WHAT STELLA SAID:
Stella Adler used to tell - well shout - at her students “Your job is not to act the words.” But so much of our job is about the words, isn’t it?
We read the play. Words.
We look for our part. Words.
We highlight our lines. Words.
We memorise those lines. Words.
The other actor begins to speak. Words
Stella Adler’s advice is 100% right, but you will have to wrestle with this because the words are all around us.
The trouble is that human communicate ENDS with words. It doesn’t begin with them. I see you give me a sarcastic look, I think “you don’t respect me”, I feel anger, and I react emotionally, through my body and finally from my mouth utters the words “What?”.
My reason for speaking did not come from the A, B, A, B, A, B order of a script.
My reason for speaking didn’t come from anything you said.
My reason for speaking came from a PROCESS that lead to the utterance of the words.
Every moment of your performance needs to embody that process. You are the performance. It’s not in acting out the words and their meaning. That leads to nothing more than ‘mouthing’ the words. You have missed the entire process that caused them.
The performance happens in you. Within your mind, your face, your body, your voice. The performance happens in the other actor too. But it’s also driven by the process inside you.
You are the performance. Every time you try to say the words like you really mean them, you go back to words. The actor’s job is not to animate words.Their job is to embody the role and say they words when you have embodied the reason for saying them.
Acting is personal. It is within you. It is embodied. It isn’t about the words. It’s never about the words. They are the very last thing.
FUCK THE WORDS:
Even playwright David Mamet calls the words “Garbage”. Because he understands too that it’s not from the words that the performance comes. It is from the embodied action beneath them, that literally breathes life, meaning, context, and opinion into them.
This is the hardest part of acting. Because people see the words and can hear how to say them and make them sound like a reasonable acted response to what’s being said. But between lines, they are dead in the eyes, in the body, there is no process. They are not taking any of this personally, they are only manipulating themselves to look and sound like they mean it.
That will never be enough to produce the type of acting that leaves people bereft of words.
To get there, we must go way beyond the words deeper and deeper into the behaviour, into the intention, into whatever starts it all off. That’s what we bring to the scene. Your job is not to act the words.
You might enjoy a great documentary about Stella Adler featuring a young Mark Ruffalo, I’ve included it below:
To you, the Best
Mark Westbrook is the author of Truth in Action, a no-bullshit handbook of acting for contemporary actor.