Finding Your Process as an Actor | Determining Which Tools Work For You

Finding Your Process as an Actor

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What is acting? Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on this topic. What are the tangible, definable tools of the craft that we all must understand and implement accordingly? It’s a hard one. When we look at many other art forms there seems to be more to latch onto in terms of skills and abilities. Singers need to be able to sing in key. Musicians need to be proficient with their instrument. Dancers need to be able to move to music. This is why it is so important to find your process as an actor.

This is being reductive, of course. But most punters can identify such abilities when they see them. Acting ability, on the other hand, is harder to nail down. It’s why so many people have differing opinions on what good acting is, and who a good actor might be. So in this article, we’re going to look at what the undisputed components of acting might be. “What is acting?” Let’s work towards an answer.

An Actor’s Process

You might be asking yourself what it means for an actor to have a process. Don’t actors have the same process if they’re performing the same job? And if not, how do we know which process is the right one, the correct one, the best one?

In short, an actor’s process is whatever gets them over the line. I, myself, have a particular way of working that may be totally different to how you were trained or currently operate in the industry. But if it works for you, like mine works for me, I’m not here to tell you to change a thing about it.

There are some aspects of acting that remain unchanged, such as the tools one is taught or picks up in schooling or through experience in their careers. But the actor’s process is an entirely personal journey, and one that should, hopefully, keep evolving throughout a long and vibrant career.

Is the need for craft changing?

My curiosity on this subject was piqued last month when Patsy Rodenburg, a leading voice specialist, decided to step down from her position as head of voice at the Guildhall School of Drama and Music. Guildhall is a prominent acting school in London that has produced some of the finest and most recognisable actors of screen and stage. Rodenburg cited changes in teaching standards, and the industry as a whole, as her reason for leaving the position.

To summarise, Rodenburg identified a shift away from traditional teachings in voice, movement and text analysis—a shift she could no longer take part in. To be honest, It’s a decision I respect. She saw the cultural shift in the industry and didn’t feel like she knew how to contribute. This allows someone who can take up the task to move in. Kudos to her.

An Acting Teacher’s Perspective

I have been teaching students of varying skills and ages for about four years. I can clearly see a difference in the interests of students, compared to what I was focused on as a student myself. For context, I graduated from The West Australian Academy of Performing Art (WAAPA) in 2008. Our training focused largely on the idea that, if you could learn how to command the stage, everything else fell in place. This meant our training was steeped in more traditional training methods of standardised vocal and physical coaching.

Students now seem to be more screen-focused, and therefore some of these traditional methods are losing their appeal. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The world evolves and shifts. Interests change.

The training I received was grounded in the idea that there were controllable things you could learn that would make you a better actor. Namely: you could learn how your body and voice can be used to enhance a performance. Personally, this took me from an actor with some basic instincts to an actor who could extend my range to areas I didn’t think were within my reach. However, I do feel as though I was on the cusp of the change I’m referring to. We received minimal screen training, and that meant a lot of my learning in that area was done in audition rooms and on the job. In that sense, I felt behind. I had to learn fast and fail often. 

Different Acting Tools

So, with the tide shifting towards a heavily weighted screen focus, what is the validity and place for those vocal and physical assets? Whenever I think of this question I hear the words of one of my favourite lecturers: “Screen doesn’t require less technical skill, it requires more specific technical skill.” A reduced (like the sauce), more refined screen performance often means we have to use our voice and body more efficiently. It’s not about doing less, it’s about communicating differently.

Command of the voice and body are as vital as ever. What does seem up for debate is how we go about acquiring and implementing the knowledge around these skills.

Finding Your Process as an Actor

Now we are in an area that is open to more debate and differing opinion. What goes on, intellectually, for acting to work? Are there undisputed intellectual processes that must be adhered to?

In this vein, I’m reminded of an interview I read with the late actor Anton Yelchin, a brilliant performer whom I admire greatly. He stated that instincts were all he had as a teen, and eventually he had to expand on that. I think this resonated with me because it is something I empathised with so deeply. In my training days, I could get away with big, bold choices that had conviction fuelling them. When it came to stretching to more uncomfortable areas, I felt at sea. That’s when I realised I needed to know why what I was doing was or wasn’t working. I needed to do my analysis.

Start with your Objective

I’ll cut to the chase here, I am absolutely certain that objective is an essential part of acting. If objective is something new to you, it is, put simply, ‘what your character wants and why they want it’. If we’re talking about the more invisible elements of acting, I believe we must always have our characters trying to ‘do’ something. I have never encountered a situation where a performance wasn’t enhanced by an actor focusing on what they were trying to achieve.

There are, of course, a bevy of other tools we can use to shape a performance. Emotional recall is one tool that I resisted for many years. Now, it’s essential for me to find truth in certain performances—whether I set out intending to use it or not. For those of you new to the idea, emotional recall is using your personal past experiences and applying those feelings to a performance that requires a similar emotional connection.

However, I offer up emotional recall with this caveat: a lot of self-monitoring needs to happen. If you draw on trauma or confront parts of your past, you need to balance what is helpful for a performance with what is safe for you and your mental health. It’s an example of the kind of tool I use in my own process, but wouldn’t necessarily recommend to any actor looking to try it.  Is it essential? I don’t believe so. Has it been essential for me at times? I think it has.

Playing Actions

Another popular example is the use of ‘actioning’. This is the use transitive verbs to influence a person or people you are speaking to—sometimes referred to as the ‘tactics’ that your character uses to get their objective. I know many actors who swear by it, but I’ll confess I rarely implement it in my own work.

There is an inevitable amount of trial and error when it comes to what processes work for you. You have to be glutenous, at first. Eat up any and all ways of working. See what fits, and find out what is and what isn’t for you. Some roles and projects will require more of one thing than another. The next project will likely require a different approach.

If we are trying to answer ‘What is needed?’ I’ll admit, I have more questions than answers on the subject of ‘process’. I will reiterate, though, that if something isn’t working for you, you can always return to your objective. What are you trying to do? Why do you want to do that and how do you go about it?

What can I do right now?

Great news is, you’re doing it. Engaging with places like StageMilk, and other resources, is part of ongoing learning that we should all continue. No matter your experience or skill level. The desire to investigate is a most essential component. Consume all art and information with an open mind, and take active interest in human behaviour and the patterns we see.

My most pretentious view on this subject is that acting can be seen as being ‘professionally empathetic’. It isn’t the job of the actor to judge or label our characters, but to understand them. Actor Ethan Hawke talks about seeing himself as the lawyer for his characters, and I think I see what he means. We go in to bat for our characters. We want to represent them with empathy and understanding. Where an audience may see characters as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, we must see them as justified in their actions.

Start engaging with the world around you. It sounds broad and simplistic, but an actor’s work is enriched by an expansive knowledge of the range of human experience. Read, watch, listen and ask questions.

So where does this leave us?

Let’s revisit the idea of ‘ the essential components of being an actor.’ It’s a question that I don’t think I can ever truthfully articulate a complete an answer for, at least for myself. But I think of this as a positive thing. If something is harder to define, then it is harder to narrow down. We can bring our own experience and perspectives to a lot of the work and go from there. There are more choices. While that can seem daunting, it can also be liberating.

I remember a staff member at WAAPA asking a visiting company of accomplished performers what they thought the ‘key’ to acting was. An awkward silence fell across the room and the performers, all of which were in Australia to perform one of the most acclaimed productions in the world at the time, had no answers. There are no shortcuts and there are no hidden secrets, just work, time, patience and dedication.

In terms of technical tools that we should look to as consistent guiding lights, there are things that I do think are a little less up for debate. If the industries of training and performing are moving away from traditions of vocal, text and physical coaching, then perhaps we need to hold ourselves to a greater level of personal accountability for those elements?

Conclusion

I talk to my younger students a lot about finding a place for themselves that I refer to as ‘your neutral’. What I mean by this is that there isn’t a correct way to stand, sound or ‘be’ as a performer, but there can be ways of identifying what works for you personally, and also works for communicating as an actor. It’s about identifying where our own strengths and weaknesses lie, and how we each go about growing from there. Trying to take note of our own assets and potential areas for further development is important in taking the next step.

Beyond the technical though, I think the closest thing I have to offer in terms of a ‘key’ is to continue to be curious. Continue consuming different ways of teaching. Continue consuming art that surprises you. And continue being observant. There will always be new perspectives on acting coming through that challenge our ideas and question what we thought we knew.

For now, my approach to the shifting tide is to find a balance between the old and the new. To look to peers and the people I respect for guidance, and put aside pride in the face of new information when necessary.

The work of an actor never ends. How wonderful.

 

About the Author

Tom Stokes

Tom is an actor with 15 years professional acting experience in local and international film, tv and theatre. His notable film credits include Equals, alongside Kristen Stewart, The Railway Man, and recently AACTA winning The Rooster. He has performed with countless Australian main stages, such as Sydney and Melbourne Theatre companies.

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