The hardest part about acting is not being oneself. Certainly, it is impossible not to be oneself when one does something, but then, one is, often enough, not being oneself. Often, people do ‘perform’ for other people, employees treat their bosses differently than they do their coworkers, friends treat strangers differently than lifelong buddies, a spouse treats their partner differently than their parents or their children. Confucius had categorizations for various relationships among people, and Jesus of Nazareth stated “Give Caesar what is due to Caesar, give God what is due to God,” which implies two different relationships between different types of perceived authority. In light of all this social evidence of people ‘not being themselves,’ or at least putting on different airs for different people, the hardest part of acting shouldn’t be that hard.
The more appropriate way to phrase the earlier critique would be that the hardest thing about acting is know what comes from oneself and what comes from the character. What parts of one’s acting are habit, for instance? Is there a certain bias to the ‘neutral base’ that actors take? Is there a given impulse which an actor often plays? The better actors know themselves, the better they can make choices that create characters.
One excellent model for this process is Brechtian theatre. It encourages actors to at once be themselves and play a character. The character can be created through a series of indicative actions or ticks or gestures which give the audience cues as to the character. The actor themselves can comment on the action occurring before them while still ‘playing’ the character. While this may not always be the best ‘product’ for an actor to achieve, it does make for a good method of understanding what parts of performance come from oneself and what parts come from a character.
The danger of breaking down oneself into a series of understood actions is that one can lose self confidence. If an actor is never themselves, then they must always reject their personal neutral in order to take on a character. This is an unhappy extreme, even less happy than the extreme of always playing oneself, an extreme in which there is incredible self – trust and confidence. A happy medium can lead to added growth both in an actor’s repertoire and in themselves.
Often, in Western Theatre, there is a drive to comprehend the text, and in various methods of script analysis, character can emerge. In the plot of a play, actors can undertake a series of actions which reveal their characters. However, this series of actions is not enough to fully convey a ‘real’ person. The text alone, the lines and actions and subtext behind a verbal enaction, are not enough. The voice does not only speak through the body, especially in a gaze centered medium such as theatre.
The whole person is viewed onstage. The face, the hands, the feet, the legs, the hips, the back, the armpits, the groin: all visible, all judged, all symbolic onstage. The way an actor can give more than just the plot, the method by which an actor can convey a deep and lasting story, is through the body. How does a character carry themselves? Does it have old injuries, fears, role models? What do these conditioners do to the body and the way it is carried, where it holds stress, how it gestures, what way the fingers touch? In this analysis of character, that tells back story through the body, actors must deconstruct themselves in order to realize what patterns that they, as people, carry by habit, rather than by choice.
To clarify: acting is not pretending to be someone else or to ‘make believe.’ While these elements become part of being an actor, the key to noun is the verb: act. To take action, to execute a choice. And so, before one can act, one must make a choice, and then carry it through with confidence. For this reason, actors break down text into beats, actions, verbs, text and subtext, in order to choreograph their designated image. So I say, the better an actor knows what they always do, the better they can make a choice that is not themselves.
To clarify further: no one is never entirely not themselves. Even socially, people perform certain aspects of themselves. Philosophically speaking, no one is ever anything more than an aspect of themselves, and so at all times, one is being a certain side of oneself, never the entire thing. So it is with acting. The better one can make choices, the better one can act. So, what is a well-made choice?
A well made choice has a trigger, its verb, and an end. This end becomes the trigger for the next choice. Triggers can be anything sort of input: a visual trigger: an object, an action, an event, and so forth; an audio trigger: a phrase, word, or a sound; a tactile trigger: temperature, exhaustion, touch, pain; an olfactory trigger: any scent; or a taste trigger: any taste (this ties to scent). The trigger begins the choice.
Once the choice’s trigger has been activated, the verb must be enacted. If a sight is repulsive to a character, they must react accordingly until they receive a new stimulus (external or internal).
The duration of choices can be long or short, depending on the set circumstances. Often, a series of complicating circumstances may cause an initial reaction to be stifled and then covered, leading to a series of choices: reaction, revelation, stifling, cover, or: cover (until a complicating circumstance is gone) then react.
This rapid pace of clear choice changes demands that an actor both understand their own physicality and their own mentality: where does the person go as a reaction? What are the person’s feelings about a stimulus? What are the common choices the person makes as a reaction to given triggers? How are the character’s physicality, mentality, and choices different?
It is important for these reasons to work on character from the outset. While I recommend trying a series of characters and choices in order to find freshness and vivacity, I also recommend solidifying character early enough in the process for the physicality and mentality of the character to be easy to access. Notice I do not say natural – the person is natural, the character is artificial. The character should never become ‘natural,’ it will lend itself to the person enough. The character should be easily accessed, however.
For helpful methods on character work and choices, as well as character awareness, I recommend the works of Konstantin Stanislavski and the acting method called Archetypes, based on the psychological work of Karl Jung.