Acting is a very broad church. There are a myriad of different approaches to performing and different people will recommend different things. Although the journey and the specifics of each school of thought may vary, the desired result is always the same: great acting.
This can make finding an acting method that works for you very difficult, because at the professional level, the end result looks exactly the same. Whether someone is using Meisner’s philosophy, Practical Aesthetics, or Strasberg’s Method can only be noticed during their preparation and rehearsals. Whilst different schools of thought will prioritise different things during the process, the final performance will always lead to a fully embodied character that is existing truthfully in the world of the story. It is precisely because of this that sifting through the plethora of can be so difficult.
For all the talk of specific schools of thought, I don’t know a single actor that is a purist. By that I mean an actor that follows only one technique or method in its entirety, utilising nothing else. Whilst actors will have a preference and will usually have a dominant method they fall back on, each work you perform, or character you portray will have its own challenges. These challenges may require different approaches, and not any one acting philosophy covers all angles.
As a result, actors usually have what I like to call a ‘Frankenstein’ technique. A system they have developed that works for them, which blends multiple schools of thought together. I often hear this referred to at drama schools as the ‘tool box’. Throughout your training (either through an institution or through your own self edification) you will acquire all the tools necessary to perform a part by being exposed to multiple acting methods and philosophy’s. Although you don’t always need every tool, having access to them means you’re better equipped to do the job. I encourage you to read as many different acting theorists and techniques as you can.
Although they may differ in name, in my experience there is a great deal of cross over within the realm of acting theory. Rather than list ten separate philosophy’s or schools of thought, I instead want to focus on specific techniques that I see echoed by multiple theorists.
- Imagination – the big ‘IF’
- Developing an Inner Life
- Being Present
- Outside In
- Mastering Breath
- Neutral Body
I should admit this is partly because I would feel like a traitor attempting to give a short form summary of the works by the great theorists like Stanislavski, Strasberg, Meisner, or Chekov (Michael or Anton), but also partly because outside of training institutions, every actor’s philosophy will be different. Acknowledging these common ground techniques that remain important in most – if not all – acting theories will allow you to communicate effectively with other actors, regardless of their chosen school of thought.
Irrespective of where you study or who you read, mastering these commonly echoed techniques will set you up to be a great actor. This article will illuminate what these techniques are, why they are important and where to go if you want to know more.
One of my favourite acting teachers used to run a scene class. People would come up, do a scene. His first question was always “What do you want?”. If you didn’t have an answer, you had to sit down. Lesson over.
People are driven by desire. Wants or needs that push us into action and make us do something. You desired to learn about acting techniques, so you searched the term in your preferred search engine, and you start to read. Your desire pushed you into action and that action led you here.
Although in life our wants and needs can often be mundane or uninteresting, stories are built on desires which create conflict, quests, revelations or redemption. The characters desires are the reason for the story to exist.
Stories are always driven by desire. A character wants something, and they try and get it. It is the wake and fallout of the characters pursuing this desire which creates everything else in the story.
Romeo wants Juliet, Juliet wants Romeo. Chaos ensues.
Macbeth wants to be King. But there are people in the way. Macbeth starts killing these people, chaos ensues.
Thanos wants to destroy half the life in the universe, a few movies and some spin offs ensue.
In the acting world this desire is called an Objective. It is what you character wants in any given moment. You can have big wants which occupy a whole character arc, or little wants which might only last for a line or two. But you must always have one. Being able to identify and then pursue your objective in any given moment is probably the most important technique you can learn.
If objectives are what you want, actions are how you are going to get it. It’s the tactics that you use to achieve your desire.
In life, we are always trying different tactics to achieve our desire. This notion can make us seem like sociopaths but its true.
If, for instance, I wanted money from someone, I could ask politely, I could plead, or I could bargain. On the other end of the spectrum, I could bully, I could threaten, or I could mug. If I try one and it doesn’t work, and I still need the money, I will try another approach. Exploring different actions can lead to multiple ways to say the same line.
If objective is the what, action is the how. By identifying our action/tactic/approach, we are not only pursuing an objective, we are making a choice as to how to pursue it. By exploring our actions, we can bring variety to a scene by trying multiple approaches to achieve the same objectives.
#3 Imagination – the big ‘IF’
Every acting theorist addresses the imagination. It is a crucial part of the acting skillset and developing your imagination is a key component of becoming a good actor.
And what word engages the imagination the most?
Two letters make a big impact.
What if…? Would it be different if…? If I were you I would…
IF is the great instigator of the hypothetical and the hypothetical is where actors thrive!
What this comes down to really is being able to put yourself in the characters position. ‘The magic if’ is an important part of Stanislavski’s teaching, but it also appears in Practical Aesthetics (a supposed departure from Stanislavski) as ‘Its as if I…’. Even those who have never read an acting book visualise characters actions in this way:
“If I were married to her, how would I hold her hand?”
“How would I feel if they did that?”
IF is the key to the imagination. Asking yourself how you would act/feel/behave/react if you were in the situation of the character is the first step of fully embodying a character and their surroundings
There is a very clear book about this called The Actor and the Target. The author penned this idea beautifully, but it was something that had been inherently understood by other theorists. Although not everyone has read this book, most of the best actors I know do this technique instinctively.
Lets do a short exercises: What did you have for breakfast?
You just targeted. Very simply, and in a non-active way, but it’s the same principle.
I can guarantee (unless you are one of the 2%-5% of population who are without a mind’s eye) you mind quickly pulled up an image of your breakfast. Maybe even a remanence of taste or smell and perhaps even a small flash of emotion. My coffee machine broke this morning, so when I remember breakfast I also remember a strange grinding sound and I relive the frustration and disappointment of my morning meal.
The long and the short of it is this: Think about what you are speaking about.
We are doing this all the time when we speak in life, but this is easy and second nature because we have real world experiences that come to mind. When we are acting, we have to deliberately populate these images in our mind. We need to consciously drag up the images and experiences of the character. If they are talking about a tree in a childhood home, we need to conjure an image of that specific tree. If the character is sharing the experience of a horrible car crash, we need to conjure a collection of images. We need to target something as we are speaking about it.
If you want to know more about the Practical Application of The Actor and The Target, check it out!
#5 Developing an Inner Life
The inner life of a character is a very important part of being ‘real’ on stage or screen. It is the acknowledgement that the mind is active beyond the words being spoken out loud. It is the performance of the inner workings or inner turmoil of the character you are playing.
Whether or not it is said out loud, we need to know our characters opinions of everyone and everything around them. We need to witness them chose to say the words they do, understanding that there are even more words they decided not to say. It is the inner life which compels a character to speak and react to the world.
I have heard of a few different techniques which deal with creating a fully embodied inner life:
Inner monologuing is the practice of developing a stream of consciousness monologue that continues in your mind whilst performing a scene. It should be populated by opinions and character truths, but is always in direct relationship to what is happening in the scene.
Emotional memory or emotional recall is about understanding and portraying the emotions the character may experience when in particular situations.
Strasberg’s Method deal with full and sustained embodiment of character to first understand how they react to the world before finding out how they react in a scene.
Active analysis uses improvisations to pursue the inner motivations of the character without the confines of the script.
More recently a focus on a character’s opinions (opinions = thoughts + feelings, irrelevant of facts) has been used to help develop the inner life of the character. First imposing and then allowing your character to have opinions about the people, places and events of their story allows for a strong inner life.
Whatever process you choose to investigate is up to you, but an understanding and investment in techniques which increase inner life is crucial.
#6 Being Present
This is an ever-illusive problem for actors that numerous theorists deal with. How to be perfectly present, playing moment to moment, responding to new information all whilst knowing when and how the scene or story ends. When we first read a script we have an immediate impulse of how it is to be played. As we read the lines for the first time out loud they inevitably fall flat and not how we imagined, because the information is no longer new, and we know how the scene progresses. Tricking ourselves out of this is of utmost importance to a fully embodied performance.
I am sure you have received the note “You aren’t listening”. I am sure you have also heard the phrase “acting is reacting” or ‘Keep it fresh’. All of these notes are dealing with the same problem: Being present.
Whilst there are again a number of different exercises for this problem and many theorists are dedicated to it (Meisner, Ed Asner and Moss to name a few), for me this is more a case of what not to do, rather then what to do.
Most actors drill their lines into the ground, rote learning not just the lines, but how they are going to perform them. Everything is decided upon before you play the scene, regardless of how the actor is feeling on the day or the input of the scene partner. This makes it IMPOSSIBLE to be present because you are no longer reacting to anything, you are playing a predetermined set of responses closer to a computer program then an actor.
Learn your lines but not your performance. Then find a million ways to play them. Never decide on a ‘final’ performance, and allow yourself open to play and adjust. The more options you play with the more ways you have practiced responding. Then on the day trust your instincts and allow yourself to be surprised. This may seem scary, but is exactly what is meant by ‘being bold’ or ‘brave choices’. Nothing is gained by playing it safe.
Script and scene analysis is essential to making good choices as an actor. Anyone that has sat in on a development, written a script or studied literature know how important structure is for a story. In fact, story structure is one of the few universal similarities between cultures worldwide, even if the telling may differ. We often forget as actors that that is exactly what we are a part of – a story. Not paying attention to the structure of it can mean we not only miss opportunities to demonstrate range, but we risk missing the point or flow of the scene entirely.
Using beats or units (the terms are interchangeable) to divide the script into units of action, topics or energy is a great way to make sure we are serving the characters journey in the scene. Marking beat/unit changes in our script can help identify when new information appears in the scene. It can stop us from ‘one noting’ (playing the same objective, action or emotion for the whole scene). It also allows us to permission to our self to take ‘shifts’ (when new information changes the characters energy, mood or action).
Learn more about: Units or Beats.
#8 Outside In
Acting is equal parts art and craft. Ignoring the craft component is something I see a lot of less experience actors do, and it is a problem, because their work becomes completely dependent on whether they are ‘feeling it’ or not.
Sometimes you are fuelled fully by creative impulses and your imagination is allowing you to be fully embodied and present. You don’t have to worry about a thing, because your artistic side is handling all of it.
But then some days the juices aren’t flowing and everything feels flat. That motivation that was bringing you to tears has stopped working, and now you are a wooden lump waiting for some sort of divine creative intervention. Unfortunately, you will have another show, or another scene, or another setup and you MUST deliver. You have nothing to fall back on, and the show, audition or shoot will reflect this. It will be bad work, as usually in this instance the actor tries to force out emotion, and it seems contrived and forced.
Inside out acting (acting where the physical and vocal energy is influenced by internal psychological stimulus) is great, but sometimes won’t get you there. Luckily there are a stack of techniques regarding the ‘Outside – In’ approach. Learning a few will mean that whether you are ‘feeling it’ internally or not, the external result will still appear embodied, truthful and real.
At the end of the day, the only person who has to actually feel anything is the audience.
Laban has some great work on psychological gestures, movements which convey and sometimes induce a particular state of being. Stanislavski talks about moving the body and the mind will follow. ALBA emoting and PEMS deals with posture, facial mask and breath patterns which can be learned as choreography to again convey and sometimes induce internal emotion or energy.
#9 Mastering Breath
When I first heard breath is key to performing I completely disregarded it as some woo-woo BS. As I have started directing and coaching, I realised it is one of the single most important divides between good actors and bad actors.
Good actors allow the performance to affect their breath, or their breath to affect their performance.
Bad actors ignore or don’t investigate how the scene would affect their breath, or they hold their breath to try and hold onto any emotion passing through.
Emotion is breath. Laugh is disrupted breath, in the same way a cry is. When we are shocked we breathe in sharply. When we are panicked our breath rate increases. When in pain we are told to breathe through it. We deliberately slow our breath to try and calm ourselves. When we see something or experience something incredible, we call it ‘breath taking’.
A lot of the ‘outside in’ approaches deal with breathing patterns, but EVERY voice coach, and almost every theorist, talks about the importance of breathing in the moment.
It is a difficult thing to master because it is largely subconscious, but that is exactly what all acting is: a conscious pursuit of everything that usually sits subconscious in order to replicate or reproduce real life.
There are a stack of exercises to investigate and I encourage you to find the one that works for you. But find yourself one in the Acting world. Whilst yoga or singing classes can be useful for control, they are not specific to the craft of acting.
Patsy Rodenberg or Cecilly Berry have great resources about breath. ALBA emoting or the Perdekamp emotional method deals with breath in their outside-in approaches.
Learn more about how to Breathe as Your Character.
#10 Neutral Body
“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action”
The importance of the physical body and how it acts and reacts with text has been known for a very long time. Enhancing your bodies ability to do this will bring immediate gains to your acting.
I am sure a lot of you have gotten the note “stop acting on tension”. “But the moment is tense!” I hear you reply. This is a misconception. Whilst you might be tense when witnessing a moment, during the experience, one is not tense. What is happening here is the actor’s body is not representing the characters body. The actor is responding to the situation as an observing, not as a participant. The actors body is not neutral.
When I say the term neutral body, the immediate response from actors is that neutral is bad! Neutral is void of anything! That is not what I mean.
Think of it as a blank canvas. From here, anything is possible. As soon as we put a mark on it, it is becoming a picture. We can explore that and we should, but if we want to paint something else, no matter what we draw it will have the backdrop of that mark. However, if you paint it all white and that picture disappears. Now anything is possible again.
Neutral body for me is not about becoming an emotionless, reactionless meat puppet. It is about making sure your body is free to react in the moment without the actor’s physical insecurities, habits or unhelpful idiosyncrasies getting in the way. It is making sure that your body is in a constant state of flux and allowed to continually react freely to the outside world.
Allowing your body to return to neutral is an important part of this. It is a skill which must be developed. Practising returning to neutral (keep in mind I am talking about YOUR neutral, you are yourself after all) allows your body to be free to engage with the next moment. When we aren’t in neutral or we don’t return to neutral we allow previous moments to infect our body subconsciously, and often these physical elements aren’t in sync with what we are saying and what we are wanting to convey. A smile lingers longer then is truthful, arms crossed because the actor doesn’t know what to do with their hands even when the character is trying to be friendly, heightened tension during a rant monologue, even though the character is releasing.
Laban, Stanislavski, Michael Chekov, Strasberg and pretty much every theorist talks about building character or emotion from the neutral body.
Look here for more about Physicality For the Actor.
I trust this list has been helpful. One of the most difficult things about developing a new skill is that there is a whole lot of information to sift through. What makes this hard to navigate is that a lot of the time, you don’t even know how much you don’t know.
This list of techniques will set you off armed with the right language to exist in a room of fellow actors, with an ability to communicate the process of acting. Whilst just a brief intro, I trust you now know where to start, what techniques you need to develop and where to look should you need more info.