Acting: some things they probably won’t tell you in acting class
I don’t want to imply any disrespect for the acting craft, but a lot of acting classes frankly degenerate into singing “kumbaya” around a camp fire. At least, that’s been my experience. This might be because most of my teachers were schooled in method acting. But if it isn’t method, some other process which forces one to roll around in emotional traumas, it is highly intellectualized theory and strange “exercises”. It is entirely normal in an acting class to walk around a room trying to embody an animal, or a force of nature, or an emotion, or a color. You can also expect a lot of thought and abstraction and discussion regarding what, specifically, acting *is*.
That’s great. But when you get to a set a director won’t care.
There is a profound difference between acting in class and acting on set. Acting teachers, for one thing, know how to talk to actors about acting. Many directors don’t. Some genuinely don’t know how. Some have no interest. Some even have contempt for the idea of speaking in an actor’s language. I am frankly surprised at how badly many directors communicate, even the well meaning ones. This is the first thing they won’t tell you in an acting class:
A director will rarely know how to tell you what he or she wants.
There are several reasons for this. 1) Many directors have absolutely no acting background. 2) Of those that do, they often have absolutely no concept of clear communication. This doesn’t make them bad people, or bad directors. It’s just that a director’s job is very often like trying to describe colors to the blind. A director also has a lot to think about, which leads to the next rule of thumb:
A director will rarely give you all the time you need.
This is not because a director does not care. If anyone, they care more than anyone else. But they are also responsible for far more of the production than anyone else (with all due deference to those who need it). As a result, they usually have several things on their mind at once, even in rehearsal. As an actor, many issues that come up with your performance are issues with how you integrate into the scene and work at large. This means that if you are given a note, your ability to follow the note is often more important than your understanding of why the note is given. In other words, it’s not just about you. It’s about the entire show. So you might get a note that challenges you, or that you don’t entirely understand. But the director may only have time to give you some instruction, maybe a bit of insight, and then need to move on to something else. In these cases, it is the actor’s responsibility to fill in the gaps of insight themselves. The good news is a director is actually relying on your ability to do this, and do it wholeheartedly. So don’t worry about getting it “wrong”. Worry about making fully committed decisions. A director wants to see that you’re making visible adjustments and viable creative choices. It doesn’t matter if those choices are “right” or “wrong”. It matters that you’re able to follow directions. And while we’re talking about following directions:
Time pressures on all productions usually means a director has more appreciation for your ability to show up on time, know your lines, follow cues, and hit marks.
Everyone loves a great performance. Everyone would like each member of the cast to be brilliant. Likewise, actors would love to always BE brilliant. But unfortunately, this is just not the case. Some actors, quite frankly, suck. Others have the occasional bad day. But others still have an even more frustrating problem, and it happens particularly with gifted performers: irresponsibility. There are few afflictions in acting worse than knowing that you are good at it. This is where stage divas and megalomaniacs come from. Sometimes a director may tolerate a gifted actor who is more innocently free spirited. But whether it’s tolerated or not, an actor who does not show up on time or follow directions is ultimately selfish. Such people do not understand that a show is only as good as its cooperation. Any time an actor adds an unwanted flourish, draws inappropriate attention, uses more of the director’s time, or generally brings undue focus to one’s self, they make the show worse, not better.
Also remember a director does not like to babysit or repeat himself. And given all the various pressures of production, an actor who can deliver bare minimum reliably is often more valuable than an unpredictable talent. And this is because of one more rule of thumb:
To directors, actors are cogs in a much larger machine.
Alfred Hitchcock himself described actors as cattle, and this man worked with some of Hollywood’s best. But again, this is not to diminish the actor. Rather, it is to emphasize the holistic nature of productions. Even in the smallest projects, hundreds of separate elements must be made to work together congruently. While most rehearsal time is spent with actors, who are acting, the director is always building performances that will work in relation to other elements. In a play this can be sound cues, lighting changes, and other actors. In film the requirements of a particular shot can result in very strange and regimented instructions. I’ve heard a director instructing a cast to “do nothing, but do it interestingly”, because that director was gauging how useful the results would be to the larger project. The lesson here is that actors are ingredients, the spices and flavors given to a production. They are not the meat. And without the work of every single person on that set, doing their part to communicate the script or create an experience, an actor’s work is meaningless and provides no sustenance. Good acting work is only possible when an actor performs as an equal with, and not apart from, their fellow cast and crew mates.