Between the ages of 3 and 10, I became convinced at various points that I was going to be a princess, the president, a professional ballerina, an astronaut, and an actress. The last choice seemed the most appealing since I thought that the people in movies and on-stage had it easy -- all they had to do was pretend to be someone else and look pretty while doing it--something I constantly tried to do around the house at the tender age of 7.
With this belief in mind, I auditioned for school productions in elementary school. My illustrious career consisted of playing an extremely convincing skunk in Winnie the Pooh, various plants (i.e trees and shrubberies), a Native American in Lewis and Clark, and "Screaming Girl #3" in A Christmas Story.
I took a few acting classes and half-heartedly participated in the strange acting exercises. We would play fun games but I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be feeling or thinking. Honestly, most of the activities seemed irrelevant. Like stretching before performing our scenes. What was the point of stretching out my hamstrings before reciting Hamlet?
Although my acting repertoire has somewhat expanded since my elementary school days, I still did not feel confident in what it meant to "act" until I recently started taking a class on Practical Aesthetics, an acting technique that was developed by playwright David Mamet and actor William Macy.
On the first day of class, my teacher Scott Zigler (director of the American Repertory Theater and co-author of A Practical Handbook for the Actor) told the class that everyone has the capacity to be a good actor. In fact, in a way, we are all "acting" every day. We are constantly experiencing waves of different emotions, and we access different parts of ourselves throughout the day. Maybe it is that girl who appears perfectly innocent in class, but then you see her at a party -- dancing on a table with a drink in both hands, screaming the lyrics to Taylor Swift. Or perhaps it's the man who acts like the perfect boyfriend with his significant other, but the moment his guy friends walk into the room, he turns into a boisterous fraternity brother. Human dimensions are limitless, and in the words of Scott Zigler, "You are infinitely more interesting than any character you will ever play."
As my class progresses, I am constantly struck by how similar the rules to acting are to the rules of success in life. Although, I am realizing that -- much like attaining success -- good acting is far from easy. I am also realizing that with practice, anyone has the tools to be believable on-stage. The following tips are not just for seasoned actors or budding thespians. Even if you have no desire to ever be on-stage or in front of a camera, some rules for successful acting (according to the Practical Aesthetics technique) can be applied to leading a successful life.
1. "Transcend self-consciousness by concentrating on others"
To varying degrees, humans are all self-conscious. Our preoccupation with ourselves and what others think of us can range from occasional irritating thoughts to crippling anxiety. In acting, the number one rule is to lose self-consciousness. Bad acting is often the result of self-awareness. It's easy to tell when the actor is concerned with how they look or just enjoying the sound of their voice. These thoughts alienate the actor from the audience, and the actor loses credibility.
Actors can avoid this pitfall by shifting their concerns elsewhere. By responding to what I see and focusing on my partner's reactions, I forget that I am acting by placing all of my focus on the other person. The way I achieve my goal on-stage is by responding to the people around me.
Whether we are pitching to a client in a meeting or persuading a friend, complete concentration on the other person and registering their response will always get us farther than focusing on ourselves.
2. "Focus on controlling what you can control, not that which you cannot"
I cannot control my emotions, but I can control my actions. Although worrying about whether or not I got an internship or job will do nothing, I can focus on putting my best effort into my application; Although executives cannot control the behavior of their employees, they can set a good example and foster an encouraging environment.
In class, Scott Zigler always emphasizes that "indication" is a sign of bad acting. In watching a performance, it is easy to tell if the actor is truly angry or just trying to act angry (hence "indicating" anger). To avoid this, actors need to relieve themselves of thinking that they need to act a certain emotion. I cannot control my emotional reactions, and telling myself to "feel" angry will come across as contrived. However, the actions I take and the way I respond to characters is within my control. It is not my attempt to appear angry, but my action and focus on the characters I interact with that will cause me to be angry.
3. "Find something sympathetic about the villain"
We all have experienced our own Snidely Whiplash, or Cruella de Vil. A person who really deserves to just fall down the nearest staircase. They think that every problem in life is somebody else's fault, and their bitter viewpoint is incorrigible. Yet, I remember all those times my mother told me to "look at it from their perspective, and think about what they've gone through."
It is this same type of empathy that is necessary to successfully play the villain. If you are cast as the "evil" character in a play, it is more interesting if you can find something sympathetic about the character. It is impossible to play a character if you label him or her as crazy or evil. Instead, you have to connect with the character and play it from his or her point of view. Three-dimensional villains believe that their actions are justified, and may even be unaware that they are wrong. Gollum was only evil after he was tortured and warped from the effects of the ring, and Hitler thought that he was saving Germany. Whether you're acting the part of a villain or dealing with a difficult person in life, finding sympathy in the other person is the key.
4. "It's not what you say, it's how you say it."
I used to become frustrated during rehearsal when I felt that the lines in the script were awkward or out of character. However, good actors do not need to rely on the words of the script. The lines are simply the means to the character's goal, and the actual words are not nearly as important as tone of voice, inflection, and body language. The words "I love you" can be used to really tell someone: "I care about you", "I'm trying to get you out of my room", or "I'm trying to get into your pants." Humans can detect the slightest emotional cues -- from the worry in someone's voice to anxiety from somebody's breathing patterns. We need not be constrained by the script that we are assigned, but we should be conscious of the messages -hidden or not -- behind the actual words.
In life or on-stage, it is important to let go of our self-awareness and focus on all of the exciting things around us. Next time you go out on that date, stop thinking about how you look and focus on the lovely person across the dinner table. We cannot control what others think about ourselves, but we can control our actions and responses. You might think that your life would be better without that co-worker or boss, but try to get into their mind and see how they're viewing the world. In the words of William Shakespeare, "All the world's a stage." If that's the case, then we might as well all be good actors in the grand show of life.