The actor's goal
I have always aimed to be a great actor; I got my degree in theatre, and feeling like I wanted more specific performance training, I attended a triple threat conservatory program. Upon graduating, I continued to train at studios and workshops whenever I could afford them, and devoured texts on acting when I couldn’t. My education has been wide and varied, having not dedicated myself to any one school of acting. This patchwork education has led me to find myself confused sometimes about how to achieve my goal: how do I be a great actor?
Some teachers I had pushed the importance of emotion; ‘if you can cry on cue,’ they’d say, ‘you’re set’. Others pushed clarity of the text; ‘if the audience can’t understand what you’re saying, then you’re not doing your job’. Still other teachers encouraged a full and deep physical grasp of character; ‘it’s important that you connect with the character and bring them to life. It matters less if you cry, than if the audience cries for you.’ Some teachers would tell us it’s impressive if we are able to switch from ourselves straight into character, while others wanted to see the transformation. Some wanted us to use our experiences and lean into who we are as people, while others challenged us to play characters completely different than ourselves.
In school, my goal was to get good grades: the better my grades, the better my acting. However, this didn’t seem to always be true. A piece that one teacher thought I was brilliant at, didn’t impress another; my grades and feedback varied based on whatever each individual teacher thought of my acting, and they were not always at a consensus. By the end of my training, I had come to the conclusion that good grades in theatre school do not mean good acting. My search to be a great actor continued.
I jumped into the industry ready to prove I was a good actor, by achieving work. I was convinced that being cast in shows was proof of ability. This conviction was quickly put to rest: I saw actors who I didn’t think were very good getting jobs that I wasn’t getting. More perplexing, I saw amazing actors not being cast, actually being looked over for roles that were then cast with actors who didn’t have the same level of ability Of course I know that there is more to casting than who is the better actor, but I felt sure that the great actors would rise to the top. This was not always the case. Was I missing something?
Since I graduated from post-secondary, I have learned a lot more about the industry and where I want to fit within it. I have directed, written, produced and acted in many productions, and how I see acting has changed. So what does makes a great actor? It’s not getting good grades or claps on the back from others; it’s not getting good reviews; it’s not getting cast in roles. These are all excellent things, and a great actor may achieve them, but they are not what makes an actor great.
A great actor is one that does the job required of the production in order to best tell the story. Sometimes that means they need to cry on cue, sometimes that means they need to make the audience do the crying, sometimes both in the same production. A great actor is flexible enough to give an honest and naturalistic performance in a kitchen sink drama, and give a heightened and grounded performance in a Shakespearean comedy. A great actor works hard, and plays freely. They are able to lean into their own experiences and who they are, and dig into the depths of their imaginations. They use what works for them to best aid the production and tell the story. Great actors know that their job is to interpret the work, and be a good storyteller. It’s the story that binds the actor, director, writer, and designer. In the end, that’s what matters, and great actors know this and do everything they can to benefit the story, and the project they are in. Honesty, believability, vulnerability, clarity and specificity are all things that great actors work on and possess because these elements aid in their storytelling. Vocal and physical technique and ability to work within the medium of the project (eg. stage or screen) is also essential to a great actor.
My teachers were all trying to help me learn techniques that would enable me to act a story with honesty, but as they all had their own techniques to do so, they often seemed to disagree with each other. In the end, the technique doesn’t matter, as long as the result is achieved: the actor must live the story.
Acting may seem easy, but to do it well, so that the audience becomes invested in the story, is a challenge. I am not yet a great actor, but I am closer now than I have ever been before, because now I know what makes an actor great. In the end it’s the stories that matter, that connect us, open our minds, or soothe our souls. Our goal, as actors, is to be there for them, and to do them justice.