As with most complicated activities, acting can be distilled into a few simple concepts. If we could only fulfill these simple requirements, 90% of the job would be done. Well, 80%, anyway.
The easiest thing to do is to play the verbs. It’s very challenging in the beginning, but far and away is the easiest thing to learn. Once you get the hang of it, it’s very freeing and very easy.
The next easiest thing to do is to allow emotions to flow through you without constraint and without censoring them. It’s about a willingness to leave the door open to whatever emotions may arise in the course of a play, to give them freedom to exist fully, and to allow them to dissipate naturally. And to let them be no matter how personally uncomfortable they may be. It’s an art learned over time. (More on this in another post.)
But the third concept, hands down, is the toughest to do: to react ONLY to what you receive from your acting partners.
Reacting means giving up complete control of what comes out of you, and to let it be guided strictly by what you receive from whomever is in the scene with you.
No one wants to do this. We ALL want to control our own destiny. We want to actively create our performance. We have all sorts of ideas about what we should be doing when.
Throw them out. All of them. (Well, not all. But for our purposes right now, yes, toss them all.)
Your job is to listen to your scene partner as if you’ve never heard these lines before, as if you know NOTHING about what happens in the play. Stop looking at the play as if you are an English student writing a paper on it. Pretend you know nothing about the other characters’ motives or what happens later in the play. Let yourself be surprised by whatever they do, and react to what you get.
It’s a difficult task, but not impossible. As with all new activities, it won’t happen overnight. Be grateful, initially, if it happens a few times during a scene. That’s a huge accomplishment, it really is! As you practice it, you’ll find it happens more and more frequently. And you’ll gradually learn how to put yourself into a state of mind that makes it easier and gives you the best shot at doing it throughout a scene. When you’re in “the zone”, listening and reacting mostly takes care of itself.
But initially, you need a third party – a teacher or a director – to help you identify when you are reacting to what you are getting from your scene partner as opposed to when you are controlling the scene. Actors are often convinced they are listening and reacting when, in fact, they aren’t. They don’t realize the extent to which they are anticipating the next moment until I point it out. The first time they look puzzled, but do the scene again. The second time they give a guilty giggle, as they recognize what I’m talking about. The third time out, they start to see just how hard this is to do, and I see the “Oh my God, this is really hard!” flicker through their eyes.
It is. Just not impossible.