The Key to Great Acting: Doing

When was the last time you walked into an office and saw four people standing shoulder to shoulder doing nothing in particular? As in just awkwardly standing there? In the middle of the work day?

I suppose the answer to that is never.

That was the certain scene I had to wrestle with today in rehearsal as four of my actors suddenly became awkwardly flat-footed, not really knowing what to do. In other words, it looked like a third grade drama.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a third grade drama, if you are in third grade. Let’s break this apart a little bit. We’ve all seen adorable little kids in a school or church play stand awkwardly waiting for the right moment to say their lines. At that level, kids tend to be vessels for dialogue, not vibrant actors on the stage. And that is completely fine, actually it’s very entertaining. We love seeing the lonely giraffe tilt his head toward his teacher as she nods for him that it is the right time for him to say his line. It’s great fun.

But when the third grade mentality works itself into a more serious dramatic piece, one is forced to admit that there are some clear distinctions between good and bad acting.

It all starts with doing. Doing leads to believability. When an office worker is conversing with a colleague, and he or she is jotting notes, shuffling papers, sipping coffee, tapping her desk with a pencil, it suddenly becomes real.

Believable action defines roles. It sharpens characters. It brings the audience into the story. It makes the audience immerse themselves in the surrounding because it feels right. It feels familiar.

Actors can then play off of one another. One passes the other a sheet a paper, forcing the second actor to do something with it, to engage with the object, thus creating a more realistic scene.

I have great young actors to work with, no doubt about that. But every once in a while they find themselves flatfooted in an office, shoulder to shoulder, awkwardly looking into the audience wondering what in the world that they are doing in the lights.

This is where I step in and remind them to ‘do’. It’s the work of actors.

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What is acting?

Acting coach Howard Fine has said the following:

“Actors wear costumes, people wear clothes.”

Here are a few things I think it means:

1. If you are wearing a costume, you are a bad actor. (unless you’ve been cast in the role of “Tree” during the George Washington Cherry Tree play.)

2. Acting is about being real. Committing yourself to a role by personalizing it, understanding what part of you is already in this character.

3. Acting is about being a person – a real person – 100% of the time. A mother in the kitchen cooking breakfast for her family doesn’t wear a costume. She wears an apron. A mechanic working under the hood of sports car doesn’t wear a costume; he wears overalls or a uniform. The point is, every (human) character is a real person and needs to be treated as one.

4. Good acting transcends acting. Good acting is, in fact, not acting at all. It expresses human experience in authentic ways. It makes no difference if an audience is watching a performance or not. The actor represents a real human being in a real life situation. It is no place for costume jewelry.

Is it any wonder why acting is so difficult?