If you assume that acting lessons exclusively benefit actors, you’d miss the mark. Actors have known since the dawn of the medium that everything they’ve learned for the stage applies in real life. Some actors go as far as to say that ‘theatre’ is only a few letters shy of ‘therapy’ because of the profoundly positive impact this art form has had in their personal and professional lives. Here are eight reasons why:
It’s no surprise that learning to perform in front of a crowd full of strangers is a confidence-builder. But the growth lies not in coming to terms with a hundred people potentially judging you, rather, the personal growth lies in the realization that any number of opinions of you don’t matter. What matters, at the end of the day, is your performance, the power of the storyteller within you. As an actor, if we worry ourselves too much about whether or not our audience ‘likes’ us, we miss out on being able to portray many juicy roles. Especially those of villains, amoral protagonists, and troubled characters. As actors, we must forego the goal of being likeable, in favor of the goal of being impactful. Once an actor jumps this hurdle, true art begins and confidence flourishes.
When a dialogue is scripted, communication seems like it must be easy as pie. We wish. In fact, scripted dialogue sheds light on the communication challenges we face every day. We don’t merely communicate by the words we say, we communicate with how we say them, the tone of our voice, our posture, our eyes. To bring life to dialogue, an actor can’t just read what’s on the page, they must intuit and portray what is said silently. These silent communications highlight the irony that they are often the loudest messengers. To become aware of, and to use these communication strategies deliberately makes an actor conscious of these silent interactions profoundly both on and off the stage.
Empathy, the famous “soft skill” finally gaining press in the professional world for its value. Empathy goes beyond sympathy in that sympathy sets the sympathizer apart from the party receiving it. Empathy, however, maintains a sense of equality, a sense of true understanding that says “I know what you’re going through.” When actors portray any character, from the most endearing to the most sinister, they are tasked to empathize with individuals with whom they may have nothing in common. And, it’s not optional. Many actors will tell you that the hardest role they’ve played is also the one from which they’ve learned the most. This role is one whose character they despised. Even the most obnoxious, selfish, slimy of characters has a back story, or a redeeming quality that an actor must relate to, and with which to find a way to empathize, otherwise the character will fall flat. Once an actor has endured this experience, found the good alongside the bad, and learned that every character has a reason for being the way they are, their perspective off the stage changes. The a$$hole who cut you off might be on the way to meet a loved one at the hospital, the backstabbing jerk at work might have a severe inferiority complex stemming from a tumultuous relationship with her parents, the list goes on. Though these backstories are no excuse for poor behavior, the understanding that there is more to every story helps us to remember that not everything is personal, in fact, most things rarely are. This understanding, this empathy, grants us patience, and security in ourselves, and may even prevent us from jumping to faulty conclusions.
Plays for performance are, at their fruition, literature. Character creation stems from literary analysis as the keystone of any credible embodiment of a character. As an actor, you are tasked with not only understanding your own character, but how that character sways the plot, and propels the moral of the story to the forefront of an audiences’ mind. To do this, actors employ, some without even realizing it, actual methods of literary criticism, analyzing the historical context of the story, the life and vision of the author, psychoanalytical and sociological perspectives on the story, and so on. Character creation transcends what can be perceived at face value. All of it stems from the work of the play itself.
Building off of my last point, the play itself provides the parameters within which an actor can create, but beyond those parameters, the actor has incredible freedom. Not only this, but in the ideal creative environment, an actor will have the chance to collaborate with several other talented folks, and a director and producer to maintain the overarching vision. One character is not an island, and every character in a play has his or her ultimate purpose that hinges on the performances of the others. As a director I’ve described the challenge of actors acting “in parallel to each other.” What I mean is that each actor, whose character is unique and perhaps well thought out, is playing their parts in a proverbial vacuum, not responding to, or sincerely interacting with their scene partner. No matter how deep your character creation goes, without collaboration, the performance falls flat. In theatrical performance, the saying “all for one and one for all” will always remain true.
Movement/ Body Awareness:
Bet you thought acting is all about the 8x10 (your face), but it’s SO much more than that. Think of the last time you asked someone how they were doing, they had a big toothy smile on their face, but their shoulders were slumped. Did you buy it? Chances are your instincts were right. They were not okay, no matter what their face might have implied. As an actor, every nuance of body language sends a loud and clear message to the audience. In the process of character creation, we use all the aforementioned principles to determine a character’s body language. A saucy barmaid would have a much different way of carrying herself from a stern schoolteacher. A police officer would hold his stature far differently from an eccentric musician. Picture these juxtaposed images in your mind and you’ll see the difference. Body awareness and movement, like everything else I’ve discussed, play a pivotal part in whether or not a character resonates. Beyond the stage, your awareness as an actor translates to “reading people,” off stage. I’ve scared a few strangers at the occasional bar for guessing correctly about their current circumstances. I don’t claim to be a psychic, I’m an actor and director.
Transmutation of Experiences:
One of the most validating experiences of being an actor and receiving training is being able to make every single experience count. I’ve reached a point in my career where whenever something challenging happens to me, or I have an emotionally significant event, no matter how painful, my knee-jerk thought is “I can use this later.” As actors, our fountain of inspiration comes from the rough waters of our past experiences. We should all strive to be calm like a stream, but life likes to cast us down waterfalls. With the knowledge that every experience can help us to create later, we see the waterfall as an adventure, something to analyze, to make sense of in order to use it in the future. We no longer fear the fall, we shout bravely amidst the roar “Get me a barrel!” As such, we have no use for compartmentalism, disassociation, or just plain “forgetting about it,” which let’s be honest, we never really forget. We MUST make use of our experiences, and this is why acting takes bravery, but the courage we display to make sense of our lives pays off exponentially, both on and off the stage.
Seeing the Bigger Picture:
As I’ve discussed, a show is the sum of its parts. Even the star couldn’t shine without everyone else propelling the story forward. The actors literally could not be seen or heard without the help of the tech crew. Every single element of creativity plays an enormous part in the success of the show— from the shoes you wear to the brightest spotlight. As such, actors gain a deep appreciation for the minutiae that forms the big picture. Just as every element on stage creates the experience of the story, so too does every element of our lives shape our ultimate experience. The shoes you wore to that party that pinched in the toes may have ruined the evening, and you’d wished you’d picked Chucks. The ironic Hawaiian print you wore to that business meeting may have just landed you a date with the receptionist, who you might eventually marry. The way that woman’s hair shone in the starlight on the balcony of that New Year’s Party eclipsed your fear of rejection in favor of the beauty you might win over. Every element, every moment, counts. And as the Bard says “all the world’s a stage,” and, no matter what, all of us are players.
Copyright 2019 Katrina Syrris