The glorious, fun gifts of acting!
by N J Howell
Suggested Creative Resources:
Free Online Acting Class
How to Cry on Cue
One-on-One Acting Coaching
Isn't it wonderful that we can, as the actor, help total strangers to see and experience a different perspective and reality? What an amazing thing. The creative process is really a healing and transformative gift for performer and audience alike.
I grow, as a person, everytime I play a character living a reality outside my own experience. By almost literally walking in someone else's shoes, by virtue of my imagination and commitment to the role, I gain empathy and understanding with each role I portray. In much the same way, thru the vivid use of imagination, the audience members get an even wider experience of expansion because they can gain insight into my character's point of view while, at the same time, witnessing and connecting with the perspective and point of view of each of the other characters.
We rarely get the opportunity to deeply observe human behavior as it plays out in those we interact with on a daily basis. I love to go to malls and sit on a bench and just watch folks walking by but you can't do that too much or they think there's something creepy about you! It's considered rude to stare at someone. in the dark annonymous space of the theatre or movie cinema, or sitting at home in front of the TV, we are offered luxurious freedom to study facial reactions, vocal changes, body reactions and the mind at work. We can even stop the tape at an interesting moment (I've done this) and played it back to see if we can tell what it was that spurred emotion within us or a sense of whatever truth was being portrayed.
No matter how much we watch other people though, a gesture or movement or expression that is not ours will come across as less than truthful if we try to mentally imitate another person. Another trap actor's fall into (and the example below is of a significant time when I did) is thinking we know what the audience should feel and tailoring our performance, consciously or unconsciously, toward that end result.
Acting Tips and Gems - What is Your Goal as an Actor?
I remember being in an acting class with Lisa Dalton (great teacher, if you get the chance to study with her) and doing a monologue for the class. It was a deeply emotional monologue and I sensed that it did not bring as strong a response from Lisa or the other students as I would have liked. After my monologue, Lisa asked me what I hoped to accomplish with the monologue. I said I wanted to make the audience feel the depth of my characters pain. She asked me ... and I'm paraphrasing here ... Lisa asked me some questions that reverberated through me like a bell. The impact was so strong that I think her questions and my consideration of them created new grooves in my brain. What did Lisa ask that was so craft-changing for me?
1. What if the audience had another journey they wanted to take?
2. What if my objective could be to play the role with as much truth and honesty as I could, and release the audience to feel whatever they needed to feel about it?
That was a very freeing moment for me as an actor and also hinted at some of the true transformative power of art. Trying to tailor a performance to manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way (and this happens more than you may realize until you start noticing it in yourself) is as counter-productive to powerful, creative performances as trying to figure out what the Casting Director is looking for in an audition. You have to share your truth and let the audience take the journey they choose to take with that truth.
Collecting Character Traits for Future Roles:
Simply taking time to be aware of how your body reacts - to joy, to pain, to anger, to sadness, etc. and making a mental note of what changes - these are treasures you can store away in your acting toolbox of the mind. Then, when character roles require it, you can easily access those files of information to get you started on the road toward believable acting. PLEASE NOTE this is not the same as memorizing the way someone moves or the inflection of their voice or other things that you try to imitate or repeat. It's about remembering this or that situation where you felt the way you need to feel in a scene and then just relaxing into a very loose relationship with that memory for the body.
For example, I'm noticing right now that, as I think of what to type next, my eyes slightly narrowed and my head leaned in toward the computer screen almost as if looking for an answer there. It is a way of focusing my intent toward the right words. Then, I noticed that my ring finger was lifted and poised, ready to type the first letter of something ... literally, this can be a fount of information if I ever have to play a character sitting at a computer, trying to think what to type. It will work if I don't try to imitate myself but simply allow my body to remember what it felt like to be in that situation. It's organic because it's not tied to an event or person or anything specific to my life. I am concerned with what engaging the body in a sensory environment, not how to reproduce it exactly next time.
As you go thru your day, every day, learn to observe your body the same way you might observe a stranger. It will teach you how to create any character in truth, by noticing how you naturally convey truth when you are not acting in front of the camera.
Utilizing the quality of empathy in your work:
Empathy is definitely a wonderful asset for any actor, as long as we can keep that clear observer self apart from the part that feels so much, enough to create a character that makes sense in the context of the play or film script.
One of the ways I keep that observer stance is to ask, what is happening to the body when that feeling is present? By watching body language, breath changes, movements and facial expressions, I store away data that can then be recalled in a much cleaner way than if I had a certain situation wrapped around it. In other words, if I am also remembering the person, their particular situation, etc. I may muddy the reality of the scene I'm in whereas if I simply recall what the body did, and keep my focus on the current script and the actor in front of me, it's cleaner.