Before going into the details of acting, I would like to dispose of some red herrings: First, can everyone act? Everyone acts and in a simple way achieves some measure of success. Cuzzort and King in Twentieth-Century Social Thought write “Erving Gottman shows us perhaps more sympathetically than any other observer of human activities, that there is a large element of phoniness in all human interaction. We pose, as it were, behind a variety of masks used to frighten, intimidate, implore, awe, beg, or otherwise elicit from others the kinds of reaction we seek.” Children’s games, for instance, where kids reenact their observations of adults and social acting where a host successfully convinces an unwanted guest that he or she is welcome is acting, but they fall short of professional acting.
Social acting involves pretension, it involves using the good and bad aspects of our attitudes in a given situation, but most significantly, social acting is being you. Successful stage acting is an act of artistry carefully planned to communicate a vital interpretation of a play’s meaning to the audience. The stage is not a casual world in which actors act impulsively in chance events. It is a carefully planned world in which all the parts of the system serve to clarify a purpose, usually that of the playwright as interpreted by the director.
A student of mine once asked me, “What about Brecht’s acting style. Didn’t Brecht say the actor shouldn’t become the character?” My answer to her was, Brecht did not say you should not become the character you are playing. What Brecht demands of you is not to let the “becoming” fool the audience into assuming you are the character to such an extent that they, the audience, overlook the message. Brecht says you can empathize during the reading rehearsal stage so you can understand the character, and after that set about explaining the character’s situation to the audience.
Stage acting is not pretending to be good or nasty. Stage acting is analytical, interpretative, projectable, and repeatable. Stage acting is becoming another person, believing you are that person and making the audience believe you are that person. I disagree wholeheartedly with Viola Spolin when she notes, while referring to the stage, in Improvisation for the Theater that, “Everyone can act.” There is much difference between improvisational (social) acting and stage acting. In my experience I have discovered that some people could not act and cannot act even if you intravenously injected copies of Stanislavski’s books into them.
The second red-herring concerns the question a student asked me while teaching in Nigeria. “Can acting be taught?” My answer then (and will still be now) was “Yes and no. As an actor, never concern yourself with talent.” Because talent, if it exists, is completely out of your control. As your teacher, I can teach you the various acting styles. I can teach you how to walk on stage, how to “time” your lines. I can teach you how to use your voice effectively, and how to pick up cues. I can teach you how to suit the action, especially gestures to the word to generate the right temperance for an emotion. I can teach you dance, carriage, and the need for flexibility and swiftness. I can teach you how to attack a part, how to simplify it and how to make it second nature.
You can learn to hold your hands and to move them in simple and natural ways. You can also learn how you should move them from the wrists, elbows or shoulders. You can learn how not to interfere with other actors’ actions when audience’s attention should not be on you. You can learn artistic agitation, the value of relaxation on stage and how to keep still. You can learn how to characterize and how to achieve contrasts within a given role. You can even learn how to be artistically stupid. You can learn, over time, how to acquire the spirit of ensemble. You can learn to become more skillful in memorizing lines. You can learn how to pose and acquire composure. You can learn the uses of pauses – how and when to pause and how not to overdo pauses. You can learn and master the effective usages of facial muscles. If you do not already speak more than one dialect, you can learn the mannerisms of different dialects, enunciation and elocution. You can learn the speed necessary for playing both comedy and tragedy, pace and rhythm. You can learn to overcome inaudibility – a major problem of nervous and new student-actors and finally gesture and mime.
However, I cannot teach you, if you are not naturally blessed that way, how to express emotions convincingly, charm, sincerity in playing a feeling, release and control over passion, stage personality. I can tell you and, sometimes show you, how to simper, flirt and attitudinize but I cannot give you the heart to play it effectively. I can teach you the essence of speed, the necessity of correct timing of words and sentences, when to and when not to pause but I cannot give you the style, elegance, and confidence of character to carry them through. I cannot teach you the spontaneity and originality of comedy, nor can I teach you the essences of tragedy, which must come from your appreciation of humor and sorrow respectively. Simply put, I cannot teach you to be a creditable actor if you do not possess the natural flair for acting.
I mean, I cannot teach you acting in its highest form. The reason is simple, acting in its highest form is innate, and something you must have in your blood. However, though acting in its truest form is a gift, a talent, and a hereditary virtue, there are nevertheless some points regarding the technique and the practice of acting that I can teach you and you can learn.
Acting is “simple” and plain. So, the more naturally and easily you carry it out, the more believable it is for the audiences who have to watch it. Acting entails giving – fully surrendering yourself publicly. Your biggest barrier therefore, is inexperience and the quickest you overcome it the better for you. Acting is like being in love – it enkindles. The more single-minded, the more focused its power, the more satisfactory its effect. Character is concentration, so the more you devote your whole force, entire body and mind to your art, the better results you are bound to get. Practice, practice and always practice where, how, and as often as you can. Acting is a paradox that can call upon you to be utterly brutal or extremely gentle in speech, character and mannerism on stage.
You will find, however, that while your job as an actor may be clearly identifiable, it will not be easy. For instance, to be in optimum condition to do a play, you must have a strong, clear, resonant voice. Developing this type of voice takes most people many years of training. You know you must develop your body to do whatever you demand of it. This requires the discipline to exercise and study of movement so that the body will become strong, supple, and graceful. You must look at yourself honestly, and this requires a great deal of bravery, and use your common sense to detect what your weaknesses are. Then you must decide which of these weaknesses is within your control to change. Feelings, for instance, are not within your control.
Acting requires common sense. The common sense to translate your actions into simple actable terms. Acting demands bravery. That is, bravery to throw yourself into the action of the play despite your physical and mental shortcomings and the fear of failing. Acting needs much will. That is, the will to follow your ideals. Together, this is not the easiest of things to do.
Acting is living truthfully under the imaginary given circumstances of a play. Given circumstances are anything set forth by the playwright for you, the actor, to follow. These include, costumes, scenery, dialects, physical attributes of each character, and anything asked by the director, for instance, blocking and stage business.
Acting can be broken down into action and moment. Action is what you do on stage, the physical process of trying to obtain a specific goal, often called the objective. Moment is what is happening in the scene as you are playing it at any given instant. Since every moment of a play depends on what has happened in the moment preceding it, acting then is dealing truthfully with the other actors on stage to pursue a specific goal. You should prepare so that you can act on stage while following certain given circumstance that maybe foreign to you. To do this, you must learn the technique of acting. However, you must understand that technique cannot itself enable you to act. Rather, it provides you with the tools that, combined with strength of will, bravery, and common sense, can help you bring life of the human soul and to the given circumstances created by the playwright.