Many young actors are taught to play “tactics,” an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end. The word brings up images of generals sitting around a war room, strategically planning an attack on the enemy. And that’s exactly how most actors approach the “playing of an action.”
But we prefer to call actions or objectives “doings.” What’s the difference? With “doing,” you’re not pretending or faking something, you really do it, hence the name. This small tweak in approach will lead to great acting that is truly alive.
For example, you’re playing a character named Sally who just found out she’s failing math class. She needs to get the teacher to change her grade so as to not disappoint her parents. All too often, we’ll see the actor make a sad facial expression and sad sounds with her voice to make it seem like she is, in fact, sad about the grade. This is called indicating and it’s nothing more than a lie.
To really grip the audience and hit them where they live, the actor instead needs to actually experience and feel what the character is experiencing and feeling. She needs to be devastated. She needs to beg the actor playing her teacher, not just have her character beg another character. It’s a simple concept, but it’s not as easy to achieve.
Have you ever seen an actor onstage who is supposed to be hungry and eating but only pretends to eat, not actually putting the food in his or her mouth for fear of the food getting in the way of the audience appreciating the clever way he or she is delivering lines? If you’re supposed to be hungry and eating cereal, eat the cereal. Really do what you are doing.
How? Here’s an example from life that may help illustrate the point.
You come home from school and your sister is standing by the sink, crying. You rush over and hug her but she pushes you away and shouts, “Don’t!” What do you do next? Do you run right back and hug her again in the same way? Of course not. You’re a human being and you would adjust to the information you just received from her response. Maybe you remain silent for a moment. Maybe you gently whisper, “What happened today?” The only person who would rush right back over and throw their arms around her in the very same way would be the actor who had carefully and strategically rehearsed their “tactic.”
While you must always know what you’re doing or what your objective is, the how to do it is supplied by the other person. You must learn how to actually receive what the other actor is giving and then authentically respond to that behavior, moment by moment.
This takes a lot of practice and is only truly achieved through training with others. It requires taking risks and being willing to explore freely with your mind, body, and spirit. The objective must be accomplished with all of your behavior—the speaking of the words, your physical and emotional behavior, the way you listen and receive what the other actors are giving you.
It’s invigorating stuff and will transform the quality of your acting in the most brilliant way, making you what we call a “true actor.”