Friday, May 18, 2012

The Basics of Acting Technique: Part Three - Why Train?

Now that I've gotten your heads spinning about acting techniques with the last two blogs (Part One and Part Two), let's take a step back for a moment to discuss some questions that are popping up.

I've written this post in response to a few recent comments - as well as a host of conversations I've been party to that basically boil down to a need for greater understanding as to the importance of training for actors. 

There is always evidence out there that it is possible to be a good actor without stepping foot into a classroom.  We tend to put these "natural talents" up on pedestals.  I remember that I used to make an argument for my laziness, which was based on the great performances exhibited by Ryan Gosling.  He's the ultimate on-the-job actor.  And he's just so wonderful - most of the time.  There's the first problem.  Talented as he is, he's pretty hit-and-miss.  And then there's the second problem, which I'll credit to David Gideon:

There is no such thing as a film performance.

Get it out of your head right now.  It doesn't exist.  Film is an editor's medium.  The actors do take after take after take to get the right shots, and then somebody strings them together.  I know that may sound obvious - and I'm not suggesting that there is no skill involved in film acting (because there is) -  but it is no great test of an actor to create a story fifteen seconds at a time. 

But let me address the real concern.  Is it possible to be a good actor without training?  Absolutely.  But how much better might you be if you learned how to overcome some of the personal habits that get in the way of your performances?  The training of an actor is not about being a good actor.  It's about building upon the skills that you already possess.  So, if you're 100% satisfied with your work and would rather not grow, then there is no reason to train.

That said, let me address another question that has come up.  Nobody should ever approach training as a new way of acting.  You can't paint by number.  You have to build your instrument the same way you would build your body at a gym.  If you spend an hour a day at the gym for a month, then it's likely that you will be able to carry your suitcase to the airport with much more ease.  If you build your actor's instrument, then you will be able to give into your work with much more ease onstage.

Another question that tends to come up when I talk to actors about technique is: "If everything is working and I'm free and open and in the moment, then I shouldn't need to go to technique, right?"  Absolutely.

But how do you know if you're free and open and in the moment?  Let's say that the very next moment, something happens and you close off - how do you address it?  Furthermore, how do you address it successfully eight times a week?  Because if you cross your fingers and hope for the best, you'll get it - half of the time.  So, it's my suggestion that you have a plan or plan to fail.

Lee Strasberg used to say, "You don't take an aspirin if you don't have a headache, but you keep it in the medicine cabinet just in case."  And that is how you should treat yourself as an artist - in this case, your acting technique is the aspirin.  If you wait until you have the job to build your artistic work in place, it's too late.

There are 640 muscles in the human body.  Every acting teacher talks about relaxation as the means towards good work.  To get in touch with 640 muscles on top of creative and situational work, talking and listening, keeping a stage energy, and telling a story is a HUGE UNDERTAKING. 

If you were a runner, preparing to run a marathon, you'd train up to it.  If you were a guitarist, trying to win an axe-contest, you'd learn some scales and practice up to it.  If you were a dancer, trying to make it into Swan Lake at Lincoln Center, you'd spend countless hours in classes.  And yet actors think they can learn on the job.  It's only slightly less ridiculous than a doctor, thinking he can learn the human anatomy as he goes.

We are fortunate.  There is a wealth of understanding that is already out there.  We don't have to find it ourselves.  Looking at acting on Broadway, it seems that all of the great insights from the behaviorists and geniuses like Constantin Stanislavski, Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman, Sandy Meisner, Uta Hagen, Stella Adler, etc. have gone by the wayside.  The popular opinion has gone back to the idea that talent is key.  And it's a really good start. 

But just as there is a whole lot more to medicine than having a generous heart, there is a whole lot more to acting than sensitivity. 

Stay tuned for the next two parts of this series, where we will discuss Viewpoints, Suzuki, Michael Chekhov, Uta Hagen, Larry Moss, and Atlantic Acting School.

This is the point where you should share your thoughts on the subject.  I'm not kidding.  Leave a comment.  Now.

To read other parts of this series, click here: Part One | Part Two


  1. Thanks for comparing training as an actor to training as an athlete! When you put it in those terms it makes so much sense.

    I've run into the problem where I take a class in say, auditioning for the camera, but then I work on a directing project for a month, so I'm not able to immediately apply the great new tools I've learned, and they sort of seep away. I've been trying to wait to take a class until I have a project lined up, then take something that will directly aid that project. That way I learn on multiple levels, and it sticks more for next time.

  2. Very good points about the importance of training; perhaps acting would generate more respect from the wider community if it weren't considered something that you can just do "off the cuff"...!

    1. Hmmm...maybe. But most art - especially in this day and age - suffers the same problem, with the advent of the world wide web and the ability that gives us all to share. I've been DYING for this film to come out for release, called PRESS PAUSE PLAY. It's about this very theme. You should check it out! I am. I was just checking for the snippets and interviews and found the full movie. So, that's what I'm watching right now! :O)

  3. I love this post. In addition to all of the necessary aspects as listed above, I often tell my students that class is one of the only places an actor can count on to be an artistic home - a place that is process driven rather than result driven.

    Looking forward to the next post!

    1. I loved this post as well. And these people that evidently did it on their own are evidently all mozarts!!!! I know gosling, christian bale and bill nigh(spelling sorry) never had any coaching and they never had a mentor and of course that mentor was not sufficently trained in voice, movement ,speech script analysis etc. The foundation of training is paramount but as you state ongoing training to work and honing your skills is essential.


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