Learning how to act: my personal journey in discovering my acting process
Many perceive the work of an actor as a lot of fun and that it is easy as saying the alphabet. After all, who among us have not acted at one point in our lives? Haven’t we put up an act when faced with daunting situations in our lives? Haven’t we said lines that weren’t really part our true personality?
All of us have acted one part or another at different times in our lives. But to be an actor is not just about putting up an act.
What many people do not understand is the fact that acting is just like any other job –you have to put a lot of work in it to perfect it. It is not just a talent you have. It’s a skill that must be developed over time and practice. In theater and in acting, it is true that practice makes perfect.
With this thought, it necessarily follows that a real actor must continue to learn how to act and make it as natural as it possibly can. It is thus very useful that many books have been written about how one can best capture the art of acting and how one is able to play a role and not just merely act it. I have used these books in my own personal journey in discovering my very own acting process. And I must admit that doing so has made my work, and my life, as an actor even more meaningful.
Let us first take, for instance, the book written by the Members of the Atlantic Theater Company called A Practical Handbook for the Actor.
In sum, this book outlines and explains the Practical Aesthetics Technique where emotions are explored through the use of the imagination and the pursuit of a physical action. Practical Aesthetics is an acting technique developed by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet. The book is co-written by Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeleine Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Robert Previto and Scott Zigler. It is based upon a series of workshops by acting coach David Mamet.
According to this book, Bruder, et. al. postulate that “acting, like carpentry is a craft with a definite set of skills and tools” (Bruder, et. al., 1986). The book mainly aims to teach up and coming actors like me to find the truth in every scene they are to perform and to be able to identify the specific actions in the production and why they are doing them.
I must say that I agree with the book when it said that the process of an actor begins before any acting is offered. To do this, I agree that that actors like me must learn to always keep themselves in a state of optimal conditioning. Doing this will allow us to immediately connect to any character that are assigned to us to portray as well as to discover the essence of character. To move in this direction, I start evaluating and considering all given circumstances of the character. I try to familiarize myself with the character or role I am to play as well as make every effort to explore their world. In addition, I try to see any parallelisms between the role I play and the real me.
I’ve learned that this is an important aspect in my acting process since it will allow me to understand where my character is coming from or why they might tend to feel a certain way. Personalizing a role has become an integral part of my job as an actor. I believe this is the only way where one actor can bring a particular character to life.
Another aspect that must be highlighted in carrying out the tasks of an actor is memorization. Without a doubt, memorizing the lines –knowing what to say and when to say it—is an integral part of being an actor.
As noted in the book, an actor can learn much about the play and the role in the process of memorization. As we learn to memorize the words out of context, the book noted, we realize the importance of giving each and every word the attention and focus it deserves. The reason by which the character must say those lines should also be sought (Bruder, et. al., 1986).
I also have learned that memorization is much more than learning the lines. It is also learning the perfect delivery of each line of the character. This is where vocal training comes into play. Delivering your lines in a clear, crisp and understandable manner is a very important facet in the life of an actor.
Just like other actors who have read and experienced the book A Practical Handbook for the Actor, I have learned that the voice is a system, with layers of muscles, bones, tissues, and fibers that must be maintained in performance shape if expected to respond on command. My vocal chords are actually the way by which my characters are able to speak what they want. With this realization comes the decision to include a basic vocal workout into my daily routine so that each word that I say on behalf of the character I play comes through in the way it should.
As I earlier noted, timing is just as important as learning the words to say. To get into character, an actor must learn to always know what the character needs and wants and why they are inclined to say a particular line at a particular time. To be able to do this, I have learned the importance of reading through the script over and over and over again. As noted in the book A Practical Handbook for the Actor a script and character analysis requires sharp and thorough thinking skills and insight.
As much as possible, I try to go over the script quite a number of times and try to assess if I was able to get the whole picture correctly. I try to make notes of how I understand each emotion being felt by the character and try to see if the same analysis will hold true the next time I read through the script. I aptly call this text analysis whereby I assess if I have covered everything I need to cover in terms of knowing my character and his lines. I believe this is very helpful in getting to know my character in a deeper level.
I believe that only when an actor knows his character in a deep and meaningful level can an actor will be able to react naturally in all situations –scripted or otherwise. I agree with the book when it noted that text analysis is the skeleton of the character. It provides the actor some baseline information on which reviews can be made to hone a certain technique. This process also helps me stay on the objectives at hand and allows me to make use of various tactical ranges.
In trying to approach acting, I have tried to remember the words of the famous Konstatin Stanislavski when he said that one should always approach a role as directly as possible and see if it lives. He noted that if the role and the actor has a connection, then there would be no point in applying a certain technique towards acting. But, as an actor, I also know that this does not happen often. Hence, learning a certain technique towards improving one’s craft is very important.
Many actors today admit that Stanislavski’s System is a complex method used to produce realistic characters. When using the Stanislavski’s System, an actor is required to deeply analyze his or her character’s motivations. The actor must learn to discover the character’s objective in each scene and the so-called super objective for the entire play. To do this, I have learned to also apply Stanislavski’s “magic if” where an actor is able to ask questions about their characters and themselves such as “what if I were also in the same situation?” How would I act then? This thinking gives me a deeper understanding of the actions of my characters as well as an insight of what is going through in his mind.
One other important aspect that I find interesting in the Stanislavski’s System is his focus on the Method of Physical Action. I find this interesting because he placed as much emphasis on the physical aspect of acting as he does on the emotional part. Many actors, including yours truly, have this thought running in our heads that emotions form the better part of how acting should be. But Stanislavski says otherwise. He notes that physical action is just as important as the emotional aspect of a scene.
According to Stanislavski, the Method of Physical Action has brought him to a complete dealing with the instrument of the actor. But what exactly is this so-called Method of Physical Action?
The Method of Physical Action is said to be based on the idea that emotional life is a kind of two-way street and that the only thing an actor will ever have control of in his life as regards himself is his body, nothing more. There is never a direct line to emotions in performance, only to the body. Quite simply, the body must be used to convey the emotions. Stanislavki stressed on the need for the actor and the director to work hard in using the actor’s body –the body being the primary material of creation. He added that the purpose of rehearsal is how to come to physical actions that affect the actor and bring life to the scene at the same time.
In fine, Stanislavski noted that the art of performance cannot be learned from literature alone but also from action; from performance and not just mere observation. As a result, I have learned to be more conscious of my physical action in converying emotions to the audience. After all, an audience will not necessarily feel my sadness unless I am able to phyiscally convey it to them by means of tears and a sad facial expression, among others.
Another important thing I have learned in my journey to discover my personal acting process is the idea or concept of growth. I realized that an actor, just like anyone else, must continue to grow in each and every role that he plays. As noted in the same book, an actor must learn how to embrace the importance of the never-ending process of growth. The journey of acquiring additional knowledge, filling and refilling the artistic tank, humbling oneself to a point that permits an explosion of growth or even one good “Ah Ha” moment is not only important, but also essential to one’s life as an actor and as a person (Bruder, et. al., 1986).
As an actor I must continually grow and always be on the look out to better my craft. To do this, I must learn to immerse myself in a creative environment –one that will complement the skill and talent that I have as an actor. I now understand the importance of being in a group where I can let my creativity flow free and at the same time, learn from the people I am with. It has been said that the day you stop learning is the day you start dying. As an actor, and as person, we must not let that happen. I have learned the importance of learning while working and working while learning.
When I say learning, I don’t just mean it to be a classroom-type of learning. I also talk about learning through observation. We must learn to observe the environment we move in, the people around us, the places we go to. I must say that I agree with Alice Ripley when she said that acting all is about experiencing life and then carrying that experience with you on stage.
It is also in this concept that I have learned to make bold choices in my life as an actor. I have learned not to be afraid of unconventional roles or ways of acting out a part. Making bold choices is, I believe, an integral part of learning. I have realized that I will grow as an actor if I can take on roles that are new to me or if I can step out of roles that are stereotyped. Doing something different each day is the spice in an actor’s life and I have learned to look forward to every opportunity in spicing up my career with bold moves.
Using presence of mind and common sense is also an important part in carrying out my acting process. As an actor, one must be ready for anything –a missed line, a prop that is not in its right place or a miscued entrance. When these things happen, common sense is the one thing that will save an actor from a disastrous scene. Coming up with adlibs or learning how to subtly put the misplaced prop in its rightful place is a skill that must also be honed as an actor. I believe that presence of mind can be assured when an actor is focused on the play at hand. I would like to call it simply as “being in the moment”.
Being in the moment is more than just being in character. It involves being aware of the entire acting environment and learning how to cope with unexpected events whenever needed. As actors, it is not rare to find ourselves in situations where we are so focused in our roles that we tend to miss some of the difficulties encountered by our co-actors. In situations like these, we must learn to salvage the scene by helping our co-actors find their groove again, so to speak.
Lastly, I have learned that I have to learn to enjoy what I do as an actor. I must enjoy the variety of roles I play –knowing full well that not everyone is able to live in a world separate from their own reality. I have learned, in my own acting process, the idea of making acting as fun as it can possibly be for me and my fellow actors. I agree when they say that acting should be fun, challenging but fun. My acting process, I realize, will change over time. It will adapt to the environment I am moving in and the roles I will be playing. But one thing should remain the same: it must always be fun. I must find a way to make it a fun learning experience each time. After all, when we enjoy what we do, the audience feels it. And the audience deserves nothing less than the best of ourselves as actors when we go up on that stage.
Bruder, M., et al. (1986). A Practical Handbook for the Actor, New York: Random House, Vintage Books.
Stanislavski, C. (1936). An Actor Prepares, New York: Routledge.