There are many different acting challenges, but I wanted to work though some of those that I have faced everyday as an actor and a teacher. Each of us are blessed with strengths. Some actors I know can glance at a script a handful of times, and it’s lodged securely in their memory. For others their vocal warm up consists of a cigarette and a can of Red Bull, and they sound better than me after my warm up (an hour of rolling around on the floor.) It’s important to acknowledge your strengths, but if we really want to become great actors we have to work through our individual challenges. I want to look at some of those common challenges actors face, and see if I can offer any insights into how you can begin to move past them.
It frustrates us when people ask the perennial question “great work, how did you learn all those lines?” Don’t they realise how much more work there is into putting a play on a stage! But learning lines is a challenge. And a big one. It can be a huge cause of stress, and if you can’t confidently learn your lines, it can lead to mechanical, disconnected acting.
For me the solution is time, and planning. I have never been good at learning lines, but I am good at planning. I set dates when I want to be off book, and I make sure I get there. If you know it takes you 3 weeks to learn lines, then give yourself 3 weeks! If it only takes you a few days, then give yourself a few days.
I also make sure that I am never just learning the lines. If you truly understand your script, and the words you are saying, it will inherently be easier to learn those lines. This is why so many students struggle to learn Shakespeare monologues. They don’t fully understand the script and then it is like learning a safety manual, in Spanish! You’ll learn your lines much quicker if you do the preparation on your script first. Make sure you understand the intentions behind the lines, because if you can learn the thoughts, you can learn the lines.
For more on learning lines.
You could get on stage a 100 times, but if you always fall back to what you know and feel comfortable with, then that won’t get you anywhere.
If there was one thing that would lead to an actors improvement more than anything else, it would be overcoming fears. It is our fears that hold us back from every element of great acting. Whether it is inhibiting our emotions, or stopping us from connecting with the other actor, or forcing us to be superficial and safe in our performances. For some, their fears might not require a bucket before every audition, but it can still be inhibiting their potential as actors. Either way we must try to abate these fears as best we can. Or in the very least, learn to accept and work with them – instead of against them.
The answer is practice. Like with anything, the more we work on stage or on screen, the more it becomes second nature. Our experience becomes a foundation for us to work from. I could encourage hypnotherapy, acupuncture and mantras, but the simple answer is you have to do it more. But here is the caveat: you can’t keep playing it safe. You could get on stage a 100 times, but if you always fall back to what you know and feel comfortable with then that won’t get you anywhere. Keep pushing yourself, work on challenging scripts, and explore characters outside your comfort zone. The more we stretch ourselves the less fearful we become.
I was watching two wonderful actors work on a scene from Revolutionary Road in class the other day. There was a line where Frank’s character (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) references two friends who are waiting outside: Shep and Milly. But who the hell are these people! The teacher worked with the students to detail up those two names, getting them to substitute someone in their real life for Shep and Milly. And it worked. All of a sudden these two names that the actor had previously rushed over, came to life and had meaning.
This is one of the keys to great acting! We have to do the work in order to bring people, places, events and objects to life, when in reality – they are completely imaginary, and may mean nothing to us. Whether it’s endowing a prop, or falling in love with your scene partner, it is imperative to connect with the given circumstances of any scene.
Acting teachers have been trying to solve this since Stanislavsky first formulated his acting method. For some teachers like Ivana Chubbuck the solve is substitution. For others like Stella Adler and Declan Donnellan it is the imagination, and finding ways to connect with the reality of the script. Whichever way you go, nothing can be rushed over and ignored. You must connect truthfully to your given circumstances and that is the key to an authentic and compelling performance.
For more on Given Circumstances.
Emotion comes up more than anything else when actors reach out to me. How do I connect with emotion? How do I cry? How can I be more emotional? And the funniest thing is that most of the major acting methodologies put little to no emphasis on emotion. Emotion is the by-product of going after what you want in the scene.
Whilst we want to be open to our emotions, they are not the objective. There are countless examples of people experiencing tragedy and feeling completely numb, or pragmatic, or angry. Our emotions are unpredictable, and they should be that way in our acting. When we focus on achieving certain emotions we become self indulgent, and the story is lost.
The solution is to spend your time discovering the writers intention. If you are working with a director or other actors, work with them. Investigate the scene and why it is part of the story. Once you discover that and can work out what you want in the scene and why you continue to be there, you will be able to play the scene truthfully.
If you understand the scene and relax enough – the feelings will come.
We’ve all met actors who hate theatre because it’s not “real.” They feel they have to project, or use stagecraft and they are all about “realism” and being “truthful”. Well, first of all let me tell you that there is no medium that allows an actor to work without craft. Film and TV acting relies heavily on blocking, hitting marks, and having appropriate eye lines – just to name a few. What I find even more funny, is when actors hate theatre because it feels fake. In modern filmmaking, you are so often in big studios, working with green screens, and fake eyelines – that you often have even less to work with, than in theatre. The imagination has once again come to the forefront of acting!
So yes, technical issues will always be part of your work as an actor. The question then is; how do you marry technical proficiency, will being truthful? Practice.
Stage craft or screen craft, comes with time. The only way you can make hitting your mark feel natural is to practice hitting your marks. The same is true for finding your thoughts on the fourth wall in theatre. These things feel unnatural. And just getting angry at that won’t help.
In all the mediums, if you can’t be seen or heard then being real won’t count for anything. If you do the greatest acting ever and are out of focus you won’t make the edit. If you aren’t heard on stage, your tears won’t mitigate the annoyance of the audience who can’t hear the story!
Understand the technical aspects of the medium you are working with and then practice them. Acting is a craft as much as it is an art.
One of the biggest challenges for actors is to be believable and truthful. In fact, for most actors this is all that they are after. And it is a noble goal.
For any story to come to life, it must be believable, we must “hold a mirror up to nature”, and audiences are very good at seeing fakes. The answer is multifaceted…
First of all you need to relax. And yes nothing is more relaxing than someone just telling you to relax. But if you are comfortable and relaxed, for the most part, that solves the problem. Most actors, even early career actors, innately know when they are faking it. The problem is fear causes us to not commit, and to do weird stuff. The best way to find this relaxation is once again practice. The more you work on scenes and monologues the better you get. Especially if you can get on stage or screen and work in some environments that push you outside your comfort zone.
Second, you have to truly understand the world you’re in. Once again this comes back to that relationship you have with the writer. Being able to understand and interpret the writer’s intention is paramount to your success as an actor. If you can understand that intention, and connect with the given circumstances of the scene, you will be well on your way.
Finally, you have to let go of your ego. You could be relaxed, and have total understanding of the scene, but still be like a pantomime actor. “Big acting” or “fake acting” often comes from trying to impress an audience, or compensate for a lack of preparation. The key to believable acting is connection with your scene partner (or the audience in rare cases like a Shakespearean soliloquy). If you can let go of the desire to be liked and adored, and instead focus on the reality of the moment – your acting will be believable. We know what it is to be human, because we are one. All we have to do is understand the story, relax, and let go of trying to do anything other than connect with the other actor’s.
Acting is hard. And these are just a few of the challenges we face as actors. But as you can see from this article there is hope. And mostly it comes back to two thing: practice, and understanding scripts. The issue is it’s tricky for actors to practice, especially when you aren’t working, or even auditioning. It can also be hard to find motivation to read more plays, and break down scenes. This is why created our online scene club. It’s a place to work on scenes and monologues every month. You also get access to over 2500 plays, and many that you can watch (if you are particularly lazy). If you need some accountability to practice your acting, check out StageMilk Drama Club and join hundreds of likeminded actors who are getting better at their craft as each day goes by.