I am difficult to please when it comes to acting. The average actor’s performance does not impress me. That’s because the average actor’s performance is designed to fool me, not to move me. They do a good impersonation of a person, but there’s something missing, deeper, more connected and more moving that’s just not there.
I have exceptionally high standards for what a good performance is, because I know what it can be. When I compare someone’s performance to what it could be, I can see what’s missing. I am never unhappy with the actor themselves, oftentimes they are unaware of how to make their performance compelling. They might be able to deliver a believable performance, but they need to make it compelling to truly capture their audience.
I don’t want you to be good. I want you to leave people unable to speak.
What I am about to share is not magic, it’s the things that we teach our students at ACS, and it’s the things that most actors are missing. Not all of the skills in the list, but some. And that’s enough to prevent the actor going from good to great.
I use these 8 areas as a filter through which to watch more performances:
1 - Quickly and effectively memorise lines to a professional standard in the least time possible and with excellent recall under pressure.
This one seems obvious but the number of actors that can’t quickly and effectively learn their lines is shocking. If it takes you a long time to learn your lines, your methods don’t work. Memory experts use Association, Location and Imagination. Actors generally use brute force repetition.
2 - Successfully employ scene analysis tools to unlock the human drama of a scene, the dramatic action of the characters, what is motivating them, and an intention (Task) for you to play.
There’s a lot that goes by the name of scene or text analysis which isn’t very helpful. You need to see the through line in the scene. We often get caught up with the topic of the scene, but scenes are often not about the topic, but the human interaction around the topic. To put it bluntly, a lot of professional actors can’t analyse a scene for shit and it shows. But it can be learned. If the actor doesn’t analyse a scene, they don’t really understand it, so their decisions are based, not in the scene, but on luck, chance, guesswork.
3 - Find a personal connection to what the character is doing by creating a simple, meaningful as-if that helps you bring the right behaviour to the scene.
Creating an As-If is simple, but overthought. Actors need to find a way to connect to the behaviour in the scene, to take their ideas about the scene and turn them into behaviour - and that’s difficult. It’s finding something simple and personal to compare it to. Oh this scene - it’s like you’re telling your Mum that your Dad is cheating on her. It’s just like that, try it like that. It’s an indicator, an index, a sign post for the right behaviour. Without this type of connection, the actor’s work is limited, stunted, disconnected. They know mentally what the words are about, they might even act them well, but there’s always something special missing. In my classes, when we see an as-if done well, we WANT to see that behaviour in the scene.
4 - Grow your palette of tactics to a professional standard, using them to affect another person, using them to make another person feel something by committing to those tactics wholeheartedly.
Tactics, actable verbs, actions, tools - call them what you want, you need to be good with transitive verbs. Seriously, if you aren’t attempting to affect a change in the other actor (I didn’t say character, I said actor), then what the heck are you doing on stage? What most are doing is faking the state and showing it to the audience.
5 - Break down a story into its individual parts and use those parts to self-direct your performance in any scene, making visible choices that impact on the audience.
I probably drive my own students crazy with this. Every scene has a story structure, and nine times out of ten, the scene work of amateurs, students, professionals - has one thing missing, they haven’t created a story in their performance. They know there’s a climax to the scene, but they don’t act like it has a climax. This one takes real awareness, and often shows up the gap between understanding something and doing it.
6 - Build a connection to the other actor, reacting impulsively in the moment through Repetition.
Looking at the other actor isn’t listening. Replying with your words to theirs - isn’t working off the other actor. To truly be in the moment with the other actor, we have to open ourselves to them first. And then we wait. We wait for them to do something, and react to it in the present. This one takes a lot of training - yet most say they already do it. Actors don’t listen. They don’t listen because their brain is too effective to do something they don’t need to do. And they don’t need to listen to a text they have practised a million times - they know what’s coming. Great acting starts with listening to the behaviour of the other actor.
7 - Employ stagecraft effectively to be seen and heard on stage.
Back in the day, every actor had their stagecraft. These days, we’ve all seen too much tv and not enough theatre. Young actors don’t project, they don’t articulate and they don’t cheat out. Without those things, they are unwatchable. Sadly, this has become less a part of the actor’s craft, which along with a lack of storytelling would explain why most pieces of theatre are hard work to watch for the audience. Without story, cheating, and good speech, it’s boring and inaudible.
8 - Produce work that is interesting at a minimum, but far better if it is compelling.
Seems simple, but without the other 7 in place, it’s often not even interesting.
Already a professional actor and want to add any of these 8 skills to your existing toolbox? We coach actors all over the world via Skype. On set or Broadway, it doesn’t matter, we can help.
Want to take the leap into professional acting, these are the skills we will spend a year drilling into you, so that when you leave, you can establish a career for yourself based on skillful performances creating compelling work.
To You, The Best
Mark Westbrook is the Head Acting Coach at Acting Coach Scotland, he coaches clients all over the world via Skype.