the trellis of acting technique

 

A frequent question that aspiring actors have is about technique.  If acting is a matter of instincts and impulse, as it surely is, at least in part, then why study technique?  Isn’t it going to put you in your head?  Isn’t it going to block the flow?  After all, technique, by definition, means there is a way of doing something, a right way and a wrong way, and isn’t that the opposite of doing what comes naturally and following your instincts and intuitions? Evan Yionoulis, the chair of the acting program at Juilliard, proposes a great way of thinking about this in her fantastic new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting:

Some actors fear that technique will rob them of spontaneity and freedom and be a kind of straitjacket that will block them from their instincts and some sort of unexpected magic. On the contrary, technique is what allows an actor to be truly and consistently open and available. Think of technique as a trellis. (A trellis is one of those, often wooden, frameworks that support vines and other plants as they climb up the sides of buildings. The crisscrossing strips of wood usually form a pattern of open diamonds.) Technique provides a structure through which the intuition may freely move. If the intuition is flowing—if the vine is climbing—technique, like the trellis, doesn’t interfere. But if, at this rehearsal or in this performance or for this take, intuition seems to have abandoned you, you’ll have the structure of your technique for support until it returns.

So technique is there to support you in moments when you find yourself at sea, when your instincts seem to have abandoned you.  It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) impede the flow of intuition and impulse when it is not needed.

There’s also the matter of consistency across multiple performances or takes.

Some people might think that working in film or television is easier for the actor. After all, you only have to get it right once. The reality on set, however, is that there’s rarely time—because time is expensive!—to do a scene over and over until a particular actor—or every actor—manages to do their best work. When working on camera, you have to give a full, truthful, and seemingly effortless performance on demand. There’s no way to rewind a sunset or crash another car or two to accommodate blunders or an “off” performance. You have to get it “right” the “once” when it counts! And when several angles of a particular scene are filmed, you have to do so in a consistent way in every take so that the editor can fashion the various shots into a coherent whole.

So technique can support you in having to provide a consistent performance across many repetitions.  I once spoke to a student of mine who had just come off his first experience playing the lead role in a feature film.  I asked him what surprised him about the experience.  He said he was surprised by how many times he was required to repeat things, and that the director wanted the same performance in every repetition.  In these kind of situations, technique is invaluable.

Acting will always be both an art and a craft.  To the extent it is an art, things like instinct, intuition and impulse are indispensable.  Technique is there to help us consistently access our instincts, intuitions and impulses.