6 life lessons from acting class

The debates have me thinking a lot about acting – or, rather, not acting.

So it’s as good a time as any to post something I’ve been meaning to share for a while:  back in May, I took a one-week intensive acting workshop at the New York Film Academy – yes, the place with the big sign. I had a few things in mind:

  • I wanted to try something completely different and fun
  • As a cinephile, I wanted to step into the actor’s experience
  • I wanted to chisel away at my terror of public speaking
  • I really, really wanted to get out of my head, stop over-thinking things, and live more in the moment.

The week delivered abundantly on all these fronts.  Most of the time, I was busy scribbling away the pearls of wisdom from our main teachers, Lea Brandenburg and Dan Winerman.  Here’s the gist of it:

1. It’s all about the other person

In acting, you’re not supposed to be thinking about you or your lines.  If you do, you’ll look like you’re overacting.  You won’t give a convincing performance.  You’ll come across as weird and self-conscious.  You’ll make the other person uncomfortable – and everybody else who’s watching. What’s more, you’ll have a terrible time while you’re at it.

The audience wants real people, not people in their own heads playing their own lines.

At all times, it’s NOT ABOUT YOU. When you focus on whomever you’re with – without expectations – suddenly there’s connection.  Believability.  And what’s really neat is that that’s when you end up reaping the most rewards.

2.  Know that you WILL mess up

It’s not a question of if but when.  Everybody misses a line.  At the very least.  It’s what humans do.  Most of the time, the audience won’t notice.  You need to keep calm and carry on.  Cover it with grace.  Water under the bridge.

This was the big takeaway for me.  We all spent days rehearsing our lines, and we all messed up.  But I took it especially hard.  I always knew I was hard on myself, but I hadn’t realized just how much.  Not only that, but I volunteered to do an extra scene, which means that I actually set myself up for difficulty by creating impossible circumstances.   I need to work on giving myself the same compassion as I do others, and easing up on myself for not getting everything right.  Let myself be human. Which brings me to…

3. Accept everything that happens

In film, you can do as many takes as you need to.  On stage, there are no rewinds.  You can’t stop in the middle of a play and say, “I can’t believe I blew it.  I’m such a fool!” and then proceed to beat yourself up about it while the audience sits there.  Although that might make for interesting entertainment.

We don’t always have the perfect words in every moment. You have to accept that these are all the words you have in this moment. Say it (or don’t), and let it go.  It’s completely useless to self-flagellate.  It keeps you and everybody else stuck.  And while we’re on the topic of acceptance…

4. Don’t force the feelings

To quote Dan, “Have you ever had someone try to demand a feeling from you?  It’s exhausting.  So don’t demand it of yourself.”

Whatever you’re feeling or not feeling is okay. In acting, you’re not supposed to try to act out an emotion.  It just ends up looking like you’re acting.  As in life, emotions are believable when they happen without prompting.

5.  Acting well is acting in the moment

You can rehearse a scene a million times, and it will always come out differently.  You can have an idea of a certain intonation you want to use on a particular word; but if you stubbornly hold on to that, you entirely miss the point.

Even if you’re doing a monologue, you are never operating in a vacuum.  Everything is changeable moment to moment.  The only thing you can do is release expectations and pre-conceived ideas and just be in that moment.  And be guided by one principle…

6.  As an actor, your higher calling is to tell the truth

And so it is off the set.  You can never go wrong being you, whoever that you is in that moment.  It can be scary, but it’s the only way to get someone else to see that you’re also a human being – to believe you, and to believe in you.

Essentially, acting is simply about being human and creating a safe space for someone else to do the same – complete with all the foibles that come along with it.

2 Responses

  1. Liz Llewellyn

    Jess! Loved this. Thank you!

    November 6, 2012 at 11:53 am

    • Jess

      Thank you, Liz! Miss you!

      November 6, 2012 at 11:55 am

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