We’re all across what acting is, right? The Oxford dictionary tell us it’s, “the art or occupation of performing fictional roles in plays, films, or television.” Great; that sounds pretty straight forward. However, between the clarity of that statement and the definition of what makes good acting is a giant leap. That’s what we’re going to investigate today. So, what is good acting? This is perhaps one of the most subjective and debated discussion points within our industry, and, though I may even have my own colleagues here at StageMilk arguing with me, you can be sure I’m going to have a good crack at getting my definition down in this article! That being said, here’s a big fat ol’ disclaimer for you.
Disclaimer: I am a 27 year old white male Australian. I have over seven years of experience in this industry, and have worked professionally both in theatre and film. What I’m expressing here is my opinion, not fact. Different cultures all around the world will have different views of what makes for a great performance, and my experience and taste is informed by primarily Western influences.
Now, without further ado, let’s get into it.
What Is the Secret to Good Acting?
I can remember clearly my response to first seeing the final moment of The Graduate. SPOILER ALERT. Actually, the film was made in 1967. If what you read next spoils the film for you, I’m going to go ahead and say that’s on you, not me. Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross’ characters have just eloped together and are now sitting on the back seat of a yellow American bus. The camera holds on a mid shot of the two characters for over 40 seconds. Neither of them say anything, we just watch the minute changes of expression on their faces. This, in my opinion, is an example of great acting. Though they aren’t speaking, the thoughts going through their minds and the truth with which they have connected to this moment makes me, as the audience, empathise with them and wonder what is going on for them. Looking at their faces I see that these two humans are considering the consequences of what they’ve just done. They’re wondering who the hell the person truly is who is sitting next to them. They’re wondering what they will do next. Looking at these characters, I feel joy and terror for them, and I wonder what it would be like to be in their shoes.
With this example in mind, let me propose a simple definition for good acting: Good acting is a performance which makes the audience think and feel.
Though simple, I believe this definition is true and useful for us as actors, because its primary focus is on the audience and not on ourselves. Great actors and great performances are in service of someone or something other than the actor themselves. They are in service of the story, the audience, the character.
Now, that’s all well and good to say, but how do we actually do that? How do we magically make an audience feel, think, (or even do) something through their screen or from the stage? There are several factors to consider. Practically, it breaks down into two main areas:
- The Performance
- The Role
‘The Performance’ relates to everything the audience sees, intuits or experiences through your acting. ‘The Role’ relates to the practical aspect of the profession, from understanding your function as part of a production to the simply mundanity of being able to repeat a performance night after night. It’s the behind the scenes aspect of acting. Both of these factors working in harmony allow for the audience to think and feel. Together they make for great acting.
Let’s start with the stuff we love to geek out over. Let’s talk about the work the individual actor needs to do in order to give a memorable performance. Ask any of your actor friends for what makes for a good performance and you’ll get a thousand buzz words like, “Bold choices”, “Truthful”, “Method”, “Free” etc. All of these words are relevant, but let’s keep it (relatively) simple, and break it down into three areas:
There’s some ground to cover in those three little words; let me unpack. For each of these sections I’ll provide you with an example of a great performance, and, to keep it simple, I’m going to look at the film version of Doubt, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley. I’d highly recommend watching the entire film if you haven’t already. If you’re yet to watch Doubt, fear not. I’ve included the relevant scenes as YouTube clips in this article for your reference.
A great actor and a great performance is a demonstration of master craftsmanship. Whilst I do believe there is value to spontaneity and impulsivity (we’ll cover that later in the ‘Truth’ section), the greatest of the great have refined their technique to near perfection. They have learnt the rules, so they can now break them. The best actors in the world work hard.
Our job is to transform. We are required to walk in another persons shoes, and those shoes don’t always fit us. Our craft, our technique, allows us to shape-shift; it allows us to physically, vocally, and intellectually emulate an existence that is different to our own.
Technique applies to all the practical elements of the work an actor does. It includes, but is not exclusive to:
Voice and Movement:
Technical mastery over ones voice and body, allowing them to make detailed choices about how the character speaks and moves.
Mastery of script and story analysis. Being able to squeeze a script for every drop of humanity it’s got requires real skill and experience, and is the duty of the great actor.
Understanding punctuation in a script. This one is arguably more applicable to plays than film scripts, though I’d always err on the side of ‘the writer is God’ when analysing any performative text. When a well written story and a great actor connect, magic is made. An actor who knows how to honour the writers intention, including their punctuation in a play can be mesmerising to watch. Punctuation allows us an insight in to the pace and tone of our character’s thought patterns. It can tell us an immense amount about who this person is if we explore the character within the writer’s structure. Tragically, many actors chose to ignore the punctuation of a script because it feels wrong and they, “know a better way to say the line”. The best actors find freedom within the structure of a script.
When we recall an event in our minds, think of a person we’ve met or seen before, or even anticipate something in the future, our minds and imaginations will provide an image of the thing to us. As actors, we need to do the work to manifest these images artificially, so they fuel and fortify our performance. Without these images, our performance can seem empty or ‘dead behind the eyes’.
All great monologues and speeches are filled with detailed and specific imagery which the actor has identified. This is a subject that is worth much investigation, and more information can be found in our article about Images: The Actor’s Hidden Power.
Just like my example from The Graduate, good acting continues even when nothing is being said aloud. The ‘inner life’ of the actor/character needs to be electric; thoughts need to be firing in their mind and they must always be in pursuit of something they want. Exciting inner life happens when there is something going on behind their eyes, because the actor has done the technical work of generating something. They have identified an objective, they understand the characters deepest need, they know what the character’s secret is.
Whilst this area does relate to the ‘truth’ of a performance, it’s worth mentioning here for it does require practical and technical work. The actor actually needs to put pen to paper and search within themselves and the scripts to identify what makes this human being tick.
Actions and Tactics:
With the inner fire of the character ignited, what are the choices the character can make to achieve their objective? How can they play the game of life and win, with the repertoire and skill sets that they have acquired in their life? There are always a myriad of choices an actor can make in any given moment in a scene. These choices aren’t necessarily right or wrong, rather there are choices which are ‘more right’ that the others. Great actors can make the greatest choices: choices we would never have thought possible.
Let’s look at an example of great acting with technical mastery. This is Father Brendan Flynn’s sermon on “Gossip”, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman starring:
Let’s look at an example of great acting with technical mastery. This is Father Brendan Flynn’s sermon on “gossip”, with Phillip Seymour Hoffman starring: Doubt: Gossip.
Let’s also look at this scene in conjunction with the text from John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay. Here’s the last section of the speech:
Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. “Did you gut the pillow with the knife?” he says.”Yes, Father.” “And what was the result?” “Feathers,” she said. “Feathers?” he repeated. “Feathers everywhere, Father!” “Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out on the wind!” “Well,” she said, “it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.” ”And that,” said Father O’Rourke, “is gossip!”
Let’s identify the ways in which Hoffman is demonstrating the superiority of his craft.
Hoffman has complete control over his voice. He is able to use his voice with such detail and specificity that he can speak to the large audience in the church as intimately as though he was speaking to a single person. He knows and trusts that he can whisper or speak quietly to give strength to moments, and then he can increase his volume in other moments. Notice the ‘!’ at the very end of the above passage. Hoffman does not simply shout the word ‘gossip’, but rather he utilises the consonants of the word to give it power.
Analysis of this script, its given circumstances and its subtext is crucial to its performance. This is not simply a sermon about the concept and consequences of gossip in a religious setting. It’s a direct and deliberate attack on the consciences of the two other characters present in the scene. Understanding this fact gives Hoffman’s performance another layer of detail which makes it fascinating for us to watch.
Try the following exercise for me:
- Read the passage aloud
- Now, go back and read the passage again in your head, but identify each mark of punctuation in the script.
- Read the passage aloud once more, but now pay deliberate and even exaggerated attention to each mark of punctuation in the script.
Did you notice a difference? Did you notice that the first time round you skimmed over the punctuation at all? Hoffman in this scene pays due respect to the intended punctuation, (trust me when you’re working with J.P. Shanley this is essential). However, paying respect to the punctuation does not inhibit his performance; rather it enhances it. The punctuation in the script and its manifestation in performance as pauses, breaks, inflection and exclamation gives the appropriate weight and pace, necessary for the message and story to land with the other characters and the audience.
With the medium of film, we as the audience have the luxury of being shown a depiction of the image of the feathers being carried from the rooftop by the wind. However, these images (scenes, faces, characters etc) are all clear in Hoffman’s mind as he speaks. I can say that with confidence, because when he speaks, I picture the scenes in my mind. If he sees it, I see it. It’s as simple as that.
Inner Life and Objectives:
On the surface, the simplistic version of the given circumstances of this scene are “a father gives a sermon to people in a church”. However, Hoffman’s understanding and use of subtext and his inner life make this scene so much more. Hoffman needs to have made a decision about what his objective is, who is he targeting with this sermon, and how does he want them to feel, what does he want them to do? He also needs to know for himself and have made a choice about the innocence or guilt of Father Flynn, and whether or not he has committed the crime he has been accused of. That decision will drastically impact and energise his inner life; if he has been falsely accused, the rage and defensiveness which would arise would be ferocious. If he is indeed guilty, the turmoil his character would be experiencing would be paramount.
NB: The great actors don’t ‘judge’ their characters. What Father Flynn has been accused of is abhorrent and damnable, but Hoffman must empathise with, not excuse the behaviour of, but empathise with the character to be able to play him.
If a someone wrote a play about you, and then they asked an actor to play the role of you, how much work do you think would be required for that actor to give a good performance? What understanding of your life would they need to truly portray you, not just give an impression or imitation of you? Now, perhaps the answer to this question directly relates to our sense of self importance, but I feel we can all safely say it would be no small feat to play you. A simple scene on the page between you and a close relative is far more complex than the words which are spoken between you. Present in that conversation is every moment of connection, all the laughter, tears, love, and hate the two of you have experienced, and the situation you are in determine which part of your relationship will be most present.
It’s the actor’s job then, to be a detective of humanity. Endless curiosity is required by actor to truly do the character justice in their performance. This curiosity I like to call ‘Backstory’. Backstory is all the work and digging done by the actor to build the human they are playing. This requires detailed script analysis and powerful and specific imaginative thinking. Let’s go into more detail:
The great actor will have understood the history of the character. Where did they grow up? What was their relationship to their parents or guardians like? What are they afraid of? When did they first experience love or lust? How well do they sleep? Do they smoke cigarettes? If yes, why? if no, why? You get the gist. No amount of questions can amount to the detail required to make a human life, but it’s our job to ask and answer as many of them as possible. Matthew McConaughey is said to have written 450 (!!) pages in a journal, detailing the character Rust he played in True Detective. Now, whether this degree of detail is required, or if there is a simpler approach is up to the individual actor, but the history of the character must not be ignored.
It’s highly likely that the characters we play will have a very different experience of life to the one we have had. They may be in a different part of the world to us, with a different climate, culture and way of doing things. We need to understand all the references the character has access to that we do not.
This element is perhaps clearest to us when we are separated from the story by time. Hamlet for example (written in 1609 by William Shakespeare, set in Elsinore, Denmark) has had a completely different life to me. It’s my job to understand as much about the world Hamlet would have lived in as possible in order for my imagination to be alive when I’m on the stage playing the role.
This aspect of the performance can be summed up by phrases like ‘Given Circumstances’, but I’d argue that the truly great performances go a step further than the who/what/when/where/why of the character. They give a performance inspired by the images, art and experiences the character has been exposed to, and that will all fortify the performance and allow for characteristics to emerge unconsciously for the actor.
For this example I want to look at Meryl Streep’s character Sister Aloysius in isolation. Have a watch of this scene: Doubt: Discipline.
Also take a look at the following three images:
Notice how much Streep’s performance is influenced by historical references and images like the above depictions of nuns. It effects her physicality: manifesting as downward penitent glances to the floor. However, Sister Aloysius is not only a nun, but she’s a nun in Boston. Her mannerisms and personality are so heavily influenced by these two factors. Her religious devotion and her Boston upbringing collide wonderfully and comically in this scene. Streep’s performance in this scene in particular features all the different references and elements of Sister Aloysius’ life pulling her in different directions. Streep must understand in great detail what a life of religious devotion required from her. She must understand the phrases, temperament and attitudes of those who lived in Boston in the 60s. She must understand what was expected from her as a woman during this time. All of this will manifest as the wonderful tension of this scene. Sister Aloysius is a nun who must respect the hierarchy of the parish and the higher ‘rank’ of Father Flynn. She also must be conscious of the gender dynamic between the two of them. She must also keep secret her current suspicions about Father Flynn and what he is accused of. She is a person being pulled in many different directions all at once, and Streep as the actor must understand all these influences and references of life for Sister Aloysius to be able to play the scene.
The idea of finding truth in a role (making the performance ‘real’ or life-like) is a subject of great mystery and debate. The whole conversation around ‘method acting’ is due to this conundrum. Acting, by definition, is about performing fiction. There’s a whole lot of unreal in that task. We, as actors, can get really caught up in this idea of performing truthfully and pursuing reality to a fault. This being said, there’s no denying that the greatest performances are incredibly life-like. They are full of life; so full of life one might even say that they are larger than life. The great actors pursue the acting choices which are as full of life as possible, rather than just being ‘life-like’ or ‘real’. It is our job to present the wide range of experiences, emotions and actions humans are capable of.
The key to performative truth is about sacrifice. The best actors and the best performances are given when the actor is willing to sacrifice or reveal something of their innate humanity, rather than “show” the audience an idea of what the character is going through. It is so important for us as actors to not only become detectives of the characters we play, but also of ourselves. To dig into our own lives and experiences to understand how we function, to understand what we can give of ourselves safely to a role in order to fuel it with life.
This is a really challenging element of the craft where, especially when it comes to theatre, there is the practical requirement to be able to repeat a scene many times. No matter how high stakes, night after night, we must be able to do the scene and then jump from scene to scene regardless of the given circumstances. We must know what is required from us to tap into a scene and then drop out of it to enter the next scene.
Great acting happens when the actors are in pursuit of what is most true. When they do that, “emotional truth” emerges in their performance; the kind of emotional release that occurs when detailed work has been done on the character, not broad brush strokes of emotion like ‘sadness’ or anger’.
This is the area of the work where the most self-care is required! We’ll go into that more in ‘The Role’ section of this article.
One of the most incredible examples of truth and sacrifice in a performance is our third example from doubt, in the scene between Viola Davis and Meryl Streep. Have a watch: Doubt: Meryl Streep and Viola Davis.
Davis’ performance is a masterclass in truthful acting. At any given moment we as the audience expect her to react in a way we can comprehend, and yet she provides us with choices us which increase our understanding of the capacity of human beings. When confronted by the information that “Father Flynn may have made advances on your son”, we expect her to immediately react with a clear emotion like anger or outrage or despair, yet she provides us with something much deeper. With her understanding of the story plus her investigation of her character she is two thirds of the way there, but it is that final addition, her sacrifice of her own experience, her own understanding of what humans are capable of, which allows for the truth in this performance.
An actor is a part of a polyphonic medium. “Why, oh why,” I hear you ask, “Would you use such a fancy phrase?!” I hear you. It sounds fancy as anything and when someone much more clever than me first told me, I thought it was pretty fancy too, so I decided to steal it. Here’s the definition:
polyphonic /pɒlɪˈfɒnɪk/ adjective
- Producing or involving many sounds or voices: “a 64-voice polyphonic sound module”
- MUSIC (especially of vocal music) in two or more parts each having a melody of its own; contrapuntal. “polyphonic choral music”
We are not involved in an individualistic medium. We’re a part of a team of people of all different skills and backgrounds all working together to tell a story. This is essential to remember, and is an essential aspect of great acting. We all play a ‘role’ both on stage, on screen, and off. We’re a part of an ensemble, and it’s our job to serve the story. Let me break this down into a few areas to better understand how influential this is in making a great performance.
2. YOUR FUNCTION
You, as the actor on a film set or in a theatre have a job to do, just as every character in every story has a practical and identifiable function to play. This is the most tangible, (and potentiall least exciting) aspect of the job. But it is oh-so important to remember.
As the actor, it’s your job to develop a technical mastery of the medium you are working in. All the greatest performances are enabled by experienced actors who understand the mechanics of how we tell stories. These great performers understand who’s who on set and what their jobs are. They understand lighting and sound, they understand camera angles and how to adjust their performance accordingly. They are able to ask the right questions and do what they need to do to get the job done. They have a good working relationship and method of communication with the director so that they are on the same page, and the performance aligns with the directors vision. They work intricately with voice and accent coaches to make sure they are on point. They discuss in detail with the writer their intention behind the creation of each line. It’s the responsibility of the actor to take charge of these conversations and gather the information necessary for success. We have a job to do, and the best performances are made by those who are the best at their job.
Similarly, each character has a function within their story. Ignoring or failing to identify this function is detrimental to the end result. You might be giving the performance of your lifetime, but if you have failed to identify the simple element of why your character is being seen in the story, you may end up being out of place in the final product. Identifying, at the very least, whether the character is the protagonist, adversary, enabler, love interest etc in the story is crucial. The best actors serve the story, otherwise the story will not serve them.
Now you may think, “isn’t that downplaying the importance of my role?” and that’s a fair question. I believe the answer is no. The more you understand your function and the structure with which you operate within, the more freedom you will find within it. The best performances find freedom in structure
Regardless of how many people are in a scene at once, there is a line of connection between them. This is true even if only one person is on stage or on screen: the only line of connection is between them and the audience. This is important to note, because in that line of connection is an energy and electricity which is thrilling for the audience to watch.
This line of connection has been called many things: the term I am most familiar with is ‘the golden coil’, first coined by Konstantin Stanislavsky. Watching a relationship between two characters with this electric connection is thrilling for us, and will leave the audience commenting on the strength of each individual performance. It’s tragic to see a brilliant actor who has placed all their focus on themselves and their own character, rather than thinking about the relationship their character has with others, and the connection they have with the audience.
Particular attention needs to be paid in rehearsals to generate this connection with the other actors in the ensemble. The story is only as great as the sum of its parts and a brilliant performance in a mediocre project is seldom remembered. “The rising tide raises all ships”.
There are some simple ways to generate this ‘golden coil’ between you and another actor. The most proven and most powerful comes down to the strength and specificity of your listening. As Stella Adler would say, “listen with your blood”. In another character’s words, expressions, gestures, and silences are a wealth of information. Training yourself to actively listen to the other characters in the scene will free you for your self consciousness and allow you to get out of your own head.
The great actors know they are part of a story with other characters, and they know that the strength of their performance is directly related to the generosity of connection and attention they give out to those around them.
As I mentioned earlier, the great actors are in pursuit of truth. The truth of life can be difficult to handle, even for the strongest of us. This means that there is an inherent risk in investigating, empathising with, emulating and performing real life. A story, some would argue, is “life with the boring bits cut out”. These “not boring” parts of life are often dramatic, traumatic and dangerous, and acting these high stakes scenarios requires serious discipline and self awareness in order to keep yourself safe and sane in the process.
We have lost one of the actors mentioned in this article already, Phillip Seymore Hoffman, and he is undeniably one of the best we’ve had. I cannot, therefore say that the ability to sustain and care for ones-self is crucial for good performance, but boy I should hope that we’re striving to make it that way. Too many actors and performers delve too deep without taking the proper precautions to look after themselves. Acting is performing fiction, folks. And it will never be as important as the life and well being of the performers themselves, nor should it be.
Consider what you need to do to sustain yourself, to manage your energy and to keep yourself safe within a performance. Perhaps the role requires you to investigate the dark parts of humanity’s capacity and/or yourself. If you know that a role is going to challenge you in that way, take the necessary measures to look after yourself. All the greatest actors do, and if they don’t they should. Check out our article on How to De-role, if you want more information about this.
See? I told you that defining ‘good acting’ was no simple matter. We had to go deep, and I hope you enjoyed the ride. We broke good acting down into two main areas: The Performance and The Role.
Great acting happens when the actor works on all the performative elements of her job rigorously and with great detail. She is a master of her craft and all the elements within her technique, such as her voice, physical capabilities, script analysis, imagery, and inner life. She’s gone into the necessary detail to bring life to the backstory of her character, exploring her character’s history and the references they’ve been exposed too. Finally, she uses these tools to support her quest of performing the ‘truth’ of the role. Great acting happens when we see human life in all its beauty and flaws exposed to us on a stage or on a screen.
The great actor, once the camera is cut or the curtain has come down, now needs to turn their attention to the rest of their job. They are part of a team of people, and their excellent performance is enhanced by the multitude of professionals working around them. They are generous to the other actors around them, for the connection between them will be electrifying for the audience to witness. Finally, the great actor knows that they need to give the same performance tomorrow night, or re-shoot yesterday’s traumatic scene tomorrow. The great actor knows how to look after themselves so they can do the story justice, and give the audience the performance they’ve paid good money to see.