Learning to Act: You Cannot Teach Someone To Act. Can you?

You Cannot Teach Someone To Act?

From time to time, I hear this. I find it puzzling. I think most things are learnable. I mean, what skill exists that cannot be taught, or improved. it's in the nature of skills that they can be improved. Then we start to go into conversations about innate skill, which I consider to be something like the Easter Bunny and The Tooth Fairy, somehow the person has been ‘gifted’. And what a sleight that is, to say someone has not worked for their ability. 

I believe in ability. And I believe that ability is a growable thing. And if that is the case, then someone can help you grow it.  

We are a learning machine. That’s all we’ve done since birth. My daughter Anna-Katerina, with no help at all from us, has learned to roll from her front to her back and vice-versa. She learned to crawl. No one taught her. And now she is learning to stand and soon perhaps she’ll walk. She will do all of this without anyone ‘teaching her’.  She will teach herself. Through trial and error. 

So have I just argued against myself? No, I don’t think so. She learns through trial and error. Experience is her teacher. And she tries and tries and tries and often faceplants. But she doesn’t give up and she doesn’t see her inability as a barrier to progress. She just carries on, regardless of how upsetting the results are. And she gets better. And she tries new things. 

I personally believe that the greatest barrier to becoming an actor, or becoming great at anything actually, is not a lack of talent, but the presence of our inner critic and dialogue that the left and right side of the brain seems to have between the analytical and the spontaneous creative parts of ourselves. All this noise in our heads creates ‘interference’ and what should be easy, becomes difficult.  

Teachers are also a form of interference. Acting teachers fill up their students' brains with more ‘stuff’. And the student actor, not knowing how to manage this new information, becomes over-thinking and suffers from analysis paralysis. 

I consider myself a coach. And as I believe my job as a coach is to introduce ideas and then let the students play with them. But I also see them suffering as they struggle to put in place what I have explained. 

Acting ability can be improved. Teachers and coaches can help. But we have to try to do so without making the student more paralysed by their amazing ability to switch on their analytical brain just as they are going to DO something. If you read my previous blog, you would know that this is something that can easily happen. 

Acting to me is a set of learnable principles. What those principles are, is hotly debated. My principles wouldn’t be in line with the traditional Stanislavsky or Method principles. Perhaps you can learn them by yourself. But having someone sit outside, someone you can trust, who can help you become aware of what is. That’s the gift a true coach or teacher brings. 

It all comes back to one thing for me. My job as an acting coach is to help the actor see what IS, and not what it feels like or what they think it is. I am there to help them escape analysis paralysis. I am there to help raise their awareness of what is. To help conquer interferences (including ones that I bring), to learn to trust themselves and grow impenetrable confidence. 

Of course, there are tools and techniques to learn but without the stuff above. This stuff won’t make any difference. 

I don’t teach the actor to act, I help them get out of their own way. 


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The 12 Obstacles

One of the biggest obstacles to a successful acting career is the inner critic, the voice in your head, but there are many more.

In this free advice guide, Acting Coach and Performance Psychology expert Mark Westbrook outlines the most common inner obstacles to success and offers you insightful and practical tools for overcoming them.

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