Technique promises us some measure of control. We want to be able to take certain actions, press certain buttons, if you will, and produce results which are somewhat predictable. We don’t want to go to an audition, then a callback, then learn that we have booked the job, and then find that we are totally unable to reproduce any semblance of the work that landed us the job, thus disappointing those who hired us, and bringing consequences which are likely unpleasant.
The root of the word technique is the Greek techne, and strongly connotes work with the hands, as in an activity like pottery or sculpture. The image is one of a strong relationship between action and consequence: press the clay in this way, and you will get a result like this. Something like that is what we look for from technique: some understanding of how to bring our faculties to bear on a scene in order to produce desirable results.
And yet: no actor wants to seem studied, contrived, or calculated. No one wants to seem like they are deliberately manipulating themselves to produce certain results. Actors are meant to be spontaneous, natural, of the moment; a planned performance is a mechanical performance, a deadly performance.
That would seem to leave the actor on the horns of a dilemma: one wants a technique, one wants some control over the outcome, and yet the appearance of having control over the outcome somehow dilutes the credibility of that outcome. An actor’s performances appeals to the extent that there seems to be something involuntary about it, in the way that laughing, or sneezing, or, for that matter, having an orgasm are involuntary.
So is it simply a matter of never letting them see you sweat? Of learning the tricks that technique entails, but making sure that it all stays out of sight of the audience or the camera? The magic of the actor is like the magic of the magic show? The magic dissipates once the curtain is drawn back?
Anyone who truly loves acting knows that this is not the case. The magic that an actor works is not trickery, or not mere trickery anyway. There is something deeper about great acting, something that goes far beyond sleight-of-hand, of the art of distraction and misdirection.
What is so remarkable about great acting, and by great acting I mean acting that is not merely believable, credible, “watchable”, but acting that is inspiring, thrilling, memorable, mysterious, a true source of awe, is that it is at once both real and not real: we are able to be aware that we are watching a fiction, an enactment, something that is rehearsed, contrived, edited, packaged, and yet we can experience it as somehow, at the same time, unassailably real. It can impact us in something akin to the way the events of our own lives do, and this inclines us to see it as at least adjacent to reality itself. This ability to be both real and unreal at the same time is what we find so mysterious, so virtually godlike, about great acting.
So if we reject out of hand the notion that acting could be mere prestidigitation, mere trickery, since what the actor is able to do is somehow dissolve the borders between herself and us, not merely credibly execute a set of scripted actions. We have somehow lived with the great actor; we find, and so to deny the reality of what he is experiencing is to deny the reality of our own emotional experience.
So if we accept that premise, that a great actor is in some sense having a real experience when she acts, then we must also accept that it cannot be an entirely technical proposition, as a real experience is not one in which we decide what we are going to experience. We live, and experience things as a result. We do not perform operations on ourselves, recall various experiences or whatever, in order to have experiences, we simply have them. So how can what an actor does be both like that and the product of deliberate, intentional crafting?
Stanislavsky’s famous definition of acting is suggestive here: he said that acting is “the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique.” Giving birth is something that happens to someone, it is not something one decides to initiate. Yet there is a technique involved in interacting with that involuntary process: breathing, pushing, etc. This gives us a metaphor for what an actor is doing: there is a process that is already unfolding in him, simply by virtue of the fact that he is a human being, and acting is a process of aligning one’s conscious mind in a particular way towards that unfolding process, so that a particular kind of thing (behavior that seems spontaneous, unstudied, innocent) emerges.
And what is that unfolding process? My answer, building on the insights of the incredible teachers I studied with at the Drama School at Yale and on other sources that I have encountered since, is that all human beings are vested with a powerful drive towards social connection, belonging, meaningful relationship. This drive exists in all of us and is actually operative most of the time, in most of our activities. It is virtually omnipresent, and is an unshakeable truth about each and every one of us. So if the actor can somehow tap that drive, which is a real, authentic thing in herself, and direct it, not towards the circumstances of her own life, as it is most of the time, but towards the circumstances of a character in a scene, then we have both elements at once: the drive for meaningful connection, which exists in all of us and also, therefore, in all characters, and which is therefore an involuntary element, and the effort to redirect that need towards the situation of the script, which is a voluntary one. Like the woman giving birth, we are undergoing something, but also like her, we can make what we are undergoing the focus of our attention and care, and in the process bring something truly, unmistakably new into our world, something whose identity we did not design, but whose heartbeat is as real as our own.