Respect For Acting
I recently had a conversation with an actor about community theatre; he was against the idea, voicing his opinion that he felt community theatres should not charge ticket prices for productions that are put on for fun. By doing so, they are creating the impression that the entertainment they present is going to be as good as a production put on by professionals. They are being disrespectful to the art of acting.
Although, I don’t agree with his opinion on community theatre (I think it’s wonderful that people are involved with theatre purely for fun and joy), I do understand his frustration with amateur actors placing themselves on the same level as professionals. There’s a world of difference between being an actor, and being someone who is acting in a play. Actors dedicate a large part of their lives to learning, and developing their craft. They work consistently to have the opportunity to act, by auditioning, by putting on their own work, by developing relationships with those they admire and respect in the entertainment world. And they do it for more than fun; of course it begins with joy and love, but the transition of moving from amateur to professional is about the desire to act among the greats. To be an actor means to see one’s art as a career, which requires more work and commitment than to be an amateur. To be a professional means to risk failing for the thing you love.
My own experience with acting is of continual learning; I am always discovering or re-discovering the magic of what acting is, and am constantly trying to improve my craft. To act is to portray an imaginary situation with truth, honesty and presence, and it would be foolish of me to ever think of such a thing being easy. When my actor-friend told me about his annoyance with amateurs who call themselves actors, I was reminded of Uta Hagen’s classic book, Respect for Acting. An essential read for most theatre school students, my friend’s cries of, “I can’t just call myself a surgeon without having gone to medical school”, cannily reflected Ms. Hagen’s introduction. If you have not read this book, I highly recommend it, especially if you do desire to be professional in your craft. Acting looks easy in the way that watching professional sports looks easy; but try to throw that end-zone pass without hours of deliberate practice, and you’ll realize how much skill and time goes into that one move. Good acting is not easy, and neither is being an actor; it is an art that requires time, and dedication; it is a title one should only take on, if they are also willing to take on the work that it demands. Otherwise you are not an actor, but someone acting in a show, and that’s great. There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur who acts for joy, as there’s nothing wrong with someone playing in a beer league. But a beer league softball player would never confuse themselves with their professional counterparts.
I often wonder why amateur actors confuse themselves with professionals, and why professional actors discount amateur actors and their passion for acting. There’s room for all of us, as long as we all respect what acting means to each of us, and the different reasons we do it. Let’s stop confusing the two, shall we?
We all have passionate beliefs and opinions about the art of acting. My own are new only insofar as they have crystallized for me. I have spent most of my life in the theater and know that the learning process in art is never over. The possibilities for growth are limitless.
I used to accept opinions such as: “You’re just born to be an actor”; Actors don’t really know what they’re doing on stage”; “Acting is just instinct—it can’t be taught.” During the short period when I, too, believed such statements, like anyone else who thinks that way, I had no respect for acting.
Many people, including some working actors, who express such beliefs, may admire the facts that an actor has a trained voice and body, but they believe that any further training can come only from actually performing before an audience. I find this akin to the sink-or-swim method of introducing a child to water. Children do drown and not all actors develop by their mere physical presence on a stage. A talented young pianist, skillful at improvisation or playing by ear, might be a temporary sensation in a night club or on television, but he knows better than to attempt a Beethoven piano concerto. The pianist’s fingers just won’t make it. A “pop” singer with an untrained voice may have a similar success, but not with a Bach cantata. The singer would rip his vocal chords. An untrained dancer has no hope of performing in Giselle. The dancer would tear tendons. In their attempt they will also run the concerto, the cantata, and Giselle for themselves because, if they eventually are ready, they will only remember their earlier mistakes. But a young actor will unthinkingly plunge into Hamlet if he has the chance. He must learn that, until he’s ready, he is doing the same destructive thing to himself and the role.
More than in the other performing arts the lack of respect for acting seems to spring from the fact that every layman considers himself a valid critic. While no lay audience discusses the bowing arm or stroke of the violinist or the palette or brush technique of the painter, or the tension which may create a poor entre-chat, they will be all be willing to give formulas to the actor. The aunts and agents of the actor drop in backstage and offer advice: “I think you didn’t cry enough,” “I think your ‘Camille’ should use more rouge.” “Don’t you think you should gasp a little more?” And the actor listens to them, compounding the felonious notion that no craft or skill or art is needed in acting.
Uta Hagen, Respect for Acting.John Wiley &Sons, Inc. 1973