Theatre performance, in its most basic form, requires an actor, a space, and an audience. Historically speaking, I can’t think of a single deviation from those requirements. But a good performance requires something more. Something brave.
It requires vulnerability.
When you step out on that stage, as a performer, you expose yourself to ridicule, critical rants, disapproving looks, and a hundred different authorities on your craft. It takes a thick skin to smile in the face of the critic and thank them for their input. Do I believe that all performances should be praised? Heavens no! But I do think that there is a tactful way to praise the effort if you cannot praise the result.
One of the most telling paragraphs I’ve ever read about actors in performance is from a textbook on improvisation. Greg Atkins, in Improv! A Handbook for the Actor, writes:
As an actor you must be aware of everything that is occurring onstage. You must know your lines, your character, and your blocking. You must instinctively wait for laughs to die down, find your light, smoke convincingly, make sure the safety is off on the prop gun, and hit your musical notes. You must check your spacing in the dance number, quick change your costume and your character, maintain your accent, pick up the glass that happened to fall off the table, and be conscious of the other actors as well. (7)
That’s a pretty comprehensive list, though I’m sure anyone who has ever acted in a play could add a number of additional details to that record. And it can be a ridiculous amount of stress to juggle. Some people thrive on the stage. Some buckle under the pressure. Some know no fear; others must be coaxed onto the boards.
Bold. Terrified. Insecure. Fearless. All of the above.
Whatever you are, you must be quick. Quick thinking. Quick problem solving. Quick recovery. Quick analysis. Quick inventory. Quick adjustment. Quick ad-lib.
And natural. The audience must never know there was a problem—though the big ones are hard to mask entirely. Ah, the thrill of live performance!
In our work, we must tap into emotions that we hide in public every day. On stage, we act in ways that are questionable, admirable, laughable, and even damnable. But these are the characters we explore. We work hard to portray them, but they aren’t wholly us. Just because we examine their choices doesn’t mean we condone them!
In our training as actors, there are several different “methods” of learning (not to be confused with The Method made famous by Lee Strasberg). I’ve always looked askance at any teacher’s declaration that the methodology they teach is the only one that results in success. And I encourage my students to explore and try different approaches to acting, finding the one that best suits their needs and individuality. Should it be driven by inner truth or physical action? Or both?
Are there those I prefer? Certainly. I will always encourage my students to read and study Konstantin Stanislavki, Sanford Meisner, Uta Hagen, Anne Bogart and Tina Landau; I will also share with them my personal concerns with the aforementioned Strasberg.
There are classes on emotional realism, movement and dance, voice, Shakespeare, physical technique, improvisation, musical theatre, stage combat, auditioning, the Greeks, commedia dell’arte, and film. Chances are, if it can be used as a tool or defined as a style, someone somewhere teaches a class on it.
Honestly, I am a huge advocate for taking as many classes as you can because the body and voice are our instruments and they must be in good working order. You must learn to act with your toes as well as your eyes, with your spine as well as your speech.
But the best instructors for acting are experience and life itself.
Experience will teach you how to recover from a costume malfunction, a set change mishap, or an actor’s missed entrance. It will teach you how to hold for laughter and project your voice. You’ll find the best routines for memorizing lines and warming up for a show. Distractions in the house will be dismissed as if they weren’t there at all. And you’ll gain confidence with the routine of rehearsals and performances.
But life . . . life will school you in a way that deepens your performance to a visceral level. There are reasons why King Lear and Willy Loman are not played by young men—why Phaedra and Amanda Wingfield are not young women.
Yes, there are those out there with amazing natural abilities who rise to dominance in their teens and twenties. And those performances will ripen with age, if they stick with the discipline and LEARN. But, natural ability will only take you so far. At some point, you have to hone your craft and strengthen your technique. The value lies in the work.
And I want my students to grow in their craft with each passing year—driven by determination, buoyed by experience, and shaped by life’s difficulties.
So we work hard at this trade called acting. And if we do a good job, maybe you will walk away with something profound, something new, something provoking, or something stirring after the lights have dimmed.
That’s our hope. Always.