Actor’s Etiquette: How Do I Get Better?

But I want to be great!  Shouldn’t director help me get there?

Let me circle back through the last two posts and revisit the issue of young (or old, or anywhere in between) actors learning their craft.

You don’t learn it on the job.  All right, you do, because if you are paying attention and working hard, every bit of practice you get is going to help you to be better than you were yesterday.  (Entirely possible to practice and not get better, as we’ve talked about and which I’ll touch on more down the road when I talk about overactors and underactors.)

But the rehearsal hall isn’t the primary place you will learn your craft.  I’ve written about this in the past, but it bears repeating.

A craft, according to Merriam-Webster, is something requiring special skill.  Now, craft originally referred to making something with your hands, like woodworkers, silversmiths, and potters.  Think of any artisan – it takes a lot of practice to get good at that skill.  Bricklayers make it look like the easiest thing in the world, but if you’ve ever tried to build a wall yourself, you’ll realize that theirs is an ease borne of laying (and relaying) thousands of bricks.

Move into the arts, and you will see similar repetition.  Painters don’t just have a vision they want to commit to canvas or paper – they need to learn how to use the brush, which one to use when, how to mix the colors, etc.  A violinist has to learn how to bow, how to pick, how to find the right place to hold the strings (violins have no frets), etc.  Watercolorists throw out a lot of paper while they learn to blend washes, and musicians play a lot of scales in practice, not just concertos with the orchestra.

In other words, they have a myriad of skills they must acquire in service of creating the final product.

The fact that we are human beings and know how to walk and talk doesn’t mean that we automatically know how to act on stage, although I think some people imagine it does.  Acting is a craft, too, and requires special attention simply because the most obvious “skills” it uses are walking and talking.

I’m reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and she talks about Anders Ericsson, a research psychologist who studies “how . . . extraordinary achievers get to be so great at what they do.”  Solo violinists, grandmaster chess players, elite athletes – they all spend unusual amounts of time in solitary practice.

“In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement.  When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly.  Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful – they’re counterproductive.  They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them.”  [Quiet, p. 81.)

So what is Deliberate Practice for actors?

It’s not going to rehearsal.  In rehearsal, you are only focusing on getting this character in this play right – you aren’t identifying what you aren’t good at and trying to get better at it in a global sense.

Because acting is largely a group activity, we use technique and scene classes as a means of working on our skills and developing a craft, and I strongly recommend them to you, in whatever form you can find them.  Even working on scenes with a fellow actor with an eye to developing your skills is going to help, if classes are not available in your area.

So what is Deliberate Practice for an actor, done in solitude?  Stay tuned . . .

The Learning Process, Part III (The Fastest Route)

When it comes to acting, there are two levels of learning.  One is learning technique – the tools we are talking about.  But once you’ve learned technique, the learning process doesn’t stop in the way that it did when you learned to drive.  Each time you do a play, you have to learn the play.  Rehearsals are all about learning.  So understanding the learning process and how you can use it to your benefit matters.

Given that we have a short time frame for rehearsals, we want to move as much knowledge about the play and our character as we can into our subconscious as fast as possible.  The better we get at this, the more layered and interesting our performances will be.

So what’s the fastest way to learn?  Intentional focus.

The best way to learn to do something well is by breaking it into its smallest parts and getting really good at each of those parts without regard to any of the other parts.Puzzle Piece

Let me say that again, because it’s really important:  If you can give up attachment to how you do all those other things, and just pay attention to how you do this one particular small piece of the big puzzle, you’ll get really good at this one particular small piece of the puzzle, and in surprisingly short order, too.

Let’s look back at the Process #2 example.  If we stop worrying about all the other things we do “wrong”, and just pay attention to the speed of our backswing, we can figure out what is going on in our backswing and what corrections we need to make.  If we stop worrying about what the ball is doing – the final product – we can focus on making the backswing the correct speed, and by repeating it often enough, we can groove the speed so well that it becomes part of our subconscious behavior, and we can turn our attention to something else.

Confuse our subconscious by trying to do too many things at once and not doing any of them well, and it takes a while to learn.  Isolate the pieces that we are trying to learn so we are giving our subconscious clear information about our expectations, and we can learn much more quickly.  Get the process right, and the final product will take care of itself.

Acting isn’t golf.  We aren’t trying to create a perfect, repeatable swing every time.  We’re trying to create a character who lives and breathes in ways that may be unique every night.  But as actors, we are as prone to focusing on final product – our performance on opening night – as a golfer is.  It is just as true for us that process is what matters, and that good process results in great performances.  This is what we call “staying in the moment.”  (More on that another time.)

Okay.  I’m now going to wind my way back to the matter of acting tools.  I’m going to talk a little about the role your subconscious plays in your acting, because it will help you to commit to using the tools.  And then I’ll talk about the practical aspect of how you put the tools together.

See Part I here, and Part II here.

The Learning Process, Part II (The Usual Route)

The second way to learn is to actively try to get better.  We gain a little bit of knowledge, enough to get a feel for the complexity of what it is that we are trying to do.  If I’m learning to play golf, at this point I understand that I have to learn to rotate my arms in a particular way, to push the club away from me rather than lifting it, to deal with weight shift, maintaining spine angle, keeping my head behind the ball, not rushing my backswing, following all the way through, finishing high . . .

“Sheesh!  That’s a lot to pay attention to, but okay – I want to learn this game, and learn it quickly!  So I make a swing.  And I have this feeling that I swung too quickly, and I know I did the weight shift wrong, and I hit behind the ball, so I must have done something else wrong, and I don’t know if I finished correctly or not.  Did I get all the way through?  And look what the ball did!  It never got higher than ten feet off the ground, and it’s over in the bushes, I don’t know if I can even find it over there.Print

“Let me swing again, I’ll do it better this time.  Oops!  I lost my balance that time, and I’m not sure what happened in the second half of the swing, but the club was doing some really weird things, and I could really tell that I rose up that time.  And the ball popped up and went left, but it came down just as quickly.”

How much learning do you think is going on here?

You can eventually sort everything out using this approach, but it’s a little time-consuming.  You gradually figure out what matters and what doesn’t.  Take a new physical activity, for instance.  You don’t know what muscles are required to get the job done initially.  But as you go along, your subconscious figures out what muscles don’t need to participate, and it shuts them down.

As long as you are actively paying attention to what happens (unlike the golfer in the previous example), the wheat and the chaff get separated over time.  You may go down some wrong paths, but you figure that out before you get too far, and you come back to the fork in the road and follow the other route.

But a certain amount of what happens in this learning process is serendipity.  Your subconscious is looking out for you and it does its best to make you happy.  Sometimes the best it can do it to try to save you from yourself, but given enough time, your subconscious will often figure out how to do something better.  What it can’t do, using this process, is figure out how to be great.

Why?  Because the rehearsal process is short.  Whether you use a two or six or eight week rehearsal period, it’s a finite length of time.  With each play, you’re starting the learning process at zero, but you don’t have the leisure to learn at your own pace.  No one is going to delay opening night so that you can improve your performance.

I guess you can figure out that my personal preference is Learning Process #3 . . .

To read Part I, go here.  For Part III, go here.

The Learning Process, Part I (The Path of Least Resistance)

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.

cartoon manHow 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.

To read Part II, go here.  To read Part III, go here.