This post was inspired by YouTube videos of Patsy Rodenburg and by watching clips of John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare.
I first happened upon acting when I was 10 years old. Of course, I’d always been a performer – I’d been dancing ballet since I was three, singing since I was five, playing the piano since I was six. I’d been in school plays and thoroughly enjoyed them. But despite this streak, I was awkward, shy, insecure. I had all this energy I couldn’t harness, which would come out in bursts – mostly when I was alone in my room, singing into my hairbrush-cum-microphone to an audience of Barbie dolls and teddy bears.
From my first class, I was hooked. Drama was a turning point in my life. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I was applying the techniques I learned in acting class to everyday life. This is the selling point of most drama schools for children today – it is a known fact that drama is a perfect tool for a child’s development. All the brochures will promise you that your children will be more self-controlled, will be better at making friends, will be happier and will do better in school if you send them to acting classes.
But why? What is it about drama that charms children (and adults!) out of their shells? What happens in those classrooms?
The answer, in one word: presence.
There is so much talk about being mindful. Thousands upon thousands of books, blogs and podcasts are available, waxing lyrical about the importance of being mindful. And they are absolutely right. Mindfulness makes for a better, richer life. So what are actors doing right?
Let’s consider the definition of acting for a second. Well, my own definition in any case. To the layman, acting might just look like learning lines off by heart, getting up on stage and pretending to be that character. Of course, there is some truth in that – that is the skeletal version of the actor’s job. But the flesh, the meat, the tendons – they are what make the difference between an amateur actor and a good actor. The way I see it, acting is heightened living.
The actor’s affliction is that while ordinary people go through life reacting to circumstances, actors are self-conscious most of the time. I understand that non-actors will have moments of self-consciousness, but remember the actor’s job is to analyse people in order to be able to assimilate and mirror them. Actors need to be present. All the time.
Thing is, life makes you passive. It has to. It would suck to go through life dissecting all your reactions before you even express them. How would you know whether your happiness, grief, surprise and so on were genuine or studied?
And so, acting techniques are there to tilt you back into self-examination; to make sure that you are present in any given space. The beauty of presence is that you can absorb and fully experience everything that happens to you. It is the opposite of passive. To do this, deconstruction is required. Which is why you’ll see actors making funny sounds during their exercises, or acting like farm animals. When we do that, we are not being silly: we are dissecting and studying actions which have become so familiar to us that it is easy to do them passively.
The first reason why actors are better at life has to do with breathing. Breath: that involuntary process which keeps us alive. We all do it, mostly passively. But actors are taught from day one how to breathe. We are taught to relax our muscles, to breathe into our lungs, to extend our diaphragms. We are taught not to tense our shoulders when we inhale and we are taught to exert control when we exhale, so our voices and our very bodies are supported. This means we do not damage our larynx when we speak, and we can control our volume by projecting, rather than shouting.
Take that out of the acting context and you’ll understand why everybody stands to benefit from acting lessons. Speech is the primary means of communication. If you can do that well, then you’ll always be understood, and that’s important whether you are an actor, a student, a mother, a business owner or a salesperson.
Another thing you learn as an actor is how to stand properly. We are taught to find our centre of gravity, to elongate our torso and to make sure our head does not tilt to the side (the Alexander Technique is especially effective when it comes to learning posture). If you are grounded and centred, it is hard to knock you over, but it’s also easy for you to move. Having good posture means you are less likely to suffer from problems with your back.
If you can learn how to stand and breathe properly, you will already be improving your presence. The trick is to correct your posture and breath whenever you are aware of them.
Of course, there are many other reasons why actors are better equipped for life:
Actors work well within a team context. We know that there is a greater good – the play we are working on. It is easy to be a diva and to upstage your colleagues, but the truth is if you do that, you will end up looking like a jerk and the whole project will be a mess. We know our place within the team and we support each other to make sure the end result is the best it can be.
Yes, and. When you study improvisation, one of the better-known and more effective exercises is the ‘yes, and’ exercise. During improv, you are put on the spot and it is incredible what your brain will come up with under pressure. A lot of the time, you will end up in bizarre situations. You’ll be a couture-loving farmer stranded on an island with a ballerina and a jeweller, trying to catch wild boar for dinner. Typically, your superego will be like, ‘Dude, no’. Thing is, though, that ‘no’ is not conducive to creativity. If your partner asks you whether you would like a bucket filled with sea urchins, instead of laughing it off and saying ‘no’, you are expected to say ‘yes, they’ll make a great weapon against any predators’. Training your brain to always say ‘yes’ means you will be more open to ideas and, consequently, more open minded.
We are shameless. In the best possible way, of course. It’s encouraged to be child-like when you are acting. We are okay with trying new things and pushing our limits, getting out of our comfort zones, as long as the end result can be positive. We don’t make fun of each other because we’re all in the same boat. When I was at RADA, we had to assign animals to the characters we were playing, which meant we were all crawling around the room as dogs, tigers, seals and so on, speaking Shakespeare. Shameless, but tons of fun.
We handle criticism well. We actors know that there is always room for improvement and we are fine with our teachers or directors correcting us. Really, we know it’s for our own good. Of course, nobody should tolerate cruelty, but there is a big difference between insulting and criticising somebody.
We sympathise. Actors need to understand human psychology. The process of characterisation requires that we do not judge our character, but rather try to understand what exactly makes them tick.
Have you ever taken acting classes? Do you think they made you a better person or not?