In my last blog post, I offered a quote from the actor Kim Stanley, in which she talked about how terribly difficult acting is. In fact, “impossible” was one of the words she used.
Well, the effort to describe acting, to characterize it, to point at where it comes from and to offer people a technique of some kind that will help them to actually do it, is just as exceedingly difficult to achieve as Ms. Stanley made acting out to be. As a teacher, sometimes I can’t help but feel a bit like Annie Sullivan despairingly signing the word “water” into the hand of an uncomprehending Helen Keller when I teach. And that’s not because my students are thick-headed or obtuse, or because they fail to apply themselves to the work. On the contrary, I marvel at the dedication and perceptiveness of many of my students. I know that I am doing something right in my messaging about what I do, that such students find their way to me.
It’s that acting is that difficult, and teaching it is also that difficult.
One of the things that makes it so difficult is that we take in so much of it, in television and movies, and perhaps on the stage sometimes as well, that it’s such a familiar thing, and it seems to be made of all of the things we all do every day: walking and talking and not bumping into the furniture, as Spencer Tracy famously quipped. Even the “emoting”, which might seem a bit more challenging, is still within the realm of the familiar. It’s not some special skill like playing a G-minor arpeggio on the piano or spinning around in the air after having flown off of a ski jump. Acting seems to be made up of stuff that everybody does. So how hard can it be?
There is also the fact that we are all called upon to play roles in our lives. Part of living a life is being able to assume a role that a situation requires. This is something that everyone does every day. So we all act all the time, right?
This familiarity we have with the apparent things that make up acting, the building blocks, if you will, actually makes it harder to see that acting is something quite different from what we often assume it is, and that thing that it is, whatever it is, is not easy at all. It is exceedingly difficult.
It’s not news that everyone wants to hear.
What’s different about it? Why is not like the “acting a role” that we do every day, what does it ask of us that goes beyond walking and talking and not bumping in to the furniture, with maybe some “emoting” thrown in where necessary? How is that not enough?
The most important point, I think, is that we look for actors to be interesting, very interesting, in fact, compelling, while they walk and talk and don’t bump into the furniture. They need to be compelling when they have emotional moments in a scene, but they also need to be compelling when they are not in an explosive or histrionic section. We expect them to command our attention, to hold us captive, to captivate us, to rob us of our autonomy, our ability to look away, our desire to look away. We look for an actor to cast a spell over us that has something in common with the spell of sexual attraction, but specifically isn’t sexual attraction. Actors can be attractive, certainly, but there are plenty of attractive people who will probably never be actors, try as they might.
And being compelling is not something that we all do every day. We all walk and talk and we don’t bump into furniture, and we also have feelings, but these things don’t usually cause everyone in the room to drop what they are doing and gape at us. We probably wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of attention. The ability of the great actor to compel our attention, to command it, to wordlessly demand it, to mesmerize us, is a great mystery to most of us.
I think a lot of beginning actors think that it is the job of the story being presented in the script to generate interest. The actor doesn’t need to do that, so the thinking goes, because the story will be so interesting/funny/novel/suspenseful/significant that the audience’s attention will be held rapt by that. The actor just needs to be able to execute the actions and speeches and interactions called for by the script in a more or less convincing manner, a manner that does no violence to the veneer of plausibility of the fiction in question, in a manner that does not prompt us to recoil in disgust from its contrivance or its excess or its overblown-ness, and then the story will work its magic. The actor just needs to be watchable, serviceable, natural.
Sometimes, to get a job as an actor, this watchable-ness will be enough. But it will hardly distinguish the actor in question. Watchable work is not inspiring work. Watchable work does not uplift people, haunt them, or break up the frozen sea within. Watchable work is not memorable work.
And what makes for compelling work? My answer to that is the Andrew Wood secret sauce, the recipe for which I would happily share with you, but it can’t be laid out like a recipe, in a blog post or even a whole book. It involves a whole framework of concepts and practices, presented in an experiential way (i.e. right before your very eyes, not in a book) which, we hope, will bring about a Gestalt switch, a transformation in the way an actor looks at what a person is and what said person is actually doing when they do what they do, all of which requires, oh, about ten weeks to present in a preliminary way. A lot of what is presented will get lost while the student gropes and grasps for the basic principles, but a foundation can be acquired by the student in ten weeks. The student can then decide to build on, strengthen and fortify this foundation if they choose to, until that foundation becomes both the place to stand and the lever that Archimedes said would enable him to move the world.
But suffice to say that the essence of the secret sauce has to do with bringing the actor into contact with her most basic, gut-level need for connection, relatedness, belonging, or whatever other euphemism you want to employ, and keeping her there for the duration of her performance, helping her find a way to allow that visceral need to be the source of every line she speaks and every move she makes. That place in the pit of your stomach that feels like it just fell down through the floor when you find out some inconceivably bad news? That’s where we try to make something happen in the actor. Because here’s the thing: in every single one of us, there are things called mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire in us when we watch something happen to someone else. They are so potent and life-like that we actually need another set of neurons that reassure us that “Hey, it’s ok, it’s happening to him, not to you”. So if the actor can get her gut fired-up and activated by connecting to her core vulnerability, then the mirror neurons of the people in the audience, the neurons that are connected with their core vulnerability fire as well. And then you’re cooking with gas. Compelling takes care of itself. The actor, by allowing her most tender, vulnerable tissue to be touched, literally makes something happen in the bowels of the people watching her.
But yeah, it’s not easy to do. It’s hard work. People have to want it badly enough to struggle and be confused and frustrated and to fail and feel defeated and all those things that learning to do any difficult thing requires. Remember what it was like to learn to ride a bike? The pain and humiliation you felt every time you failed to keep your balance and the bike tipped over on to the ground? That’s what people who want to learn this need to be ready to feel.
There are people who find challenge and difficulty bracing and invigorating. If you are one of these people, and you are interested in learning to act, I want to talk to you. Sharing the insights I have acquired across my life and education about the strange and marvelous practice of acting is the greatest privilege that I look for in life. Please call soon.
That soaring feeling when the bicycle starts to hurtle forward, with you balancing yourself effortlessly atop it as the breeze streams past you on either side, awaits.