The material you use to create these imaginary people who you can pick up and discard like a glove is your own flesh and blood. The actor is giving of himself all the time. It is his possible growth, his possible understanding that he is exploiting, using this material to weave these personalities which drop away when the play is done.
–Peter Brook, The Empty Space
The craft of acting is deceptively simple. It starts with childhood experiences of “make-believe.” Because imitation and role-playing are such a natural extension of human social behavior, it is easy to assume that the craft and profession of acting retain the simplicity, freedom, and intuitive nature of childhood games. At its best, acting appears effortless. It invites an audience to forget that actors are in any way different from the characters they impersonate. With the support of an audience, an actor becomes another person who occupies their place within the confines of a story, imagined circumstance, or scene. This imaginative exercise is such an ingrained feature of human social behavior that we often forget that it is based on a shared acceptance — between audiences and actors — that they are both willing to play the game in order to collectively believe in and relate to a performance.
The central task of acting is impersonation, the imitation or imagined inhabitation of a different persona. Impersonation can happen on many levels. In some cultures, a familiar part of religious practice is the idea of spiritual possession in which an entranced host is temporarily occupied by another spiritual being. In Haitian Vodou, for example, a familiar relationship with spirits and ancestral worship becomes more immediate when possession occurs during a “sacred theatre” ritual. Against the background of complex drumming, induced trances invite spirits to commune and give comfort directly to worshipers.1 In this example, both the belief and the transformation into a new persona are complete, made possible by the readiness of both the possessed and their witnesses to fully believe in what they are experiencing.
Trance dancing, frequently accompanied or guided by elaborate drumming and masked impersonation, is a feature of ritualized practice in many African, Native American, and Asian cultures. The altering sense of awareness and prominence of sacred masks as spiritually vital symbols —or as a talisman for connection to ancestors or traditional sacred figures— is widespread. Even in Western theatre, the actor’s awareness on stage is often so concentrated on the task of perceiving from a character’s viewpoint that the experience is described as transformative. Recent studies involving brain scans suggest that actors do, in fact, experience different patterns of thought while “in character,” including a diminished level of activity in the areas of the brain associated with self-awareness and an increase in portions of the brain that may support a “double consciousness.”2
Masked performance often blends both creative artistic expression and spirituality. In the Bali-Hindu traditions of Indonesia, for example, performances of masked dance and puppet dramas are closely blended with communal expressions of faith, ancestor worship, and the broad creative appeal of beautiful and entertaining performances. Ceremonial masks are sacred objects. For performances to serve both religious and artistic purposes is not a contradiction, it is simply a recognition that artistic performance, impersonation, and spiritual practice can serve parallel social functions.
The most obvious symbol of impersonation is, of course, a mask. The use and significance of masks in spiritual practice predate the earliest written acknowledgments of acting as an art form. The first tragedians of ancient Greece, to whom we often point as the originators of Theatre during the 6th century BCE, used masks to symbolize and differentiate the roles assumed by tragic poets in their performances. Greek tragedies were chanted, featuring rhythmic verse and dialogue between important characters and a responsive chorus. Eventually, the structure of the plays expanded to include multiple characters presented by multiple actors, with more elaborate theatrical elements, including sets and choreography. The ancient Greeks valued theatre as a civic instrument for cultural improvement. Competitive festivals featuring tragic poets were interwoven with religious festivals, most famously at the City Dionysia, a festival held in Athens every spring to celebrate the god of wine.
Impersonation can serve more subtle functions. The playing of characters as we relate stories and inhabit characters who are familiar or distinctive is a natural practice. Humans are remarkable mimics, with the ability to recapture the rhythms, gestures, and sounds of others with enough accuracy to be recognized. We learn social skills by mimicking the people around us. Adapting our behavior to influence others is the first step toward social connection and awareness. Mimicry is the ability to accurately imitate the behavior of others. A good mimic is able to invoke familiar aspects of other people, and this process of accurately recapturing voice, expressions, and gestures can inform an actor’s development of a character. When we role-play, whether it is in a childhood game, a story related to friends of past events, or a fully fictional representation in a theatre, the persona that is created is normally referenced as the character, typically with distinctive, and often fictional, features, viewpoints, and life experiences that differ from those of the actor.
In 350 BCE, Aristotle wrote The Poetics, attempting to define the nature and necessary elements of Poetic Tragedy and Comedy. While his writing is frequently cited for identifying the six elements of theatre —Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, and Song— the importance of The Poetics to our understanding of acting owes more to his emphasis on the poet’s task of imitation.
Aristotle is startlingly succinct in defining a poet’s imitation of life as the central value of theatre since it provides the audience with a model for comparison. Watching a performer’s imitation of life allows us to see the creature (or character) imitated as being better, worse, or truly reflective of human nature. Modern debate references the term catharsis, attributing to Aristotle the recognition of how true and relatable action was capable of inducing pity or fear in an audience and – perhaps – inducing a purging effect on the emotions. In essence, catharsis allows an audience to live sympathetically through the emotional experience of a character that is faithfully and consistently acted. Aristotle makes another vital point, saying that “imitation is implanted in man from early childhood” and “…through imitation he learns his earliest lessons.” If Aristotle is to be believed, the value of truthful acting, and of our imaginative ability to imitate, is its power to teach us more about ourselves.3
The Evolution of Acting
If the steady foundation of acting is impersonation, based on the imitation of human behavior in the depiction of a character, the variable for how we perceive that evolving art form is aesthetics. The artistic tastes that govern what audiences value and respond to in an acting performance, and the periodic reformulation of these standards, have led to substantial changes in the kinds of acting and dramatic forms that have emerged in the two and a half millennia since the Greek Tragedians took the roles of Protagonists (from the Greek protos meaning” first” and agonistes meaning “actor”) in their first public performances.
The story of how drama has evolved overlaps with other performance traditions; music, dance, poetry, puppetry, acrobatics, and the visual artistry of scenic, costume, mask, and makeup design is a global story of interwoven cultural journeys. Along the way, variations in dramatic art forms have created completely new traditions. Asian expressions of dance and music evolved into the Operatic forms of Chinese Opera, the dramatic performances of Indian dance dramas, the puppet theatre of Java, and the dynamic stylized performance of Japanese Kabuki. Each form is distinctive and unique to the cultural values and aesthetics that shaped them. Each variation of the art form included the evolution of specific rules, or conventions, that define what is desirable and celebrated in the performance.
In Western theatre, performance has always been governed by specific conventions. The Greeks relied on conventions of mask use and poetic forms. They built outdoor theatres with specific features to support performances and evolved aesthetics for scenic devices and the depiction of characters in costumes. The Romans adapted their version of Greek theatre and incorporated a more aggressive use of pantomime and physical action reflective of the audience’s tastes and values of Roman society. Medieval liturgical drama was closely governed by rules of interpretation. During the Renaissance, spoken plays in England and Spain developed inventive methods for staging, styles of performance, and even for the design and commercialization of theatres. Plays were written to please both the groundlings and the elevated rows of more expensive seats in Elizabethan playhouses. Actors needed proficiency in the delivery of poetic text, dance, and music —not to mention convincing swordplay— to keep the whole audience entertained.
During the 18th and 19th Centuries, styles of performance —from the ornate posturing found in French and English comedies of manners to the overtly emotional sturm und drang interpretations of Shakespeare’s work in the German Romantic era— were governed by the taste of the times, and acting styles adapted to those expectations. Entirely new art forms evolved from these experiments. Ballet and Opera were both built on the evolution of classical music and stylized dance forms. They blended dramatic stories that prominently featured these popular art forms and subsequently informed dramatic acting across Europe throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. Even the evolution of the contemporary American Musical owes its origins to the blending of performance styles from the late 19th Century with contemporary popular music, dance, and singing, to create new dramatic structures and storytelling conventions.
From our 21st Century perspective, steeped in the influences of acting for film, television, and other recorded media, non-realistic acting may seem like a clumsy or unrefined version of the art form, but it simply adheres to a different set of conventions. “Good” acting is defined by the tastes of an audience and the parameters of behavior established by the artists. The central importance of being fully present in the work seems to be a constant in the evaluation of an actor’s performance. Great actors are acclaimed for their ability to persuade an audience to be fully invested in and connected to the emotional relatability of their situation and their capacity to communicate “truthfully” through gestures and nuances of a performance. Being overly demonstrative or reliant on trite cliches to express a situation is often criticized, while the originality or charismatic appeal of a performance is consistently praised. Great actors always seem to ride the edge of originality in performance without abandoning the rules and conventions of their time that govern audience expectations. The rise of silent film gives us interesting insights into how this evolution takes place. When we look at the early “passionate” performances delivered on film by silent film stars like Theda Bara or Rudolph Valentino, we may giggle at the smoldering reaction shots and melodramatic gestures, but the scale and energy of these performances were widely praised and appreciated by audiences of the era. As filmmaking evolved, actors too discovered that the scale of a performance designed to reach the back row of a large Broadway theatre was not well suited to the film medium. By the 1960s, American filmmaking had redefined the subtlety of acting as an art form, demanding that actors work at a scale that was believable and understated.
In 1602, Shakespeare gave us some insight into the conventions of his time when Hamlet instructs a group of players on the nuances of subtle performance. The playwright deftly describes the priorities of his time and the failures of actors who do too much.
…suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special observance,
o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so
overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end,
both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere,
the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone,
or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful
laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the
censure of the which one must in your allowance
o’erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be
players that I have seen play, and heard others
praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely,
that, neither having the accent of Christians nor
the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so
strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of
nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them
well, they imitated humanity so abominably.
From Hamlet’s instructions to the Players, Act III, Scene 2
Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre
A key influence on acting in the early 20th Century was the work of Constantin Stanislavski as an actor, teacher, and director at the Moscow Art Theatre. Steeped in contemporary ideas about psychology and realistic behavior, Stanislavski taught and wrote about the training of actors for the Russian stage. He was a fierce advocate that Russian theatre was capable of setting a new standard for psychological realism, that is, the truthful reflection of natural human behavior based on the needs of characters to achieve objectives by overcoming physical or psychological obstacles. Only through perezhivanie, the actual living of the part, could truthful, spontaneous, and fully believable acting be achieved.4
While much has been made of the singular contributions of Constantin Stanislavski as an originator of contemporary acting, he was also very much a creature of time. He was an eager acting student as a young amateur, preoccupied with analyzing and evaluating what he felt were his failures as a performer. His habit of self-criticism and analysis helped him define his own priorities as an artist, director, and teacher. These priorities seemed to blossom most effectively in his later collaborations with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, his partner in the founding of the Moscow Art Theatre, and in his direction and interpretation of Anton Chekhov’s plays.
His written works attempting to explain his training methods were translated into English with substantial abridgments (An Actor Prepares, in 1936, Building a Character, in 1949, and Creating a Role, in 1961). In these books, Stanislavski and his principal English translator Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood attempted to capture “the grammar of acting.”5 He acknowledged that his theories were not original, but an attempt to capture the methods and priorities of actors who had known instinctively how to create great and memorable performances.
His books are written as personal accounts from the perspective of a student attending classes with a teacher and director (Tortsov, who is based on Stanislavski himself as a teacher and director at the Moscow Art Theatre). The writing follows the mistaken assumptions of the student and his gradual discovery of rules and guidelines used to uncover truthful acting. The books embed key ideas of Stanislavski’s observations about the art and craft of acting, including the need for actors to pursue objectives on stage, to respect the given circumstances and obstacles facing the character, and the obligation to become immersed in the dual consciousness of sensing and responding from the character’s perspective while also staying conscious of the actor’s responsibilities within the larger performance. Perhaps most influentially, Stanislavski advocated that the imaginative transformation of an actor into a character relies on the “Magic If.” Simply put, if an actor could imagine being in the circumstances of the character deeply enough, the physical and emotional manifestations and expressions of the characters would flow from that accepted possibility.
The novelty of Stanislavski’s approach and the broader impact of psychological realism was that actors were challenged to not only express the outward behavior and gestures of a character accurately but also to take ownership of inward thoughts and intentions. Thinking from within the characters’ experience stimulates spontaneous physical and emotional reactions and a realistic belief in the immediate circumstances of a scene or situation. Stanislavski observed, in the great actors of his day, including Eleonora Duse and Tomasso Salvini, an exceptional attention to the details of natural gesture and behavior. In Duse, he found a performer who valued the erasure of her own identity in service to the playing of a character. In his writings, Stanislavski references the artistic approach of these natural performers and attempts to systematize their process in order to teach and direct a new generation of actors.
For more than thirty years, Stanislavski explored ways of describing the psycho-physiological transformation of acting. Along the way, he collaborated with remarkable playwrights (Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky), co-founded the Moscow Art Theatre with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, toured Europe and the United States with influential productions that ignited interest in his work, and attracted students and imitators from across the globe.
After a successful tour of the United States by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1923, two former members of Stanislavski’s company, Richard Boleslavski and Maria Ouspenskaya founded the American Lab Theatre, a school in New York that attempted in its brief ten-year lifespan to replicate the success of the Moscow Art Theatre as a center for innovative theatre creation and training. While many students who attended went on to have influential careers in New York and Hollywood, some of the nuances of Stanislavski’s elaborate system were distorted or exaggerated in their reiteration. Famous teachers of what become known as “The Method” included Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Sanford Meisner, and Uta Hagen. Many of these teachers were artists in their own right who influenced the growth of American theatre, television, radio, and film. They also helped to train a generation of actors and directors around whom a certain level of hype and mystique was established. American audiences became enamored of the deeply invested, emotionally potent performances of actors like Marlon Brando, Anne Bancroft, Montgomery Clift, Ellen Burstyn, and James Dean. Actors trained in “The Method” seemed to have a vibrancy and emotional depth unmatched by other actors in film and television, and the industry took note. Many teachers who started training actors in New York found success working in Hollywood and developed fervent – and sometimes competitive – followers and loyalists.
One unfortunate consequence of this sudden rise of Method acting was the inference it created that these teachers were in possession of a formula or secret that could transform anyone into a movie star. This persistent idea, that acting is a formulaic craft that could be unlocked through the right combination of knowledge and experiences, diminishes the importance of inventiveness and originality in individual actors. A pattern – established with the original teachers of Method acting – reinforced loyalty to great acting teachers and adherence to their methods. Even in contemporary Method actors, like Daniel Day-Lewis and Christian Bale, our admiration for their work is sometimes conflated with a fascination for their self-sacrificing process of preparing for roles or staying fully immersed in character experiences while working on a set or inhabiting a character. Whether this depth of investment is a necessary cost for deeply committed work or a potentially self-destructive focus on transformation, is a widely debated point in professional acting and in the current training of actors.
The reputation surrounding Method actors is mixed, as the demands of rehearsal and performance require both a collaborative actor and a believable character, especially in live performance. The success of Method acting in film is more sustainable, in part, because it is more editable. But an actor (or director) who sustains the “reality” of character experiences continuously flirts with the foundations of psychological attachment to the self. Actors who remain immersed in role-playing come to believe more deeply in the truth of what they are doing.
In 1971, Phillip Zimbardo, a psychologist at Stanford University, set out to test a theory about the aggressive behavior of guards in American prisons. In his experiment, 24 students were selected to participate in a study of the psychological effects of prison life. The participants were randomly divided into the roles of either prisoners or guards. What followed was a now infamous example of the ways in which complete investment in role-playing can transform behavior and perceptions. The experiment, originally scheduled to last for two weeks, was halted after 6 days due to the emotional consequences on the prisoners and the rapid escalation of abuse and cruelty from the guards. Even the leader of the experiment later acknowledged that he was drawn into the “role” of prison superintendent and lost his objectivity as a research psychologist.6
While this may seem like an isolated example, it is also a cautionary tale for actors. Immersion in an experience and the immediate actions of playing a role draw our imagination toward increased levels of belief in the reality of our experience. For actors who invest in a psychologically realistic approach, a performance is built from belief in the immediate reality of the situation. Reactions that occur “in character” are cultivated to be spontaneous, and the more deeply the actor invests in the reality of the situation, the more truthful and uncalculated those reactions and emotional responses become.
What is true and adaptable from this approach is the importance of developing any performance from the internal realities of the actor. The emotional investment of the character belongs to the actor, and the communicated thoughts of the character are expressed by the actor, so any contemporary performance that is believable begins from the actor’s ability to reveal a vulnerable part of themselves and react to the truth of that experience. The challenge for the actor is to balance the emotional and physical demands of an invested performance against the practical challenges of consistent and reliable collaboration with others in an artistic process.
We may admire particular actors and wish to emulate their work. Sometimes this admiration is rooted in the qualities of a character they have played, or the charisma of the actor. Often, we relate to something the actor has found a way to express, or a quality we wish we were able to project ourselves. There is no uniform definition of “great acting.” We are equally willing to appreciate a chameleon and a movie star. Many great character actors can disappear completely into a role without leaving a celebrity footprint behind while being fully believable and relatable for an audience. Many stars make careers playing their own projected personas over and over again, but do so with such charisma and investment that we admire and enjoy their work even though we recognize consistent features in every character they play. The unifying feature in both of these examples is our readiness to believe in the character we are presented with and to relate to the immediate experiences of that character in the story being enacted.
What draws us into a great performance is not far removed from the qualities that Stanislavski set out to define over a hundred years ago. These qualities are consistent across different conventions and styles, they are adaptable for different actors, and while they can be defined and explained individually, their expression is the collective measure of what we call “talent” in an acting performance. What are the elements of talent for an actor? While different teachers place greater emphasis on different elements, most return to variations of the list below.
Training and conditioning of actors, as Lee Strasberg stressed, must instill enough “belief, faith, and imagination” to allow an actor to “live through” the demands of the performance.7 In his book, Acting Power, Robert Cohen describes the preparatory work of an actor as the gradual stacking of a set of plates, each with a layer of gradually developed habit and awareness, which can only be carried successfully by an actor who remains relaxed, fully present, and in harmony with their immediate experience while performing. Cohen also draws comparisons to the performance of an athlete, who trains in the physical rigors and patterns of awareness needed to excel at a game, works collaboratively (or competitively) while following rules, finally revealing to spectators – with stamina, strategy, and passion – an investment in the goal of winning.8
Elements of Acting
- Technical and physical proficiencies (ability to memorize and interpret dialogue, physical awareness and stamina, expressive freedom and flexibility, relaxation and open readiness)
- Concentrated listening and situational awareness (presence and commitment)
- Invested pursuit of character needs (intentions and objectives)
- Vulnerability and Relationship (a willingness to be witnessed and work generously with other actors)
- Communion (conscious inclusion of audience)
- Imagination and uninhibited curiosity (potential for action, the Magic If’)
- Consistency with details of the character’s world (given circumstances)
For a student interested in being a good actor, any checklist (like the one above) can be a trap. The formula that Stanislavski was searching for largely eluded him in his lifetime. There is no single trick that an acting teacher can offer to instantly awaken an actor’s talent. There is no shortcut or hidden secret to be revealed. That said, systematic exploration of work defines the spine of how contemporary acting can be understood and provides areas of discovery for actors to explore.
Technical and Physical Proficiencies
To begin the work of acting, there are essential skills. An actor must be able to absorb dialogue from a script and learn to decode, analyze, and understand the language used expressively by and about the character. The mental challenge of memorizing language is largely taken for granted as an acting skill but is not an insignificant obstacle for many performers. Memorizing a few lines of dialogue can seem effortless, but memorizing five acts of Shakespearean text requires time, discipline, analytical skills, and dedication.
Much like how the actor’s mind must be conditioned to absorb and express language, an actor’s body must be flexible enough to use gestures, physical actions, and movement to freely communicate needs and intentions. Most fundamental training that actors undergo begins with awareness of physical tension and the capacity to recognize and release blocks, patterns of inhibition, and physical mannerisms that limit expressive flexibility. Disciplines from yoga to martial arts, from dance to strength conditioning, are used in conservatory training to help actors develop the stamina and physical awareness to use the body as a performing instrument. An actor’s awareness and physical presence is rooted in sensing themselves in space, oriented around a physical center and an aligned connection to the ground. Actors are well served by the capacity to feel and demonstrate different movement vocabularies, tempos, and qualities. How an actor arrives at this level of kinesthetic awareness matters less than its compatibility with the demands of a role or the capacity of the actor to adapt physically to new challenges. In some acting traditions, training is primarily built around physical conditioning. One rationale for deeply physical training of actors – such as the teachings of Jerzy Grotowski or Tadashi Suzuki – is that physical exercises that push an actor to the limits of endurance naturally integrate body, breath, and a physical connection to intentions. This threshold can disrupt unconscious patterns of physical tension in the body and overwhelm conscious efforts to control or inhibit the performer’s experience.
An actor’s breath and voice are also foundational tools, not only for the expression of language but also for the full release of physical and emotional energy through action and gesture. Too often, beginning actors will timidly memorize the text of a scene or mimic gestures of staging only to discover that when they fully commit themselves to play the intentions and actions of a scene, their preparations fall apart. Actors need to learn the essential reality of rehearsal, which is that acting is about the investment and conditioning of the body, the voice, the breath, and the mind so that performing is possible without hesitation or lapses of concentration or endurance. Rehearsal is not just a mental exercise it is also a fully physical one.
Listening and Situational Awareness
Lee Strasberg’s ideal of “living through” the demands of a performance revolves around the actor’s awareness and perception of their character’s perspective. When an actor listens in character, they are listening with the needs and intentions of the character as their priority.
They are not showing the audience a character. They are concentrated on attuning their awareness to what is relevant to the character’s needs in the world that surrounds them and responding accordingly.
In his book The Actor and The Target, Declan Donnellan emphasizes that unblocked acting needs a target, meaning that an actor’s concentrated awareness is intent on influencing something or someone outside of the actor.
The active target locates the energy outside us so that we can then bounce off it, react to it, and live off it; the target becomes an external battery.
So, instead of always wondering “What am I doing?” it is more helpful to ask “What is the target doing?” Or better “What is the target making me do?”9
For beginning actors, this outward focus is often an inversion of their learned experience. Actors on stage are frequently self-conscious and self-aware. They know they are being observed and suspect they are being judged. Worse, they feel a responsibility to demonstrate something emotional or effortful to anyone observing their “acting.” The response is often to “indicate” the emotional energy for the scene without considering the actions or immediate needs of the character. Preoccupation with the self misses the most fundamental job of the actor – to remain outwardly aware, attuned to an external target, and actively processing new information gathered from the behavior of others and the unfolding events around them. All this listening has the purpose of stimulating believable actions and responses. It also requires an actor to let go of control of how they are perceived by an audience and focus on what they are attentive to from the character’s point of view.
Invested Pursuit of Character Needs
Stanislavski referred to a hierarchy of character objectives, that function as guideposts for the actor’s work. Other terms – needs, intentions, goals – have been used to describe this principle, but the central notion is the same. On stage – as in life – people want things. Sometimes they are motivated by petty desires or casual preferences, sometimes they are moved by deeply invested goals. If we pursue an intention, it is normally because we believe that achieving that intention will reward us going forward in some way. We typically seek out positive outcomes and tailor our behavior to reach that outcome.
Robert Cohen models this idea around the challenge of a person running away from a bear. His point is that the person in that predicament is less likely to think about why they are running and more preoccupied with the future goal of escaping and overcoming any immediate obstacles in their path. Rather than thinking about why “this bear is making me run away” (which certainly explains his motivation) the fleeing man is thinking “How will I get into the cabin? How will I be able to open the door when I get there?”10 During a performance there is little value for an actor in thinking about what has motivated their behavior. That self-analysis does not stimulate action. Activating thoughts are built around strategies for positive forward progress.
When an actor is preparing a performance, the intentions of the character aim toward a positive future outcome that the character imagines is achievable. Even if the actor knows that the outcome will not be successful, the immediacy and urgency of the performance rely on the commitment of the actor to the character’s belief in achieving this positive future outcome.
Vulnerability and Relationship
One of the most misunderstood parts of acting is the value of emotional expression and availability. Actors are often eager to demonstrate their capacity to provoke an emotional response. But being able to cry on cue, or express rage or joy, is not the primary task of an actor. The first task of the actor is to commit to the truthful pursuit of the characters’ intentions. The obstacles that block or challenge the character/actor and the urgency of the pursuit will give natural expression to the emotional realities of a scene. This revelation is not as easy as it sounds. We tend to mask our true feelings or inhibit their full expression when we do not feel completely safe. It is a practical strategy for most people to avoid public vulnerability or intimacy and we often equate it with weakness or fragility. The idea of being exposed, of having our intimate feelings laid bare, is a terrifying prospect that most normal people assiduously avoid. But most people are not actors.
The peculiar reality for an actor is that vulnerability is a creative superpower. When actors are uninhibited, they allow their impulses to guide their actions, behavior, and emotional responses in performance. The emotional editor that holds the actor’s inner life at a distance from others is suspended. Instead of indicating an emotional state and trying to demonstrate the feeling of the character, the actor is free to live the authentic emotional response awakened by the lived experience of the character. For the audience, there is an honestly expressed emotional reaction in the character that is relatable and authentic. For the actor, there is the freedom to channel an authentic physical and emotional response through the experience of a character without lingering real-life consequences.
For young actors learning to trust their impulses on stage, a valuable signal may be that moment of fear or desire to recoil away from a feeling or an action that feels risky or unsafe. Sometimes the rational mind will kick in and say, “this is not a good choice for this character because it makes me (the actor) feel unsafe.” This reaction may be a signal from your ego-preserving brain that you are about to expose your true feelings, but in the context of acting, what is really being exposed, from the audience’s perspective, is the emotional truth of the character. If the actor can welcome that vulnerability, and lean into that fear, they can learn to trust that authentic feelings awakened by actions on stage are precisely the connection an audience needs to relate to, believe in, and empathize with a character.
The most important connection of trust and vulnerability in theatre is the one between actors on stage. In an ensemble that values authentic performance, actions on stage are not simply played by other actors, they are deliberately pursued to affect and render changes in the relationships between characters. Between actors, changes are absorbed and responded to on a physical and emotional level, thoughts and intentions are lived experiences, and emotional responses are immediate. Scene partners, through rehearsal and performance, reveal themselves to one another directly, and the intimacy of that relationship relies on trust. As with any intimate relationship, the deeper the trust, the easier it becomes for actors on stage together to freely communicate and play intentions that are true to the circumstances of the scene. When a relationship on stage becomes electric, it is usually because the levels of communication between the actors are complex, vulnerable, and dynamic.
There are important guardrails to this approach to vulnerability. An actor who plays their emotional inner life is not robbed of the agency, or responsibility, to protect themselves or other people in the theatre. Taking emotional risks in reliving trauma, or allowing physical risks or harm to overpower sensible choices about action and choreography is not good acting. In some cases, it is abusive behavior. Trust between actors must be earned, valued, and reciprocated. The rehearsal period should allow gradual experimentation with vulnerability, and in dramatic situations of physical violence or intimacy, there are sensible methods that build trust and establish boundaries for actors to play safely in moments of deep vulnerability.
When actors move from the preparation of roles in rehearsal to the performance of characters before an audience, a new relationship is created. Even while the preparations are underway, actors must begin to think about their task as not simply living the part, but also sharing that experience with an audience. There are practical considerations: can an actor be seen or heard from every seat in the audience? Is the scale of action and movement on stage discernible? Is vocal expression and articulation intelligible and believable? In contemporary theatre, a wealth of technology is available to manage audibility. Actors working for television and film are faced with very different challenges of scale and natural behavior than actors working on large stages for Broadway or in the West End. Despite these variables, the one thing that all of these actors must face and integrate into their performances is an audience.
For actors in live theatre, audience reactions and attentive awareness provide an immediate source of information. An audience breathes, laughs, and reacts in concert with the performance, or it falls away into distraction, coughing, or disinterest. Restlessness is audible, feet shuffle, programs flutter. The response and reaction of a live audience is a barometer for the capacity of a play to reach and fully engage the attention and interest of an audience. For an actor on stage, the presence of the audience can be felt as an integral part of the living action on stage. Even if the fourth wall – that imaginary barrier between the world of the play and the audience – is intact, the actors must play on stage remembering that the audience is an included member of every conversation.
For actors working before a camera, this awareness of the audience is not entirely absent. What differs is the scale and energy of what is revealed for the audience to observe and absorb. The learned skill of acting for the camera is to allow the camera itself to do most of the work. For actors trained to scale their expression to a live theatre audience, the internal work of acting is no different before the camera. All that really changes is the proximity and focused observation of the audience. Gone also, when an actor works before the camera, is the immediate feedback of audience reaction, the moments of attentive silence, laughter, or collective exhale that signal response to a performance. Actors in mediated performance are often on a journey to simplify and give private access, but they are never fully without an audience, it is simply represented by the viewpoint of the camera.
Imagination and Uninhibited Curiosity
Many teachers of The Method emphasized an idea put forward by Stanislavski suggesting that an actor could (and should) use memories of past experiences to create authentic emotional connections to circumstances within a scene. Stanislavski himself was methodical in his approach to defining objectives and obstacles for a character. Both as an actor and as a director he demonstrated his belief that the lived experiences and memories of the actor were the best resources to incite realistic behavior on stage.
One actor and teacher who broke with this methodology was Mikhail Chekhov, the nephew of playwright Anton Chekhov and an actor recognized by Stanislavski himself as among the most talented performers of the Russian stage. Chekhov worked closely with Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre for 16 years, but the volatility of his imagination and creative energy was a constant source of friction with the more systematic teachings and ideas of Stanislavski. Ultimately, Mikhail (later Michael) Chekhov left Russia for the west, shifting through Berlin, Paris, New York, and England before landing in California in the 1940s. His ideas about acting, related through teachers of his work and his own writings, included several important divergences from Stanislavski designed to empower actors with greater faith in their own imagination and the physical expression of thought. He asserted that the Creative Imagination was the actor’s most powerful tool and that a vivid, flexible, and detailed imagination could not only guide an actor through the emotional journeys of a character’s experience but could surpass the expressive limits of memory and experience. For Chekhov, the imaginable possibilities of a role were an expansive canvas for exploration and invention. He also believed in a close association between imagination, physical sensation, and the power of gesture to awaken action and intention, both in rehearsal and in the delivery of a performance. Chekhov advocated for the use of Psychological Gesture as a non-intellectual pathway to directly connect the physical energy and imagination of the actor to the expression of character.
As a guidepost for contemporary actors, Chekhov’s ideas add another piece to the puzzle for the exploration of character and invention. Actors need vivid imaginations and a fierce curiosity about the invented possibilities within a role that can enrich and enliven a performance.
Consistent Awareness of Details of the Character’s World
It is a fitting counterpoint to the importance of impulse and imagination to recognize that actors are also obligated to preserve a consistent reality for their characters. For any role, the Given Circumstances of the scene connect the actor’s work to a set of parameters within which they must confine choices and decisions about the character. An actor cast in a play from a particular time period, with specific relationships, and a defined history, must incorporate – through research, observation, and detailed analysis of the script – details of that world and patterns of behavior that sustain both the substance and the context of the character’s life. This can lead actors through elaborate stages of character research and development as they learn to understand and internalize how a character thinks and lives within the framework of the world. The more detailed and specific the knowledge gathered by the actor, the more freely the actor can incorporate those details into the actions, perspectives, and world views of the character.
Careers and the Professional Realities of Acting
Film and television have catapulted actors to the heights of celebrity, but the business of acting is far from being a sure path to fame and fortune. In the United States, the professional union for stage actors, Actors Equity Association, typically records levels of unemployment among its members above 90%. For most working actors, the primary work of their careers is the process of auditioning for work and only a limited amount of time is spent actually working under contract as actors on stage. Very few stage actors can afford to specialize, and most compete for work in all kinds of media, from voice-over and motion-capture work to commercials, industrial film, internet production, and motion pictures.
For actors who have dedicated significant time, resources, and effort to training, career marketing, networking, and the building of a professional career, the odds of success by any definition – a living wage, consistent employment, stable careers, fame, wealth – are, at best, remote. This situation is exacerbated by the broad perception that entry into careers in acting is an effortless lottery for which the only skill or preparation that is needed is a readiness to be “discovered.” The simple fact is that the businesses supported by the work of actors are so glutted with people willing to work that the establishment of stable careers is a rare accomplishment. Many, if not most, professional actors balance more than one source of income, including flexible day jobs, second careers that provide stable access to health care and benefits, or independent employment that is more lucrative and stable than the actual work of being a professional actor.
This dire employment picture has done little to discourage a steady flow of talented performers moving into, through – and often – out of the industry. The tasks of this professional journey are often built around the tools of self-promotion and access to employment – headshots, websites, reels, relationships with casting agencies, and union affiliation. Beyond that, a sub-industry of classes, coaching, marketing help, and career management has evolved that frequently does more to siphon off resources from hopeful actors than it actually adds to their potential for employment. Many actors entering the field after success in local or academic theatre spend a period of time struggling before shifting their life goals and moving into new careers. Others find a balance that allows professional work to trickle in while a second career allows for stable subsistence. Another large group discovers that the pathway of professional acting is less rewarding than the opportunities to continue practice in the art form in local community theatre, occasional regional employment, or involvement with voluntary arts organizations that both educate and support arts programming in their communities.
For actors able to advance in the profession, lucrative employment opportunities do exist. Concentrated centers for live theatre performance are dominated by New York City and the theatres on and off-Broadway that offer the greatest public exposure and highest pay rates for stage actors. The minimum weekly salary for an Equity contract on Broadway (in 2022) is just over $2000. While some actors can command higher than the minimum, most actors are making dramatically less if they are employed outside the commercial theatres surrounding Times Square. Broadway productions are also performed on tour, with actors traveling between runs at regional “roadhouses,” commercial theatres that host touring productions in major cities across the country. Those same cities are likely to support locally-based, non-profit regional theatres that hire professional actors, paying weekly salaries based on their seating capacity and projected box office earnings (League of Regional Theatre weekly salary minimums ranges from just over $600 to just under $1400).11 Outside of major urban centers, smaller theatres are able to operate under developing theatre contracts or employ professional actors as guest artists. Those contract minimums do not offer much above the hourly equivalent of minimum wage in most parts of the country, though they do allow professional actors, who work steadily, access to health care coverage and retirement benefits.
For commercial theatres, and larger non-profit theatres that rely heavily on steady revenue from ticket sales, the consistent delivery of the “product”– regularly scheduled performances – has established some safeguards that also provide employment opportunities for actors. Professional theatres frequently employ understudies, swings, and standby performers to safeguard their performance schedules and ensure that every role is covered. Understudies are typically actors already performing in a production who are also expected to learn other roles in the show. In the event that another actor is unable to perform (for example, due to illness), the understudy is expected to step in. Typically, that situation creates a domino effect in which other actors move into new roles for that performance and a swing steps into the production to cover any role that is needed. The swing may be expected to learn a wide range of smaller roles in the show and to be ready on short notice to arrive at the theatre to cover a performance. For many large Broadway musicals, for example, the coverage of each performer’s “track” through the show typically involves periodic rehearsals and adjustments once a show is open and running. For open-ended Broadway runs – often slated for eight performances a week – actors may be employed for a period of time and then leave the production, setting up a situation where new actors are brought in and the system of coverage is reshuffled without disrupting the continuous delivery of performances. Quite literally, this process is built around the expectation that “the show must go on.”
A similar arrangement may employ a standby actor, who learns a role and observes performances by a principal actor, so as to be ready to step in and cover that part in a production without disrupting the assignments for the rest of the cast. The challenges of producing live plays in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic drew attention to this support system, particularly on Broadway, where actors were subject to constant testing as a condition of employment, and understudies and standbys were frequently pressed into service to keep productions going. Not all professional theatres employ understudies, since it is only cost effective when the lost revenues of a cancelled performance outweigh the expenses and logistical challenges of keeping a team of actors rehearsed and ready to perform on short notice.
Actors in film, television and evolving digital media forms benefit from the substantial earning potential of mass media releases. Not surprisingly, the center for this part of the industry is Los Angeles, but the employment reach of these media giants is international. Most professional actors working in mediated formats are governed by the Screen Actors Guild–Association of Radio and Television Artists (SAG–AFTRA), though several other labor unions have overlapping jurisdictions. For the actor seeking a lottery ticket of discovery, work in this part of the entertainment industry is the most promising path to short bursts of high income, but the challenges of breaking into and sustaining a career in this competitive branch of the industry as an actor are difficult to overstate. Since our celebrity-obsessed culture is quick to identify and reward actors, athletes, and entertainers who reach the financial pinnacle of success, their success stories can seem deceptively normal or attainable. For every one actor who does become a household name, hundreds – and possibly thousands – of others end up diverted away from viable full-time careers as performers.
For young actors setting their sights on careers on stage or in front of the camera, these dire realities may seem deeply discouraging and, to be honest, they are. That said, the work itself is deeply rewarding and the challenges of building a career as an actor – while daunting – offer opportunities for self-discovery and adventure, unlike other “safe” career choices. Many, from recklessness or determination, still choose to take the risk and commit themselves to careers in acting. For a lucky few, possessed not only with talent, but also drive, ambition, resilience, self-discipline, charisma, and extraordinary adaptability – the dream might come true and will be worth the attempt. For these same people, not taking the risk to pursue a professional career in acting would be a lifelong regret.
Setting aside the bleak employment picture for dedicated careers as professional actors, the study of acting is a broadly beneficial experience that supports the development of valuable skills. Trained actors are very employable. Experience as an actor builds confidence with public performance, communication, empathetic awareness, and improvisation. Physical training strengthens vocal and physical expression and decreases anxiety when dealing with public performances or presentations (a frequent requirement in many professional careers). Memorization of language and physical movement, comfort with collaborative behavior, and ancillary experiences with artistic expression through music, dance, and other performative forms are consistently enriching experiences that yield broad social and professional benefits difficult to derive from other formative experiences. Like the self-disciplinary and physical benefits associated with athletics, a robust exposure to experiences and training in the performing arts is not simply good preparation for a wide range of careers, it is also life-enriching, regardless of a person’s vocational path or professional goals.
Actors Equity Association
Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
Stand by actor