10 Lessons That Made Me A Better Actor | Improve your Acting

10 lessons that made me a better actor

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Here we go, 10 lessons that made me a better actor – and hopefully they will work for you too!

#1 Punctuation matters

When I first went to acting school, I was a pretty cocky young actor. I thought I had an incredibly good understanding of the craft, I had done some professional work and figured I was pretty ahead of the pack. Well in the bastardised immortal words of Ygritte the wildling ‘You know nothing Pat Cullen.’ It turns out folks that punctuation really matters. Punctuation is the writer communicating with you the actor, potentially from beyond the grave (spooky right?)

Moreover, punctuation has vocal inflection attached. If you have a question mark, really ask the question with your inflection. A comma, a dash, a semicolon and a colon all indicate a slight upward inflection. A full stop, a downward inflection. An ellipses indicates a hold on that vocal tone. Suddenly text becomes music, the words have tonal shifts, and you the actor begin to discover an emotional life you didn’t know existed, just from honouring the punctuation. Now obviously this isn’t the be-all and end-all of acting, but it was an extremely important lesson for me that made me a better actor.

#2 If you don’t believe you, no one else will

George Costanza famously said to Jerry in an episode of Seinfeld “Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie if you believe it.” Now, strangely enough, this quote forms the backbone of our work as actors. If you do not believe what you are saying, if you think it’s stupid or unrealistic or that your character wouldn’t say or do that, that moment will not work.

Because I am quite orange and relatively funny, I go in for a few commercials. Every commercial I have ever booked has been because I – Patrick – really believed in what I was saying. I did an ad for a telecom company, the character was really annoyed with his coworkers and was making fun of them. The casting people on the day were very disorganised and running behind. It didn’t take much for me to believe in what I was saying and I consequently booked the gig. As opposed to all the other auditions I’ve missed because I did not believe my own words about how amazing insert product here was.

#3 To be fascinating, you must be fascinated

This one is a direct quote from the great Andrew Lloyde, our former head of acting at the Actors Centre Australia. An exceptional trainer of actors Lloydie was full of these sorts of statements. This one really stuck with me, because it is beautiful in its simplicity.

If you want to be interesting in your performance, you must be interested in the other actors on stage, in the world around you. If you want to be fascinating, you must be fascinated by those same factors. This comes down to detailing the pants out of your characters history and environment. What does this location mean to them, what do the other characters in this scene mean to them, what drives them to be fascinated?

An actor that is fascinated by themselves or even worse obsessed by themselves instead of the other people on stage, or the world on stage is far more suited to being an Instagram influencer than an actor.

#4 Listen. No really.

The most embarrassing moment (or at least top 10) of my career to date was when I discovered that I had never truly been listening on stage, like actually ever. One of my friends pulled me up that I was mouthing his dialogue as he was saying it. I knew the text so well and was so in my head, so terrified about missing my next line that I was not listening to what he was saying at all. That same young cocky actor from point one, had his world turned upside down.

So how did I fix it? An acting teacher gave me the tip of examining my partners face while they were talking, asking myself questions like “Did they shave today? What’s he doing with his eyebrow? How does what he’s saying make me feel?” This put my focus completely on to my partner and totally changed my listening as an actor.

#5 Breathe

I know, it sounds obvious but everything comes from the breath. Especially if you are doing stage work, it is the source of all of your power. Breathing deep into your diaphragm and using the full power of your voice is the only way you’re going to be able to hit the back of the room in an 800 seat theatre. Plus you can manipulate your emotions through breath alone. Try taking three short quick breaths in, then one long exhale, feels like your about to cry right? Reverse that – almost feels like laughter.

That’s an acting hack from me to you. The great Larry Moss said ‘If you feel your feet on the floor and breathe into your emotions, there is no limit to what you can do’ and he is not wrong.

#6 Better to be an a**hole than a chickensh*t

Now I went into this in a lot more detail in my article about working with Steppenwolf. But long story short, you cannot control how you are perceived by other people, casting directors or audiences. People are going to think what they think about you and if you are playing Iago, it’s probably not going to be kind things. So often in my life I have got stuck thinking ‘Oh god I really want this person to like me’ – so much so that I am going to be really cautious in my choices so they don’t think I’m weird or pushy or whatever – basically I was most comfortable being a chickensh*t. Trying to be meek, mild and palatable

Working onstage or onscreen you actually have to be the opposite, get up there and do something. Commit to it and if you come off looking like an a**hole then at least you went for it! If you are going to fail, fail gloriously do not go meekly into that creative goodnight.

#7 There is a moment before, for everything

Uta Hagen’s book Respect for Acting is a classic. More than a dusty tome full of platitudes and etherial nonsense, this is one of the most practical, actionable and down to earth acting books ever written. I cannot recommend it enough. One of the exercises that really stuck with me was getting onstage and doing a mundane task for two whole minutes. Something like staging your daily routine after waking up in the morning. Getting the sleep out of the ol’ eyes, checking emails, brushing teeth etc. And rehearsing it like a scene, then using that to moment to go into dialogue with scene partner.

The idea being that every character, always has a moment before. They have come from somewhere, doing something, that meant something to them. That informed the way they enter the next moment. From arguing with a spouse, to eating a whole packet of Doritos on the train and feeling bloated as hell. The moment before is vital to nailing the moment you are in and the next moment you are heading towards.

#8 Book your script

Organisation is not a crime folks, having your script well preserved and looked after is going to make your life easier. When I am working on a play, I like to cut out each page of the script from a photocopy and glue each page on the right-hand page of an A4 notebook. Leaving me the left-hand side page to write notes on. This means in the early stages of rehearsal I can walk around with my script in one hand and write my blocking or other notes all over the pages, and the notebook keeps everything in good condition as it’s thrown around between home, rehearsals, opening nights and all the other parts of life

#9 Vulnerability is strength

For some people vulnerability is the easiest part of acting, accessing their emotions is a walk in the park and it is more a question of controlling them and not playing a state. For me, the challenge is allowing myself to have an emotional response and not trying to control it and limit it in any way. In a lot of senses, it comes back to point 6. If I don’t keep myself in check, I will try and present my anger, sadness or jealousy in a ‘polite’ or ‘appropriate’ way, not allowing the audience to see the true vulnerability that has been in me all along.

The truth is that vulnerability is strength, showing your emotions is a pure human connection, and it is exactly the reason why the audience has come to see you perform. They’ve come for catharsis, for an emotional journey, why are you getting in the way of them experiencing that? The only way they are going to get it, is if you allow yourself to really experience it and put that strength, that vulnerability out there for everyone to see and feel.

#10 The magic really has been in you all along

Okay so this really ties in all of the above points, but guys – Disney was right. The magic really has been in you all along. You just have to let yourself believe it. I’ve written about my Larry Moss experience at length, here most notably. And no joke, it has changed my life and my work. Like, what if you just completely believed that you have a right to work, what if you are not an imposter but a valuable creative artist with something to say, and furthermore you don’t have to apologise for that. What if you truly, really and genuinely believed that. Don’t you think it would have an effect on your work?

It has on mine folks, seriously. If you are not quite there or don’t think you could ever believe it, then maybe it’s time to fake it till you make it! That or join our Online Scene Club and start practising till you get there!

About the Author

Patrick Cullen

Patrick is an actor, writer, comedian and podcaster based in Sydney, Australia. A graduate of the Actors Centre Australia in 2014, Patrick has been working in film, TV and theatre across Sydney and Brisbane ever since. Patrick can be found glued to test cricket in bars across the land.

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