Deliberate Practice, done in solitude, creates elite performers, says research psychologist Anders Ericsson. What does that mean to an actor, who mostly performs with at least one other person on stage? How can we, as actors, use Deliberate Practice outside of the classroom?
The fact that athletes in team sports also often spend unusual amounts of time in solitary practice caught my attention, because it’s the most comparable situation to an actor’s. Yes, a violinist in an orchestra is working on a “team”, but he can practice his part in solitude more effectively than an actor can. How what he does blends with the rest of the orchestra is secondary to what he does alone.
In football, wide receivers are dependent on their quarterbacks to throw them the ball, but that doesn’t mean that they can only get better by working with their QB. Jerry Rice’s off-season workouts are legendary; Cris Carter last caught a ball in the NFL in 2002, but he’s caught thousands of them off of automatic throwing machines, and can still catch them one-handed (either hand). Both Rice and Carter did an extraordinary amount of Deliberate Practice. Which is one reason why they are in the Hall of Fame.
Monologue work is an obvious choice. They are incredibly difficult to do well, as I’ll discuss in some distant future. We do not ordinarily talk to ourselves in the way characters talk to themselves. When we talk to ourselves, we mumble, or half of it is verbal and half in our heads. None of which is interesting to watch on stage.
Monologues delivered to the audience are also tough, because they tend to become speeches. We don’t speak to audiences the way we speak to best friends, and yet that is often exactly what is required. Learning how to achieve this sort of natural behavior in a very unnatural circumstance is difficult and takes a lot of practice.
If you can learn to do it, however, you’ll find there is a lot of transference to your group acting skills. The one clue I’ll give you is that the primary question I ask myself as an actor these days is, “Did I just sound like a human being?” Often, in monologues directed to the audience, there are particular lines that just sound unnatural, and I have to work hard to overcome that.
You can see why casting directors like monologues. They separate the men from the boys, as it were.
Monologues can only do so much, however. There are a lot more of them available now than there was when I was growing up. In fact, I don’t think I did much in the way of monologues until I was a teenager looking to audition. So what was my form of Deliberate Practice, growing up?
I’ve read a lot of plays. I mean, A LOT of plays. Wanting to act is something I was born with, and once I discovered that there were plays out there, I got my hands on every script I could find, largely through libraries when I was in school. Once I branched out into community theater, I discovered that there were playscripts I could borrow from friends or perhaps find in used bookstores. Once I had more discretionary income, I started buying scripts.
I didn’t just read them. I read them over and over. I identified characters in them (not always female) that appealed to me, and analyzed them, tried to figure out what made them tick, practiced their lines, tried to make them sound as natural as possible, while still being interesting. I spent as much time with them as many actors do with their characters in rehearsal. Enough time that I could see the links between the line in the third act and something that happened in the first.
I read old plays and new plays, classics and predictable modern comedies. I read bad plays and good plays. I learned why the good ones were good and the bad ones bad. I figured out what playwrights had done to give me good material, and what was missing when they hadn’t. I thought about how I could help disguise their lack, and how I could dig further into the complex characters so that I could show all of their complexity. I worked to go beyond the obvious and find original ways to present my characters while staying true to them. I learned how to read the text and let it speak to me without laying my trite perceptions on it.
I played hundreds of characters in my bedroom. My first readings were about showing off and enjoying whatever attracted me to the character. But I got pretty serious after that, working on the character as if I was actually going to play it, and doing all the work I still do in rehearsals.
Over and over again.
My sense is that many of my students, even the more ones, often don’t read a lot of plays, much less do the rest of what I’ve just described. That’s unfortunate, because I think studying scripts is a huge part of actor’s form of Deliberate Practice. Yes, I was born with a certain instinctive ability to sense what is going on with a character, but the work that I’ve described has most definitely helped me to become the actor I am today.
As with anything you want to do well – there are no shortcuts to putting in the time.