There are cliches among actors and those who teach acting. Let’s call it “actor-talk”. They are not meant to harm, but they have that potential. Here are two mantras for actors (and teachers of acting) that I find to be essentially useless:
- “It’s all about the work.” This is often intoned as if floating down to earth from the artistic gods on high. To me, saying “it’s all about the work” is a little like saying – “the air…it’s all about the oxygen”. C’mon, of course it’s all about the work. Isn’t that self-evident? Delving a little deeper I also find that this mind-set creates a place where actors can “hide”. If an actor is not getting results in the real-world marketplace, they are free to say….”hey, that’s ok, I’m all about the work.” It creates a safe place where lack of success cannot be addressed. It’s tough to get real with the actor because good intentions are difficult to criticize. Yes, it is all about the work – AND? That should just be the baseline of an actor’s career intentions. What else is it about? The harsh reality is that we are (and must be) process-oriented creatures in a results oriented world. This is the age-old battle between art and commerce. My advice? Don’t hide behind “it’s all about the work.” Yes, it absolutely is that, but it’s also about much more: strategy, determination, a sense of fun, drive, networking, and laser-like focus. “It’s all about the work” is a very good place to start, but there is so much more. Don’t accept that purity of intentions is enough – it’s not. One must move on and up from there.
- “The stakes aren’t high enough.” Taken on it’s own, this is another fairly useless, and commonly heard commentary. In my nearly 40 years of professional work on stage, features, and TV, I’ve never heard this phrase uttered in a professional setting. Ever. Let’s be clear, this is “acting-class-talk”. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with acting-class-talk…..if it’s useful. As an acting teacher myself I recognize that it’s very easy to say something like this because, frankly, it gets you off the hook! Saying this buys the teacher some “thinking time” as he tries to come up with something cogent or actually useful while the actor in front of him is waiting for some commentary on their work (assuming that the teacher even possesses that skill). It’s an all-encompassing phrase that means little on its own, and can actually do harm because it can create a narrative in the actor’s head where he or she is never enough. Unless it’s life or death….it’s never enough! It’s a no-win place for the actor. Then comes a stream of disappointments in one’s self because the “stakes are never high enough”. I’ve had very good actors do excellent work, and then beat themselves up thinking it wasn’t enough….the stakes weren’t high enough….THEY were not enough. Bottom line: if an actor is fully in the scene, playing the real circumstances with depth and understanding, listening, receiving, and responding in kind – most of the time the stakes are high enough. And if they’re not, specific notes on specific moments (“change moments”) in the scene are helpful along with making sure the actor is asking the proper questions in the first place. Building that process with excellent foundational training insures that the stakes will always be appropriate. I’ve seen actors beat themselves up first, as soon as a scene is finished, as a defense mechanism against criticism. Part of the teacher’s job is to try and break this toxic habit. It improves nothing.
From the teacher’s perspective……
“The stakes aren’t high enough” can be “code” for:
- I can’t think of anything useful to say….so I’m saying this. For now.
- I want you to take you down a peg so that I can then build you up and proclaim “look what I just did!”
- I don’t fully believe you, and can’t really zero in on what’s wrong….but I have to say something!
- The actor is not prepared, training-wise and technique-wise, to attempt deeper work
Teachers: My advice? Take time to think before you offer up a general and all-encompassing critique that’s short on really useful specifics. Let it settle in. Jeffrey Tambor, long-time friend and wonderful acting teacher would sometimes take an enormous amount of time before he commented on a scene. He just sat in silence, and didn’t speak until he had something useful to say. I have tried to emulate his thoughtfulness.
Actors: Lead a fully examined life. If you marry that with highly developed skills – the stakes will take care of themselves. Strive to be more than someone who hides behind a commitment to “the work.” Take no shortcuts to acquiring the technical skills that an actor needs: deep text analysis, strong vocal work, and fully integrated physicality appropriate to the role, and the world of the scene. And….remember, it should be FUN, even in its intensity.
- To be treated with empathy
- To be treated like adults, not children
- To have real expectations placed on them
- High standards
- Laser-like focus
- Dedication to the work and to their life as artists
- Real foundational training
- To retain their sense of play
- Multiple strategies (within the scene, the career, and the life)
- Strong technique vocally and physically
- FULL understanding and exploration of the text
When I began to teach, someone I respect quite a bit offered up this advice: “Be brutal. Be tough with them. Take no prisoners”. This was well-intentioned, but off the mark – at least for me.
The world will be brutal enough with most artists – real success being an ever-changing challenge. I have gotten far better results with kindness, real specificity, humor, technical adjustments, encouragement….all wrapped in a package of high expectations and high standards.
“It’s all about the work” – that’s true if the work is aligned with dedication, real skill, humor, drive, focus, and a template for success. Actors and teachers (of which I am both) – beware the platitudes, the generalities, and the happy feel-good psycho-babble. It doesn’t help.
It’s like building a house: it takes time, planning, a great foundation, patience, and artistry – never forget that.