In both instances, you who were playing, and we who were watching, gave ourselves up completely to what was happening on the stage. Such successful moments, by themselves, we can recognize as belonging to the art of living a part.
Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares
Acting is about living in the imagined circumstances of the script. We’ve all seen bad acting; where it’s clear that the actor is just saying lines, going through the motions, not connecting with the audience and really just not inspiring you to keep watching. We’ve also all seen good acting, where we completely forget that we’re watching a film or a play and we really believe we’re there, watching real life.
As actors we want to have every performance we give be that good. The question is, how do we do it?
Stanislavski talks about inhabiting the character so we are living truthfully in the imagined circumstances, which sounds fantastic. It’s called “the method” and is a really useful starting point, although some actors do take it too far. But say you’re working on a script or a character that you’ve only just seen; you’ve had the script for a few minutes and need to give a full performance for the camera or in a voice over session. How can you fulfil the detailed analysis called for by Stanislavski or Uta Hagen?
We need to remember that acting is about being in the moment. In the test at the beginning of An Actor Prepares we are told of 2 individual moments when Maria and Kostya managed to utterly convince themselves and the audience of the moment. Kostya, when asked, says he can’t remember how he felt when he said “Blood, Iago! Blood!” because he was subconciously in the moment. The trick is to bring that subconcious brilliance to being part of the concious process. If you’ve only had a script for a few moments then it’s almost impossible to do a full analysis, like so many actors try to do. It might even be impossible to answer all of Uta Hagen’s questions to get into character. This is why actors need a varied selection of tools, and there are 2 which I think are the best for creating strong choices which keep you in the moment. Both take some practice and preparation, but this should be done ahead of time and tucked away for when you need them.
The first is to study improvisation, especially improvised theatre or improvised comedy. As well as playing games like “Yes, and” and the word at a time story (which are just plain fun!), it gives you practice in running with an idea and having a scene coming from it. if you’re in front of a live audience, you’ll get seconds between hearing the suggestion and having to start the scene. You’ll need to give yourself fully to the choices that you and your scene partners make. The more practice you get, the more you’ll be able to trust your instincts, and the more you’ll find it easier to follow the scene through.
The second tool I think every actor should work on is having a cast of characters or archetypes you can fulfil. If you go into a voice over session, you’re likely to be seeing the script for the first time and will need to work quickly. I have a few character types that I keep on hand, so if I go through a script I can choose which of them best fits the needs of the script. Because I already know those characters well I can start to mould them to the specific scenarios, knowing full well that they will react in character.
There is a reason, I feel, why the first of Stanislavski’s texts is An Actor Prepares; preparation is key to any scene, to any character, and to any performance, but it’s not always necessary to prepare the script. Sometimes it isn’t timely to prepare the script. It’s important to have the training and knowledge of your characters ahead of time, to prepare your tool kit so that you can reach for the right one, knowing it’s in the best condition and ready for action.