Are you an Actor if you're not Acting?
I often think of being an actor as similar to being an athlete: both use the body and the mind to achieve their goal, both perform at designated events, both have time between events. The big difference between actors and athletes, is that athletes know that to do well in athletic events, they must use the time between events to train, and prepare. Although I know a number of actors who use down time to continue training, I know more who do not. What would happen if we treated our profession with the same dedication that professional athletes do to theirs?
There's a big difference between professional athletes and amateurs, just as there's a difference between professional actors and amateurs. The difference is focus, goals and mindset.
Amateur athletes play for fun, and do little to no preparation between games. Amateur actors are the same. There's nothing wrong with being an amateur, but to call yourself an Actor, implies that you are professional, or aiming to be professional.
Professional athletes train. They play for more than just fun. Without exception, professional athletes still dedicate their off-season to maintaining and improving. This hasn't always been the case, but in the last couple decades it's become the norm, and has changed professional sport in a big way. Shouldn't professional actors do the same? When they aren't in shows, should they not continue training? I know a number of professional actors who take classes in between employment, but it's still not the norm for those who call themselves professional. And not being able to afford classes is not a good excuse for those who want to achieve the status of 'Actor'. There are so many things actors can do to keep themselves sharp and ready for when they get the chance to perform. Three basic things actors need to keep in shape are their bodies, their voices and their imagination.
Actors don't need to have serious athletic bodies, but they do need access to their body. They need connection. We use our bodies, it is our instrument, and if we don't have connection to our physicality, we will be awkward and uncomfortable onstage or on screen. We need to be able to be physically present, to tell stories with our bodies, and to be comfortable with ourselves. In between shows, we can keep our bodies available through a number of ways:
Yoga: which encourages mindfulness while strengthening the body.
Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais: Different techniques meant to release physical habits that can limit a performer.
Contact Improv, Acrobatic Training, Gymnastics: Teach your body new skills and allow it to move in new ways.
Dance Training: any kind of dance will teach you to respect and own the instrument you are.
There are tons of ways to connect physically with our own bodies, but many of us don't. It's not about being in shape, it's about being comfortable in your own skin, and making big physical choices. So what if you took dance in school? If that was five years ago, and you haven't done much since then to connect with your body, then you're only doing yourself a disservice if you want to be the best actor you can be.
Actors have a different challenge than athletes in that they also use their voices as much as the rest of their bodies, therefore, special attention needs to be given to those muscles. If you can afford to take voice lessons, do it, even if you don't consider yourself a singer, do it. But then as well as working on control and strength, don't forget clarity. On stage, you get one opportunity for your audience to hear what you have to say; you owe them clarity in your speech. You are an actor and you need a deep connection to your voice, whether you are on stage, on film or recording a voice over. Of course, if you can't afford voice lessons, you can still work on your voice at home. Check out books by Kristin Linklater, or Patsy Rodenburg. There are of course tons more out there besides those two teachers. Youtube has a variety of great vocal warm-up and work-outs, as well. Unless you are only doing mime, you need strong vocal technique as a professional actor.
If you are an actor, you are a storyteller. Athletes use their creativity and imagination to help win games; actors use theirs to make strong choices to better tell a story. There are some directors out there who will tell you what to do, who won't care what you bring to the table, but those directors are not the norm. Most want you to have ideas, to bring in strong clear choices. You are not a robot, you are an artist and you need to feed that part of yourself with experiences. See all the art you can, listen to different genres of music, try new things every chance you get. New experiences feed your imagination and give it more to work with. Pay attention to the world and the people around you. You are an actor; you have to be aware of the kinds of people that exist in the world if you want to portray them with honesty and heart.
I've mentioned three things that actors need to keep sharp in between gigs, but there's one more that professionals know to keep working on, and that is script analysis and technique. That is why professional actors will keep going to class, so that they are constantly working on how to break down a script and make clear, bold, specific choices. Amateurs never work on text unless they're in a show; professionals treat acting with more respect because it's their profession, not their hobby. That's why they will keep reading scripts and practicing breaking them down, even if they will never play that part onstage or on film. They are keeping their skills sharp, so when they are breaking down a piece for performance, it will be easier and stronger.
A professional actor is an actor even when they're not in a show, or filming, because they are continuing to train as one, just as a professional athlete defines themselves by their commitment to athletic development. At least, that's the kind of professional actor that's going to change the game.