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You are born an actor! Facts! So, why are you taking classes to learn how to act? You should be taking classes to learn how NOT to act!
Acting is not pretending
First things first, many people think acting is pretending and that’s the first step toward getting it wrong. Pretending should be saved for situations calling for comedy and sarcasm, as pretending is insincere. Acting is not pretending. Acting is doing. Being. It is real. It is actually doing and saying things. Webster defines the word act as “the doing of a thing; the process of doing something.” When someone is caught in the act of stealing, they’re not “pretending” to steal. They are actually stealing when they get caught. When I’m directing a scene, a scene you’re acting in, and I want you to jump onto a box, I don’t want you to “pretend” to jump on the box, I want you to really jump on the box. If I want you to be happy when you come in the door, I don’t want you to come in wearing that weird grin a second grader gives in his school picture when he wasn’t really feeling it. That would be creepy. I want you to really be happy when you enter the scene through that door, even if you’re likewise not feeling that way in your own life. When you step onto the stage, you’ve crossed the veil to an alternate universe and there is a new reality you now live within. In that reality, nothing you know in your other reality exists. This is your home. These are your people. And this is who you are now. To understand what I mean by this, think back to your childhood.
You are born knowing how to act.
Humans are born with the natural ability to mimic reality. This is how we learn absolutely everything we know. We learn to speak by observing our parents form words and doing just that. We don’t pretend to do it, we do it. We repeat it over and over and before you know it, it is something we do. (Acting is doing, right?) Children use this in their other worlds. I don’t like to use the word “imaginary.” I believe just because I can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I merely believe your reality is different from mine. Children have their own reality and to them it is very real. When someone calls their toy phone, they are really talking to that person. When they are cooking in the little plastic kitchen, they are really putting their heart into it and you better drink your little cup of air tea and taste those plastic peas or you will hurt their feelings just the same as if you didn’t eat your grandma’s casserole. If they believe they are a superhero and can control things with their mind, they really are a superhero in their world. They believe they can do all of these things. It is only when someone tells them they are wrong that they stop and start thinking otherwise. My question is: Who told you that you couldn’t act? When did you stop and have to learn how all over again? You already know how to do everything that makes you human and real. You’ve been doing those things since the day you were born. Why does someone else have to teach you what it looks like and sounds like to be human?
Acting is playing and that is natural.
The next chance you get to listen to a couple of kids playing with their dolls or their superheroes, do it. Listen closely. Listen to the way they say their dialogue to each other. You will notice that the little guy who is holding his Batman doll will mimic the raspy Batman voice and you will notice that when action takes place during his scene, he will actually yell for the bad guy to surrender. The little girl will honestly sound irritated when her Barbie notices the other girl’s Ken doll is hanging out with Skipper a little too long. Their dialogue will sound quite realistic. They do not sound robotic at all. They are naturally imitating life. They are reliving what they have seen and heard in reality, just as they have observed it. You might hear two boys arguing in the next room, and when you go to separate them, they say, “We’re not fighting, Mom. We’re playing!” That’s when you discover they are “pretending” to be their favorite WWE idols getting ready to go head-to-head in a match. They are not truly angry with one another, they are acting out their scene and you just ruined it.
Reading is not natural.
What is not natural and what causes actors to get that robotic sound when they act is reading. We are not born knowing how to read. That is a man-made, created form of communication that is cultural and different for everyone. We have to learn to slow down, take our time, and sound out words as we see them. This is especially true if we are reading words we are not familiar with, which might as well be a different language. I say this is cultural because although America, England and Australia are English-speaking countries, they each have their own standardized spelling that may throw us for a loop if we have never seen the word spelled that way before. An example of this is the American “tire” being the British “tyre.” It is not ty’ray, it is not teer. It is pronounced as the round things that roll us from one place to another. When actors start reading scripts, they are so focused on the words they are seeing that it is all that is happening. They lose focus on the reality where they are a person saying something with meaning and doing something that is actually happening. After they have those words memorized, they become so focused on saying every single word exactly as it is written that still, that is what they focus on and it sounds very unnatural.
Read out loud until it is natural.
Actors presenting lines need to remember this: No two people speak in exactly the same language, so don’t try to. Have you ever been able to read an email or a text and KNOW it wasn’t really the person it was supposed to be who sent it? Has a hacker popped up in your inbox pretending to be one of your friends and sent you a message but simply based on the words they used or the way they wrote certain sentences, you could clearly tell it wasn’t your friend speaking? I have my favorite words and group of words that I use to express myself and you have your own. When I write a scene, I write it from my head using my own vocabulary in the tone I would naturally speak. My nature is not your nature. You may never use those words, may never have even heard some of them before and when you try to read the sentence as it is written, it will not flow from you naturally. It will sound “off” somehow. You will feel it. I will hear it.
I advise actors to read everything they can get their hands on out loud and record themselves. Read everything from the shampoo bottle to the ingredients on a can of soup out loud, as if you were honestly telling me from your own head what was in the soup. You should sound as you would if I had asked you what was in it and you are telling me like it was your own recipe. Read that shampoo to me as if I’d genuinely never seen shampoo before in my life and you really have to tell me to squirt a quarter-sized dollop into my hand and lather. Do this over and over until you do not sound like you are reading. Do this until it sounds like it’s your own words coming from your own mind. If you have to paraphrase a little, that is fine. So long as changing the words doesn’t change the story, you should be able to get away with it. Most directors would rather have you say things you can say convincingly than keep messing up a scene because you just cannot say a particular word to save your life. Because you may run into words you do not recognize, I also recommend reading the dictionary out loud. This is a two-birds-one-stone method that will get you used to sight reading realistically while also expanding your vocabulary to the point you will be familiar with most words you will have to cold read in the future.
Lear from the masters: Kids.
Are you an actor who has had to grow up and are now resorting to acting lessons to teach you how to communicate with your inner child? Are you having to learn from another adult how to be human and recreate things naturally all over again? If you are, I say you might be looking for mentors in the wrong place. Look to children. If you are a parent or have nieces and nephews, use them! Don’t play with them from an adult perspective trying to entertain children. Play with them as a contemporary! You don’t choose the game or how to play. Let them do it. Let the kids drive you as a passenger in that cardboard bus and you react to their driving and play off of what they say. Be the doll they hand to you and follow their lead, speaking back to them exactly as they speak as their own doll. Don’t rely on an adult who stopped being a child to connect you with your own young self. You didn’t stop being that person. You merely got taller and stopped doing the things you used to do. Now you are a little rusty. It is like a bad break-up you went through with yourself. You stopped seeing that person (your inner child) and now that it’s time to get back into dating (acting naturally), you get cold feet and don’t really know how to do it properly now that you’re older. Your guru should be someone who hasn’t stopped. In this case, that would be a child. Learn to see the world through the eyes of a child again and you will find that you can naturally become anybody, any character written in a script. Children believe they can be anything and anybody they want. And they can. Because it’s true!
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