowing-what” is the work we do with our minds. It involves learning what questions need to be asked about a role, and what kind of answers will help propel the us deeply into the scene (and what kind of answers won’t!). It involves coming to terms with what is sometimes referred to as motivation, what makes people tick, why they do the things they do. It also involves knowing about how to confront a scene one piece at a time, and how to talk about what we are doing in the various pieces of the scene. It involves becoming clear about how to particularize the world of the role and the other people, places and things that comprise that world. It involves understanding how to invest those people, places and things with the appropriate kind of significance, understanding how to come to care for them in the appropriate way, so that unfolding developments in the script affect us as we need them to. In short, it involves learning how to think about a role, and how to talk about it. How to understand it.

Somewhat dependent on the “knowing-what”, although not entirely, is the “knowing-how”. This knowledge or understanding is about execution; it is about what to do with the orientation acquired during the “knowing-what” process. Through careful work on the script, we come to understand what our character needs. Do we have an understanding of what to do about that need in the scene? If we have identified exactly how we are going to pursue what we need, do we understand how to actually pursue something? How to “play to win?” How to sustain an approach to getting what we need, until we reach the moment when that approach MUST change? Do we know how to “throw the ball” to the partner, that is, to use the words we have been given to put pressure on the other actor to give use what we need? Do we know how to make the throwing of the ball issue from our abdominal core, the seat of need and passion? Do we know ho to engage the pelvis, the Pilates core, in throwing the ball, but have the jaw engage only as much as is necessary, and not become overactive, and the throat remain open? Do we understand physical destination, and the role it plays in keeping our bodies animated in a scene, rather than stiff or dead? Do we know how to receive off of our partners, not only with our eyes and ears, but with our cores as well? To listen with the belly button? Do we know how to deal with activities, things like sweeping the floor or cooking, in such a way that they are believably executed and have the importance and interest we need them to have?

To some extent, as I mentioned previously, knowing-how depends on knowing-what. If you haven’t found something worthy to pursue in a scene, then chances are good you are not going to be particularly good at the pursuing part of playing the scene. This is not an absolute dependence, however; there are people who have some instinctive “knowing-how” ability. They can throw the ball, or they can listen to others in a scene. This inborn “knowing-how” sometimes means that an actor can “get by” with what they natively know how to do. This can mean that they get opportunities easily, or that they are left alone by directors. While such things can be good in the short term, an actor ultimately needs to be able to learn to do things that she cannot do initially; this is the only way that growth can be meaningfully sustained across a career. Otherwise, the actor simply relies on her “bag of tricks” and becomes mannered and inflexible.

It’s also true that I sometimes have students who have a flair for the “knowing-what”; the principles of objective and pursuit come readily to them, or they are very comfortable using their imaginations to fashion and refine the imaginary world of the scene. Or they have an aptitude for close reading, and are able to spot things that are important very quickly. These advantages may or may not translate into advantages in knowing-how, that is, in the doing of it. Part of learning to act is learning to let these two realms feed off of each other, intersect, and ultimately unite. But for most of us, bridging that chasm involves sustained investment over time. It’s a little like learning to actually speak a foreign language; in the early days, every sentence that you put together in the midst of the daily hustle and bustle of everyday life is arduous and consciously directed; you are having to draw on learned vocabulary, grammatical rules and pronunciation knowledge, as well as listen and think. Over time, though, your understanding in these various realms begin to work in concert, and eventually you achieve fluency, where you can take part in complex political discussions or take part in the telling and appreciating of jokes without any conscious effort at all. But there is a lot of resistance to be overcome in the early part of the process, including coming to believe that acquiring these skills is of any use whatsoever. But if it could be learned easily, (“a simple technique that will…”), there would be nothing particularly special about being able to do it well, now, would there?