“Acting for Dummies” is the silliest name for a book on acting because acting is certainly NOT for dummies. It takes a real education to look natural in front of an audience or camera. As an acting coach, my teaching style consists of myriad techniques learned over the years from some very gifted teachers in the industry. This mix is also reflected in my reading list. Between my Kindle and my bedside table, I have perused and read far too many books to list in one article. However, I’d like to recommend six must-haves for aspiring and working actors alike.
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.”
Every scene you play as an actor, no matter how old you are, will require a deep understanding from you. You need to understand who the character is, what the context of the scene and larger story is, and countless other aspects of the scene that will make your work on and with it shine.
In our opinion, there are five steps you need to take to truly understand a scene. To help walk you through and illustrate them, let’s use the following scene scenario as a setup for the five steps that will help you work on your character and the scene: You are a 17-year-old whose mom has just returned from three months at a drug rehab facility. You’ve been living with your dad while she was getting help and even though she’s back home and clean, she is still struggling and not the fully-recovered mom you hoped to find.
Step 1: Determine the given circumstances.
The given circumstances are what you know from the text based on what the writer has told you with his or her words. Your mom has been in rehab detoxing from drugs. You have been living with your dad while she was away. Now that she is home, you’re getting used to what life is like with a recovering, struggling parent.
Step 2: Find your deep wish.
Also known as your objective, this is what your character needs to happen. In the above scene, your deep wish is to have your mother be the role model you always wanted and be a loving, protective, participating parent. You have been without this your whole life and have suffered greatly.
Step 3: Identify the opponent or obstacle.
Internal or external, this is something that gets in the way of you getting what you want. In life, we don’t always have an obstacle but in acting, there must be one to create the struggle. If it’s too easy to get what you want without a fight, there’s nothing interesting happening. The obstacle in this scene could be that your mom is in too much pain and not willing to get well right now.
Step 4: Personalize.
Now that you have your identified your deep need and discovered what’s in the way of achieving it, you’ll need to personalize the situation to make it true for you. Begin this process by looking at the character’s situation and asking what might be going on in your life that could lead to a similar problem or challenge to overcome. What you choose to work with can be imaginary/fictional, but the meaning must hold true.
Step 5: Now do.
This the most vital part. Acting is doing. What are you going to do to get what you want? Perhaps you beg and plead with your mom to stop using drugs. Maybe you start parenting your mom in a role reversal to get your—and her—needs met. It’s in this doing, this action, that you become a compelling actor.
Something actors hear all the time from casting directors and directors is “raise the stakes.” But do you really know what it means?
Let’s begin with one basic fact that is true for every script you will ever read: it is not just “any” day in the life of the character, it is a very special and deeply meaningful day. There is something very big the character needs to have happen, something vitally important that he or she must accomplish. When do you think the character needs to accomplish this? The answer is always, always, always, RIGHT NOW.
Here’s a scene for you. Billy and Susie were high school sweethearts. They went their separate ways and years later, Billy can’t get Susie out of his mind. He needs to let her know he loves her and wants to be with her. He sees through Facebook that Susie is engaged and decides he must let her know how he feels. Those are the given circumstances of the scene. Billy needs to tell Susie how he feels and find out if she feels the same way, despite the obstacle that Susie is engaged. When must he do it? Right now!
Why now? If Billy doesn’t take action immediately, he will lose Susie again—probably forever—and that will destroy him. So Billy has a deep need to take action right now.
But what if there is no specific timeline given by the writer? Create a sense of urgency for yourself. In the example scene, you might decide that Billy just found out that Susie is getting married tomorrow. Urgency! Take action! They didn’t tell you that—you made it up. Not only is it fun and inspiring, it helps you spring into action. When? Right now!
To create a compelling and fascinating performance, you must have a true and powerful need to take action, just like Billy. You must make Billy’s need your need. We do not mean the imitation of Billy’s need, we mean you must find in yourself a true need to accomplish what you’re setting out to do. In acting terms, we call this personalization.
Personalization means finding a way to relate personally to the circumstances the character is going through. To make this very simple, we can say that the character has a problem he or she needs to solve right now and you need to make that problem your problem. The way to begin this process is to look at the character’s situation and ask yourself what might be going on for you that would give you a similar problem or challenge to overcome. What you choose to work with must be imaginary yet at the same time, it must have true meaning for you. This is what will make the problem necessary for you to solve and will make you take immediate action. It’s also the part of the work that will take you away from the false, fake, pretending-based acting and instead, will lead you to acting that has a beautiful quality of reality, vitality, and emotional aliveness.
How badly you want your deep need to be met is what will create the high stakes. It’s not just what you want from the other person in the scene but what you do to get it. Because there is a conflict and it’s not easy to accomplish, this makes things interesting for you and compelling for the audience as they witness you fight for your life.
Delete the word “casual” from your acting vocabulary. There is no moment that is casual for the actor. Even if you think the character is “just sitting around doodling,” there is something important going on. A one-minute audition scene, a two-hour film, 16 bars of a song…they all need to have something important happening. Just like in our lives, in every moment there is much at stake.
When what you are doing to get what you want in spite of your obstacle has great meaning to you, only then do you become interesting to watch.
Emma González, a Marjorie Stoneman Douglas student and activist, spoke for just under two minutes at the March for Our Lives rally in Washington. She described the effects of gun violence in emotional detail and recited the names of classmates who were killed by a school shooter. Then she said nothing for four minutes and twenty-six seconds. It was her silence that was perhaps the most influential statement of all, communicating, “We are angry, hurt, and we will not go away quietly.”
Emma’s use of silence was a powerful example for young actors: the lines in the script are only a part of the scene. When I was a young actor and got cast in a show, the first thing I did was count my lines. I thought the number of lines I had would determine the size and importance of my role. Today, one of the biggest mistakes I see all too often is acting the dialogue only.
When handed an audition side, take a look at the amount of black type and white space on the piece of paper. What percentage of the paper is white? 30 percent? 50 percent? 70 percent? That space is all actable.
Consider this scenario. Your friend accuses you of stealing her boyfriend. You may have indeed done so and don’t want to fess up. She is probing deeply with lots of questions. She is raging, firing away with even more accusations. You process your thoughts, think about whether to tell the truth or lie, stay silent while figuring it out—any number of reactions before you utter a word. All of this fascinating behavior is happening on your face and body between spoken lines of dialogue.
Recently, some of my students were auditioning for a horror film in which two sisters are alone in their house when they hear someone enter downstairs. One sister is huddled in the corner fearing for her life while the other is taking action, figuring out what to do to stop the perp from getting to them. There is not much dialogue on the page but there is a lot of stage direction: Girl nods, a troubled look in her eyes. She listens intently, breathes deeply, stares out the window. She hears another noise. Did the front door open? Is the perp inside, getting closer? She goes to the door, pauses, listens. She hears another sound and freezes.
What’s an actor to do in those moments? The girl is fighting for her life, so a savvy actor will react to what is happening with that intention. How? By freaking out, taking charge, crying, or creating a game plan. Actors must make choices and create non-verbal reactions that convey action and even show thoughts. To create a believable, real-life scenario, his acting between the lines must occur.
One of my favorite acting exercises is “five lines in five minutes.” The actor can only utter five lines and must take five minutes to do so. This exercise will allow students to explore other ways to communicate and try to get what she wants. For example, if the character’s deep need in the scene is to get her mom to stop drinking, what can she do other than speaking while the mom is avoiding the subject? Sitting in the silence while her frustration is building will allow the lines to come from a real place when finally spoken.
It’s not comfortable to sit in the silence. We use the words as a cover-up, a crutch. But sit in the quiet, be uncomfortable and see what happens. Use this exercise in your daily life which is, of course, the best playground for an actor.
You’ve all heard the phrase “acting is reacting.” We don’t act only when speaking. Watch, notice, observe and listen to your real life. We act, react, and respond all the time, non-verbally, in the silence, between the moments. Emma Gonzalez showed us the power of silence. Use her speech as an inspiration to become more comfortable using silence and non-verbal communication in your acting. That’s how you create magical, real scenes.
Every year, thousands of young people decide they want to pursue acting. Many make that choice because they think it looks easy. And it looks easy because the great actors make it seem like they’re not really doing anything. But the truth is, they have worked very hard on their craft—that’s the key. Good acting may look easy, but it’s not.
For those of you who think you know a thing or two about the craft of acting, here’s a little quiz to test your knowledge.
1. The character is always you.
D) Yes and no
The answer? A. The character is always you. Who is uttering the words? Whose tears are flowing? Whose heart is racing? Who is wearing the costume? You must always begin with yourself. If you don’t, you will end up an empty shell.
2. Which of the following is NOT a good way to emotionally prepare to begin a scene?
A) Shooting hoops before entering.
B) Using an analogous situation from what the character is experiencing to tap into the character’s emotional life.
C) Imagining the same situation the character is going through.
D) Eating a lot of candy.
The answer? D. Getting pumped up on sugar can actually get in the way of your performance. To properly prepare, any one or a combination of the other answers are true. Tapping into your emotional life by imagining something to be true is what actors do and to do this, you must exercise and strengthen your actor’s imagination. If your character is in a playful state of mind perhaps playing basketball before entering may also help you get into the proper mindset.
3. What is acting?
A) Faking an emotion.
B) Pretending to be the best you can be.
C) Living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.
D) Hiding behind a character.
The answer? C. According to the great acting teacher and guru Sanford Meisner, acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances. It is a simple way to define what an actor does to create a performance you can believe.
4. What is an acting teacher’s job?
A) To tell you how to say the lines.
B) To intimidate you to be your best.
C) To be your best friend.
D) To help you find your truth.
The answer? D. A good acting teacher will help you direct yourself with skill, guidance, and support. They will do this without ego and with a strong sense of self. You will feel welcomed and heard and an equal partner in the process. When a student asks, “How do I say this line?” a teacher must never give a response. Instead, they may ask you to reframe the question to, “What does the character want?” or “Why are they saying this line.
5. Which of the following is not true? To be a good actor you need to be…
B) A good human
The answer? Trick question! Every answer is correct. Good actors are not ego-driven; they’re interested in other people and they are kind. Other people want to work with them.
The truth is, many actors at every age approach acting by imitating what they have seen before or trying to make it look like they are having an experience that they’re not having. This is not acting. This is not related to acting. There is no life and there is no fun. Good acting is real, honest, and truthful.
Here’s some encouraging news for 2018: You no longer have to worry about whether you’re talented enough or if you can really “do it.” You can sleep peacefully knowing you don’t have to compare yourself to others in your class or play. You can stop trying to please teachers and impress directors.
Pretty bold statements, sure, but with a combined 60 years of experience working with young actors, we’re excited to let you in on a teen actor training revolution taking place. Acting is supposed to be thrilling not just for the audience but for the actor as well. But how can you, the actor, have any fun or enjoyment if you’re constantly worried about being good enough? You can’t. This is a problem that stems from actor training that’s rooted in results. Your director says to “smile bigger here” or “be angrier now.” You’re told to produce these results and because you don’t have a different way of working and you very much want to give your director those results, you fake it.
But “faking it” isn’t acting, despite what a lot of people think. We can’t tell you how many students have come to us and shared that they thought acting was basically just being a good faker. And this, dear friends, is the root of the problem. Instead of faking it, you need a clear, simple, human way of approaching your craft. And here’s how to do it.
Acting is actually very simple but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. It takes consistent hard work, but it’s not complicated! You can begin right now by looking at the character as an actual human being. Just like you, the character has hopes and desires, struggles and challenges, great accomplishments and painful failures, moments of joy and deep suffering. Just like us. This is the human story, the basis of every script you will ever read. Remember that you do have something in common with every character and the connection doesn’t have to be a complicated one.
The minute you read a script, grab a notebook and write down how the character moves you, how you relate to what makes them feel good and what makes them suffer. These are the keys. Can you find connections with how you see the world? This will immediately help you understand the character’s point of view, which is where you should start when stepping into their shoes.
Every play and every movie is a story about human beings, no matter the style or the period. And you know what? This is something you know how to do since you do it every single day. In our series of articles here, we will bring together everything you know about being human and everything you discover about the characters in the script. You’re going to see that what we believe about you is true:
1. You are amazing and brilliant.
2. You are gifted and powerful and unique. We don’t care what others may have said and we don’t care what you may have told yourself.
3. We know you have everything you need to be a great actor.
We also know that you are driven by a great desire to express your true self, to make a big difference in this crazy world. We believe you can do this—you just need the right tools. And that is our desire, to give you those tools. We’re on a very personal mission to help you fulfill your gifts and realize your destiny. So join us in the teen acting revolution this year and become the future of the craft.
In many fields and careers, there are different levels of credentials, like associate, professional, master, etc. In acting, we talk about novices, actors who are just beginning, and professionals, actors who have training and experience working in the industry.
I teach my students how to act and audition like a professional, even if they’re still at the novice level of experience. Use these audition tips, no matter what level of experience you have, and you’ll garner more attention and have a better chance of being hired. Even if you don’t get the part, you’ll have at least made a positive impression.
1. Make choices.
More often than not, you won’t have the entire script while auditioning, nor will you know exactlywhat the CD and director want from you. Not the easiest scenario, but one that means you will need to make choices about how you play the character. What is she thinking? What is he feeling? Don’t worry about being right or wrong—just make a choice in each moment, trust yourself, and go with it.
2. Keep the scene active.
Acting is doing, not talking. When choosing monologues and picking songs, find pieces that are active, not passive. Narratives usually don’t have much action, so scenes where a character is doing something—like breaking up with a girlfriend or convincing their friend to skip school—are far more exciting than telling a story about it.
3. Acting is reacting.
I see many novice actors who believe acting only happens when speaking dialogue. What about when someone doesn’t say anything? Does that mean they aren’t feeling something? No, of course they are. When someone is speaking to you, there must be a reaction. Otherwise, you aren’t listening. Be sure to focus on both your speaking and reactions to the other lines in the script.
4. Make the decision before doing.
I recall working on a dramatic scene with some young actresses who were auditioning for the lead role in a television show. There was a key moment in the scene when the character lies to her mother. A novice would just tell the lie when the line comes up. A professional actor knows to take a moment before speaking where she decides to lie.
5. Find the moment before and moment after.
The scene begins before your first line and ends after the last line. Find your moment before and be ready well before the first line of dialogue. Know your character’s emotional state and tap into it before speaking. This concept holds true at the end of the scene as well. The scene doesn’t stop on the last line. It ends with your reaction after the last line is spoken, whether it’s your line or another character’s.
6. Develop quiet confidence.
As I say to my students all the time, only confident actors get hired. However, there is a difference between quiet and cocky confidence. Know your talent and strengths and own the room, but do it with humility. No one likes a know-it-all. When you leave the audition room, you want the creative team to say, “Stop that actor and bring him back. He’s the one I want.”
In acting, there’s no substitute for experience. It takes practice and training to become a professional, as well as time and maturity. But by acting like a pro every time you audition, you will have made a mark and hopefully earn a callback, or even the role.
When I ask my younger students how many of them hate their siblings, most of their hands go up. I then ask how they would feel if something bad happened to their sister or brother. The general consensus is they would feel sad. “So you really love your sibling even though you say you hate him?” Both can be true. We can hate and love at the same time.
One of the biggest criticisms I have, especially with teenage actors, is that they are missing the love in their scene. It is easy to be nasty and bitchy, but if they can’t find even an ounce of love, they are unlikeable. Many teenage female characters written for television are sarcastic and acerbic. The challenge is to find the character’s likable qualities as well, avoiding obvious, trite, and stereotypical choices. If you think the character has no redeeming qualities, that is a choice you are making and it is not a very interesting one.
To quote Michael Shurtleff in his book, “Audition”: “To find the deepest emotional content in a scene, you must ask, ‘Where is the love?’ It’s not important if you’re right or wrong: What is important is your commitment to whatever feeling you choose.” You may hate your dad at this moment because he won’t give you the car but you can also love him, can’t you?
Find what is true and know the opposite is also true. I recently worked on an audition scene with a few young actors. In the film, the father had deceived the entire family by faking his own death. Once the girl discovers this, she is obviously angry and in the scene tries to get revenge by hurting him emotionally. All of the actors played the anger beautifully but forgot one very important thing – they loved their dad and were truly grateful he was, in fact, alive. By not discovering the love, their performances were callous, calculating, and frankly uninteresting.
What about the villains who upend expectations? It is fascinating to find the genuine vulnerability in the conniving, back-stabbing cheerleader or the murderous, trashy mother who is often unexpectedly smart and caring.
I always tell my students, “Say what you mean but don’t always say it mean.” Your audition scene is about your boyfriend cheating on you with your best friend. Stop yelling. I understand that you are mad. How many times can you confront him by playing mean? Are you sad and hurt? Do you still love him even though he did something so egregious? Again, I love what Mr. Shurtleff has to say, “The actress has to know more than the character knows.”
Remember that love is more than sexuality and libidinal energy. It is the life instinct driving all humanity. Find it, play it and see what new levels you can find in your acting!
“The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain,” Eliza Doolittle famously says in “My Fair Lady.” By the way, she wasn’t the only one who struggled with her accent! Dialects don’t come easy to everyone. Auditioning with an unfamiliar dialect can really get in your way of landing the role. When learning a new dialect, here are some tips to keep in mind to help you have a successful audition.
1. Play the action, not the accent. Don’t let the dialect own the scene. Pay attention to the character’s social class, age, upbringing, objective, and obstacle. I have worked with actors who are so focused on the accent that they are not even listening to the reader. If you are not that skilled, perhaps a hint of the dialect is the way to go. Keep it simple and do what you are trained to do. Let your skill as an actor help you land the job, not a contrived accent.
2. Don’t watch Harry Potter. Just as you wouldn’t expect a southern belle to sound like a Texas Ranger, you can’t expect Mary Poppins to sound like Bert. The dialects in most countries are as diverse as they are in America. For example, the three largest recognizable dialects in England are Southern English, Midland English, and Northern English. Within those are Cockney, Geordie—as spoken in Billy Elliot, among many, many others. Do your research. Find out what type of accent is needed before settling on a generic one.
3. Listen to the casting director’s instructions. If you are adept with the dialect, by all means, go for it. However, there are times when the casting director does not want you to use a dialect at all in the audition. Can you imagine listening to botched accents all day long? Always check with your agent or manager. When all else fails, don’t be afraid to ask the casting director before you begin.
4. Work with a coach. Whether you work with an acting coach or speech and dialect coach, getting help from someone trained in this area can make all the difference in your audition. Dialects are not only about pronunciation but also about cadence, phrasing, inflection, and pitch. Sometimes in comedy, the words are not funny until the dialect is in place. Be careful of over-coaching, however. When in doubt re-read tip number one!
5. Don’t wing it. Dialects are part of the basic training of every good actor. Just like your monologues and songs, have your dialects in your repertoire ready to go at any moment. Take the time well before opportunity knocks to learn a few of the more popular dialects such as Standard British, Cockney, Irish, Australian, Southern, and Brooklyn. Practice on trains, planes, and automobiles. Just think how much fun you can have while working on your craft.
6. Other good resources. There are many books and CDs available to help you learn dialects on your own. Some authors to research are Edda Sharpe, Jan Haydn Rowles, Robert Blumenfeld, Paul Meier, and Jerry Blunt. Other great resources are VASTA (Voice and Speech Trainers Association) and IDEA Dialects (International Dialects of English Archive) where you can find a real person speaking with the dialect or accent you are looking for.
For some added inspiration, check out Meryl Streep’s many accomplished accents: British in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” Polish in “Sophie’s Choice,” Danish in “Out of Africa,” Irish-American in “Ironweed,” Australian in “A Cry in the Dark,” Italian “The Bridges of Madison County,” Irish in “Dancing at Lughnasa,” Upper-Midwest in “A Prairie Home Companion,” Bronx in “Doubt,” Julia Child in “Julie & Julia,” and English in “The Iron Lady.” Have fun as you simply watch, listen, and learn!