So how do we develop good acting technique?
Let me digress just a bit and talk about the learning process.
In a previous post, I talked about your conscious brain being a Commodore 64 computer, while your subconscious brain, by comparison, is 1,000 times better than the most sophisticated computer and software presently available. Let’s take that a little further and say that your conscious brain is like the computer’s RAM, while your subconscious is all the files you have saved.
Your conscious brain is the threshold over which knowledge passes into your head. While you’re learning something, your conscious brain seems to do most of the work. Once you’ve learned it, it is largely resident in your subconscious brain, from which it can be called forth when needed.
As actors, we want to move knowledge into our subconscious as much as possible, so that our subconscious can play a very big role in what we do on stage. Yes, our conscious brain will be active during a performance, too, but great acting requires that your subconscious participates. A lot.
There are three basic ways that we can teach our subconscious. I’ll explain how they impact acting, and you can choose which route you’d like to take.
First, understand that your subconscious doesn’t have a value system. It’s your conscious brain that decides ice cream is good, while sorbet is bad. (My husband’s opinion; I love sorbet.)
Your subconscious does understand frequency, however. Do the same thing over and over, and your subconscious will learn to do that thing very well. Why? Because it equates frequency with desire, and your subconscious wants you to be happy. It wants you to succeed, and its job is to help you do that.
So it does its best to learn whatever it thinks you want to do, and to learn to do it better. To learn to do as much of it as possible without troubling your conscious brain, freeing your conscious brain up to find world peace or the best price on a hotel. A lot of your day is spent doing things on autopilot, thanks to your subconscious. And isn’t that a good thing! Remember how you had to pay full attention when you were learning to drive? Now you can have a conversation when you drive without having an accident.
Self-taught golfers eventually come for lessons. They have tried to imitate what they see others do, but they don’t know enough about the golf swing in the early stages to make the right choices. They can’t see what they look like when they swing. They imagine they look like Tiger Woods, when in fact they look like Charles Barkley. (If you’ve never seen Barkley play golf, take my word for it, it’s not pretty.)
They have swing flaws that they have grooved over the years through repetition, and they come to me to undo years of learning in one lesson. Which is extremely difficult to do. Their flawed motion is firmly embedded in their subconscious, and it is only with great conscious discipline that they can change that.
How does this approach to learning affect an actor? You make choices early in the rehearsal process, what seem to be the “obvious” choices about how to say your lines. You have a “vision” of what you want the final performance to look like, and so you rush to put those pieces of the puzzle together and trust that everything else will fit in, over time. Once you’ve got a few weeks under your belt, you’ll be comfortable with the material, and then you can really start to explore it.
“Getting comfortable” typically means run-throughs. Let’s run that scene again! And again! And when I’m home rehearsing and memorizing my lines, I’m going to read them over and over. And I’ll probably do a little bit of “acting” as I memorize them. So I’m not just memorizing the words, I’m memorizing my surprise when you tell me you eloped with someone you met last week.
Before you know it, you’ve memorized a “primitive” performance, one without nuance or a real understanding of the character (which only comes with time. You just met this character, after all.) You’re well on your way to a performance that is superficial, with no real emotional core to it. If you’re talented, you can shine this baby up, but you will never be able to give it a soul. You can’t peel back the exterior you’ve created to add the foundation halfway through the rehearsal process, because adding the foundation is going to change the exterior. At this point, you’re committed to the exterior. You have grooved that swing.
Early run-throughs – repeating the scene without having a reasonably good idea of what you are trying to achieve in doing so – are the death-knell for great acting.