What’s the difference between a good actor and a great actor? What is it that gets you a call back, gets you a job, earns respect from your peers?
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that we should create for our love of the process, not for results. Our art doesn’t owe us anything. We do it because we get to do it. Some of us do it because we can’t not do it. But if we are going to do something for the love of it, shouldn’t we respect it by only giving it our best efforts? Especially because the better we are at it, the more opportunities we get to keep doing it.
Good actors know how to memorize lines, hit their mark and some even know how to “get into character”. Good actors know how to handle text. They know how to “play” the scene. A handful of them even understand more difficult concepts like comedic timing. There are plenty of good actors that can do all of that. Meh. That’s just shmACTING.
The text is just the text. It’s just a vehicle to get you through the scene. You – the actor – must drive the scene. Without the fuel of emotional life, the scene will go nowhere. In other words, no one will care to watch in anticipation of where the story can take us.
So how do we fuel up?
The answer is emotional preparation, a technique which requires its own development and begs for a blog all on its own. Maybe several. Stay tuned.
Good actors can get away with phoning it in, especially on stage. But as Tim Phillips puts it in his book Audition for Your Career, Not the Job, “the camera doesn’t see you act, it sees what you know”. That’s where emotional preparation comes into play.
Every once in awhile you get to see a great performance. Like what Ellen Campbell did in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando at Ming Studios with Homegrown Theatre in May of 2016. She was truthful, full of emotional life, in the moment and effortless. I’ve never had the pleasure of teaching Ellen in my class, and I don’t know what her process is, but I can tell you what I do know based on what she delivered: she isn’t lazy. She’s studied enough that she’s gathered some tools. She’s practiced enough that she handled her instrument with grace and confidence. She made it look easy, and I know it’s not easy. It takes equal amounts of hard work and complete surrender to do what she did. After the show I offered her a part in a film. She didn’t disappoint.
What makes an actor great? What makes an actor watchable and interesting? The truth. Isn’t that how we judge whether a performance is good or not? We either believe it or we don’t believe it. You can go to the theatre and see actors perform a scene or you can go to the theatre and be a witness of human experience that will change you forever. I always prefer the latter. I’m not interested in watching actors just being emotional on stage. I’m interested in seeing people behaving truthfully, really listening to each other, really wanting what they want, really not knowing what’s going to happen next, really trying to keep it all together. Actors can’t be slick if that’s what they want to do. We are never slick when we don’t know what’s going to happen next. We are human when we don’t know what’s going to happen next.
I don’t believe there is any one formula to the actor’s process. There can’t be. We are all too unique, thankfully. I do believe in technique. My definition of technique here is simply having a toolbox filled with tools with which you are familiar. Tools that you’ve tried and used and taken good care of so they are there when you need them.
The tricky thing here is that actor’s tools are intangible. Our work is mostly internal. The only way that we can check to see if our tools are in good shape is by using them often. And since we are ever-evolving creatures, as we change, our need for different tools change. Often times, hopefully, we’ll find ourselves throwing away tools that we don’t need anymore. We’ll explore and discover new tools and play with those for a while. If we are committed to the craft, we never stop exploring. Our biggest fear is that we stop growing.
In my opinion, the absolute worst thing an actor can do is do nothing. The absolute best thing an actor can do is remain teachable. Beware of shmACTING. Do the work.