This article is a process for taking any character from a first read to closing night. As with all acting advice and methodology, it draws heavily on a number of influences: acting coaches, method books, personal experience and advice from fellow actors, teachers and directors. And like with all acting methods, use what works for you and throw out the rest. There is no set way for how to act. I think this is the most important thing when it comes to refining and developing your acting process. That being said, this resource will serve as a great toolbox to help you approach any role.
Updated 16 June 2021
I have tried to break this page into sections with relevant subheadings. I recommend reading the entire article first, then re-reading any particular sections of interest.
Note: Acting is not something you master in a few weeks or even a few months. Many of the concepts discussed here can take years to sink in. Be kind to yourself, and don’t worry if some of the concepts are complex, to begin with.
A Step by Step Guide for How to Act
This article takes you step-by-step through my process of ‘how to act’, starting from the early discovery stages to a final performance. I have, however, intermittently added tips and other information throughout the article. The article starts focusing on Acting in a Play (Section A) , as the theatre is still the foundation of most acting training. Every major drama school in the world mainly focuses on theatre and then we move onto Screen Acting (Section B). After that there is a section which looks at the process of acting technique and refining how you become a better actor: Acting Process (Section C). There is no secret for how to act, however, I think this should be of some help. Enjoy:
A. Acting in a Play – From Page to Stage
B. Screen Acting – From Audition to Set
C. Acting Process and Techniques
Open up your play. Take in a deep breath, and here we go. The magic of becoming a character begins. In the early stages of putting on a play, you have to keep an open mind.
- Read the play as much as you can bear!
- Have a notepad handy and write down anything that relates to your character, the play or anything at all that can you find interesting. (Remember never to judge your character.)
- Ask questions. There is no way to know the answers to everything at the start of your journey, so don’t try to. Write down as many questions as you can think of and don’t worry about trying to answer them immediately.
- Read outside of the play. Read articles, reviews, interviews relating to the play, as well as investigate the period in which the play is set. Read plays by the same author to get further acquainted with their style.
- If it’s based on a real story investigate it and the people who were involved. If not find substitutes e.g. If you are playing a cane farmer, talk to cane farmers, go work on a farm for a few days.
- Write the 4 Lists. 1) Everything my character says about his/her self 2) Everything my character says about anyone else 3) Everything other characters say about my character and 4) All the facts about my character.
Tip: If something you research or investigate offers you a trifle more detail to your character’s world, then it has been worth doing. A detailed and well-understood character means you can walk on stage with confidence and allow the real connection and magic to happen.
Tip: Start a ‘play’ Dictionary. Often in plays, especially classical plays, there is an assortment of unknown words. You can’t speak what you don’t understand—so start a dictionary. If you are working on Shakespeare, definitely check out Shakespeare’s words.
The first read is where you sit around (or, in some cases, stand around) and read the script for the first time. It is usually attended by the whole team, including technical crew. Hopefully by this stage, you have already undertaken some of the steps above. As a bare minimum, you should be familiar with your lines. Under pressure, cold reading can go very wrong, and first impressions do matter. It is not an occasion to show everyone how good you are, but you should aim to be present, clear and focused.
Key Ideas for a First Read
- Be familiar with lines and understand the sense of what you’re saying.
- Be in the room, present. Really connect with who you’re talking to. Give the text energy.
- Even though it’s the first read, first impressions do matter.
Note on accents: learn the accent, or at least be very familiar with it, from day one. Of course, take on what your director or voice/accent coach tells you as the rehearsal process progresses. However, the more you are comfortable with the accent/dialect to begin with, the better. If you add an accent late in the process it becomes a conscious thought on stage, rather than being a natural element of your performance.
It’s time to play! Early on in my training I would try and give a full performance on day one. I would make quick choices about my character and stick to them. Sometimes this approach can work and people come into an early rehearsal with a clear character in mind and it really clicks and the director is thrilled. However, this process tends to undermine both your character and yourself. It means you are leaving little room for play and experimentation in the rehearsal room. So unless it’s required by the nature of the project (perhaps a short rehearsal period) always make sure that you use your early rehearsal to experiment!
- Play! Try new ideas, physicality’s, intentions etc.
- Give offers! Directors love offers and ideas. It’s easier for a director to give cut back notes, then to get something more out of an actor.
- In rehearsal don’t perform to impress, instead try to develop your character further.
- Learn lines as early as possible, unless the director instructs you not to. Learn your lines without emphasis so as not to be stuck in patterns.
Tip: Many teachers recommend learning lines without emphasis – often called learning lines by rote. I have experimented with this in the past and it really helps. The main goal is to not get locked into any vocal choices too early on. Getting stuck in vocal patterns turns you into a mechanical actor and stops real connection on stage. Play with keywords and phasing in the rehearsal room and don’t start locking in choices until later on in rehearsals.
As you near into the end of the rehearsal period you should begin to lock in choices. By now you should be aware of what is working, and where you still need to go. You should also be absolutely on top of your lines so that they come to you easily and aren’t a thought whilst on stage, and you should have a good sense of your character.
Tip: If your director is happy and you are feeling confident with your character, that doesn’t mean the work is over. Keep discovering more and more detail, both with your text and with your character. There are countless examples of actors who work on long-running shows and are still finding exciting things on closing night!
Tech rehearsals are long and monotonous, yet they are crucial for marrying the technical and creative side of the production. So don’t chat or say jokes to cast members. And, unless otherwise advised, give a full performance (especially vocally) so that they can match vocal levels to background music and sound.
Tip: Use tech runs as a chance to clarify blocking and to find your light. Finding your light is a great skill for any actor.
So we have arrived! The performances begin. Depending on the show you could be looking at a one-off performance or a 9-month run. Either way, I think the same rules apply. Show after show I have noted the same things. If I am grounded, well prepared and energised, the show improves as a consequence. When I am tired or in a scattered state I will not perform to the same standard. So here are some thoughts on nailing your performance…
- Make sure you sleep and eat well. Keep energy levels up, performing is exhausting.
- Come early and warm-up. Warm-ups should include vocal and physical exercises.
- Walkthrough your blocking. A lot of actors walk through there blocking to be secure on it so that when they walk on stage they are completely comfortable.
- Be a positive cast member. Don’t complain about other cast member and especially not the director. Don’t be grumpy and complain about the fact that you have to perform a show, it should be enjoyable, so if it’s not, go and get a real job.
- Let it go. All the work you have done over the past however many weeks needs to be let go. You can go over your scene objectives or look through notes, but trying to play your work on stage doesn’t work! You have to let it go and hope it comes across. Trying to act is the quickest way to bad acting.
Tip: I encourage you to start doing vocal warm-ups early on in the rehearsal process. This will serve you moving forward. If you make a habit of warming up early it will make a huge difference. This is especially important if you are new to working on stage or have had some time away from acting.
Screen Acting – From Audition to Set
Auditioning for a film or TV project is terrifying. Even experienced actors like myself, who have done 100s of auditions, still find it scary to go in for a casting. This is especially true when you are auditioning for a major role, or for an important casting director. We have some incredibly helpful articles on both:
After an initial audition (if you are successful) you will be asked to come in for a callback. This is usually more intensive and you will likely be given some more direction on your work. Once again you have to come in prepared, but you also need to be ready to play. The key to nailing a callback is your ability to take direction.
Booking the Job
Congratulations you have booked the job! Whatever you did in your callback worked and you will be heading to set. Hopefully, you have an acting agent who can help you deal with the contracts and your fee, but check out this article if you want to learn more about landing an agent.
Whether you are doing a 50-worder, guest role, or lead role, being on set should be the dream for an actor! That said, it can be a scary place as well, especially while you are still getting used to it. Here are some important things to remember when working professionally:
- Always be on time. Be on time, and professional.
- Be a decent human. Whether you have one line or are the lead role, be a good person. Be kind and respectful to all members of the cast and crew.
- Be prepared. Time is money on a set, so you have to be prepared. Your lines need to be rock solid. You often won’t get much rehearsal, so make sure that you have worked on your character and your choices before heading to set. It’s not like a theatre production where you have weeks to develop your part. You might only get one practice run and then you’re shooting!
- Screen acting is all about truth. Even though working professionally can be intimidating, your anchor is the other actor(s). They are your saving grace. Really listen to your scene partner(s). This will help you feel more relaxed and allow the work to be more authentic and connected.
More on screen acting.
Behind the Scenes – The Process
You cannot simply rely on learning the lines and going into the rehearsal room day in and day out. Some actors do this and use natural ability to get by, and if that’s you, then well done. However, unless you are completely comfortable with the character and are confident with thinking on the spot, there is work to be done. If you follow this list of questions you will be in a very position with your character and the question ‘how to act?’ will seem a little easier to answer.
- What is the purpose of the play? What is it trying to say?
- Function. Once you understand the play you are in, which is guided by the Director, you have to work out what your function is in the play? Why has the writer put you in the play?
- You have to unit your script. Break it down into smaller sections to help you understand the story clearer. Often directors unit the entire play and name the units. This often happens in plays that have no scene numbers. You then need to further unit your individual scenes. It is usually better to do this with your scene partner so that you can discuss units and be on the same page. It is always useful to name the units. A unit is defined by a change in subject matter.
- The next step is to look from inside your character. What does he want?
- What is his super objective? What does he want out of life?
- You then need to work out your scene objectives. What does your character want in this scene?
- You can go even further to ask what your character wants in this unit and even in a particular line.
For more on: How to Find Your Character’s Objective.
Truth: Often the people who can perform freely without having done this background work are naturally confident and comfortable performers. They also have well trained imaginations and can fall into the world of a character easily.
The Line: How to Act on the Line
‘The Line’ might be an unusual heading, but it is amazing how often ‘how to actually say a line’ is missed. There is a mix of different approaches to this and each is valid. I have numbered them below, though it is not essential to complete all the numbered points.
- One technique is called actioning which is where you put in a transitive verb describing what you do with the line. For example; to admit, to betray, to rush… It gives you a basis for the line and an ‘action’ you can play. It is often good to focus you and make sure you know what you are saying. It can be argued that this limits your expression and makes you act mechanically, as you are going into a scene with a pre planned script and not responding to what your scene partner is giving you. If your objectives are clear, however, and the actions tie in with those objectives it can work well.
- Know who you are and what you want and let rip. This is an organic approach which allows you to change from night to night. You are encouraged to really listen to your scene partner and respond to what they are giving you. If you are comfortable on stage and you are solid in your character then this is the way to go.
- Inner monologue. This is a technique where you write out the real inner thoughts of your character. If you have worked this out thoroughly you know exactly what you are thinking and how you feel about the world around you. It means you can go onto the stage and invest fully in the moment.
- What is your intention? How do you want them to react? Why are you saying the line?
- As if. This is where you look at the line as if you were saying it to someone you know in a similar situation. The as if can be similar or it can just share the essence of what you are saying. For example: if you were saying you wanted to kill someone, then saying it ‘as if’ you were annoyed at your mother might suffice. If can also be invented, yet it should be a possible event that could happen in your life.
- Substitution: this is similar to the as if, however, with substitution you try to get as close as possible. If you were being broken up with in a scene you could substitute a personal break up experience you have had.
Ultimately we aim to make the line as real and natural as possible. What technique or method you use to achieve that goal is unimportant.
Tip: Play to win. Your character, like in life, believes he or she is right. In any scene they want something— so fight for it. Never play the victim, it is low energy and uninteresting to watch.
Tip: Get to the end of the line. A though travels to the end word in real life, so do the same on stage. Make sure you keep the vocal energy to the end of the line.
Tip: Push through the pauses. Often, pushing through the text and not having long pauses in the text can really change a performance.
The idea of given circumstances is used by a number of theatre teachers within the pedagogical lineage of Konstantin Stanislavski. In her book Uta Hagen breaks it into a six step process which in covers a lot areas we have discussed above. Her book, Respect for Acting, is fantastic. Given circumstances is a core acting technique.
This below list is a combination of questions and given circumstances I have found useful to help further understand my characters. I use the heading ‘Whole Play’ and ‘Scene’ because there are aspects which remain unchanged through the entire play and those that change to the specifics of a scene.
The Whole Play
- Age, occupation, religious beliefs, political beliefs, economical background, physical condition, specific traits, past injuries, living area (apartment, homeless etc.)
- What is my inner running condition (Fast, slow, frantic etc.)
- Where is my centre (head, chest, groin, hips, core)
- What are my relationships (married, children, family tree etc.)
- How do other characters treat me? How do they feel about me?
- What is my function in the play?
- What is my overall objective?
Who am I?
- What is my present state of being?
- How do I currently perceive myself?
- What am I wearing?
Location and time
- Whose space am I in? How does this make me feel?
- What is the time (day, month, year, and season)?
- What is my geographic location? Am I in a city? What neighbourhood, landscape do I find myself in?
- What immediately surrounds me (desk, equipment etc.)?
- What is my relationship with the space?
- What has just happened before the scene?
- What have you planned to do after the scene? (Where are you going?)
Who am I seeing?
- What is my relationship with the person/s in the scene? How do I feel about them? What do I know about them?
- Who am I with?
Wants and needs
This was spoken about above. However, this set of questions makes it simpler.
- What is the function of the scene? Why is it in the play?
- What does my character want in this scene? What is his Objective?
- How will I know when I have achieved my objective?
- How high are the stakes?
- Am I arriving as a guest, intruder or as a surprise?
- What stands in your way of getting what you want?
- What tactics will you use to overcome these obstacles?
All the above information relates to character. In many ways, if you do all this work you really don’t need to get too intellectual with the text, as hopefully, it should come naturally. However here are some useful techniques.
– Keywords: in any line, there are usually one or two keywords. Often we can become monotone on stage and so actually going through your text and picking out keywords is a great idea. This is really important if you are working on a Shakespearean or classical text.
– Rhythm and verse. Often text can be written in verse and a good amount of time must be spent understanding it, again this is especially important for Shakespeare.
– Articulation: often our articulation in day to day life can be lacking. We as actors are performing in large spaces and often with heightened text we have to really get the words into the audience’s ears. So sitting down with your text and marking out end consonants or ‘s’ sounds is crucial.
So what is the secret to How to Act?
Well, there is no secret about how to act. Fundamentally it is about working hard and practising as much as possible. Acting isn’t different to any other art form. It requires practice and hard work to be successful. Over time you instinctually learn how to naturally do a lot of what is discussed above. But as it has been said time and time again—the best actors are those that work the hardest. You have to be a detective! Constantly search for more information and detail in the text and in your character. If you can make this process fun it will help.
Storytelling is a fundamental part of our society. And an actor, in whichever medium, be it film, theatre or TV, has the ability to truly bring a story to life. If he or she can transcend into a character and take an audience on a journey that is a wonderful thing to offer the world. It is always important to remember that.