The craft of acting
We all have a moment, or a series of moments, that inspired us to become actors and artists. Something happened within each of us that made us say, “this is what I need to do.” For me, that moment occurred in 2005, at a production of Death of a Salesman, in the West End in London. Clare Higgins playing Linda Loman, slumped to her knees at her husband’s grave; she was destroyed, she was lost; she was crying but there were no tears coming from her eyes. She was crying with her entire body, and it was I who had tears streaming down my face. I had never seen acting like that. Acting in which the performer gave themselves to the role with their entire body. That moment is what made me want to be an actor. I wanted to give myself to the roles I was playing. I wanted to affect an audience with my art, and make them feel something.
This desire to learn how to do what she did is why I went to school for theatre, but in my years training at institutions, I haven’t yet felt that I have achieved the level of acting that is my goal. I’ve had some amazing teachers, and some not so great one, and they all had valid things to offer my acting toolbox, but something continued to elude me. Often, I didn’t understand why we were performing certain exercises.Teachers would recommend we just trust them and try it. Sometimes these exercises illuminated themselves through practice; sometimes they didn’t. Often teachers would ask, ‘how did that feel?’ after a performance, and sometimes my response would line up with their observations; sometimes it didn’t. My confidence in my ability has fluctuated like the ocean waves. So I continue to study and learn, to find the missing pieces.
In the last couple years I began to understand that behind all the exercises, and different methodologies, all acting training, aims for the same goal: to create a present and truthful performance within the world of the script, to the benefit of the story. We are storytellers, and our role as actor is to act, so well, that the story comes to life for the audience. What a fantastic mission to have.
The more I learn, the more fascinated I’ve become with our history. Not theatre history, or history of film or entertainment, but the history of the actor. I’ve heard the names of famous actors and acting teachers thrown about, without really understanding who they were and what value they gave to our industry. If the name of the first actor, Thespis, was ever mentioned during my post-secondary Theatre History classes, it was a passing comment, and yet, this actor was the first person to inhabit a character. I’ve always known I was a Thespian, without realizing who or what that referred to. I had no idea what a risk it was for Thespis to step outside the Greek chorus, and take on a role in a new way. We have our own rich history that few of us ever choose to learn. We are children in a line of storytellers who all took it upon themselves to tell stories through the use of their entire being, rather than just their voices or words. The craft of acting has changed and grown throughout the centuries that people have been acting, and all have been searching for the best way to be truthful. Truth itself, and how people view it, have changed throughout the centuries. Even now, truth is something we struggle and contend with. Sometimes truth seems objective, sometimes not. I may feel that I gave a truthful performance, but from the outside I may have seemed false, and vice versa.
Like the actors before me, I am searching for truth and for a way to portray truth in the stories I tell. I am inspired by those who struggled before me, who experimented, who failed, and who succeeded in discovering a new way to truth, and naming, and teaching that way to others. Thank you, Thespis, for leading the way. Thank you, Stanislavski for creating a system of acting that inspired others to go even further. Thank you, every actor out there who has dedicated themselves to their craft, to being excellent storytellers. Thank you, Clare Higgins for my moment. Thank you for the inspiration to keep searching.
In researching for this post, I came upon this interview Clare Higgins gave during her run of Death of a Salesman. Her words on the craft of acting resonated with me now, as her performance did for me back then.