The Actor and The Person

So I’m supposed to be sitting here finishing of writing a screenplay and I get into a chat with a student. And she says this to me. “The best thing you did for me was to stop me wondering if I was good enough. I haven’t thought about that since. It was like I was in one place, and after the course I was up in the sky.”

Now that’s a lovely compliment to me and I’m not sharing it here to stroke my own ego. It just got me thinking, as these things always do, about the nature of the work and prompted a bit of a spiel.

As you know, I’ve studied the theory behind pretty much all actor training on this planet over the years and learned what the true objectives of each approach is. And there’s a little trap that I have to be very careful not to fall into, and that’s the trap of trying change the personality of a student. Great actor training is transformational, yes, but I often wonder if that’s the snare that Method sort of fell into. If the technique changes the person, fine. But the technique cannot be designed to change a person. The technique can only be designed to make the actor supremely proficient as an actor. Any other bi-product of personal change surely is incidental. Happily incidental, but incidental nevertheless.

Is attempting to change a person an exercise in playing God?

And yet again my mind brings me the other way. Should the work also keep a close eye on the personal development, or at least the development of the “personality” of the actor? After all, learning to be very good at what you do so that you don’t have to ask yourself if you are very good at what you do anymore, is liberating. It’s a gain in true confidence and a gain in artistic temperament. It liberates the actor from self-doubt and fears. And so SHOULD the technique be a guided personality change for the actor also, a bit like “life-coaching?”

Those of you who have shared a full time studio with me know that I teach through the same Asian based philosophies of Zen that are used in traditional martial arts teaching. These things are not all that prevalent in the work. They are briefly discussed when required, but in the process of the time there, the ability of the actor to let go of their self doubt can help the work move forward much more quickly. And so the technique removes self doubt, but if the actor too can remove self-doubt through a calm control of those emotional and mental cravings for validation, praise, promotion etc, the work can move forward even more quickly. So there are several exercises within the training that are designed purely to effect a control of the mind and emotions of the actor as a person. And I’m ok with that. I think.

At the end of the day, an acting teacher can’t change the personality of each actor in his/her group to somehow turn them all into the same person. That’s not what I’m suggesting. I mean there are still actors I’ve trained who are amazing who still contact me with self-doubts and worries that really are beneath their ability in my opinion. But that’s their personality. That meekness is a part of them and I don’t think it’s my business to beat that out of them in some way. But I do encourage them to try to rise above, and I give them tools to do that.

What is definitely true of all the successful actors I know is this: 1. They have ceased at a certain point questioning their ability as actors. This happens in the training phase. 2. They have stopped seeking praise, validation and promotion. 3. They have stopped competing with the world of the industry around them and begun to become truly creative. And sometimes that creativity takes the form of writing or directing rather than acting for a period of time too. In this way, they have shuffled off the labels that the industry places on them. They haven’t stopped promoting themselves. They have just changed the way they were doing it.

You see when the actor stops wondering if they’re good enough, stops seeking validation and stops competing with forces beyond his/her control, it leaves an awful lot more room. There’s just so much more thinking space and feeling space. There’s so much more creative space. And the irony of course is that once the actors I know created that space for themselves, along came boat-loads of validation, praise and promotion, which they really didn’t need or want anymore.

True success to me, that is, the success I want my students to enjoy, is the success of being contented. And that doesn’t mean apathetic either. Quite the opposite. I want them to have fun with their incredible ability. That’s the sky.

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