In the simplest terms: if you want to be a better actor—DO SOMETHING! Do some character work, create a biography for your character, make a relationship chart, figure out your character’s Superobjective/Spine for the play, figure out what actions you are playing in each of your beats and what tactics you want to try first, play around with externals (be it a way of talking, an accent, a physical limitation or quirk, a physical “tell” or something else) Look up the words you don’t know, google unfamiliar phrases, place names, or anything else. Doing even one of those things will make you a better actor.
YOU ARE NOT A BLANK SLATE.
You’ve probably met people who want so badly to ingratiate themselves that they only reflect back what they think you want to hear. They have no taste, no opinions, no interests, and no ideas beyond what you declare. They wait for you to tell them what to do/wear/think, and then that’s what they do/wear/think.
Mostly, we want to slap people like this in the face with a piece of mouldy bread.
It’s not a kind impulse--after all, these poor people are just desperately trying to make you happy by ‘getting it right.’ But by offering nothing, they make life harder on you.
By now you’ve made the crashingly obvious connection to the world of acting: any actor who walks into a rehearsal with no thoughts or ideas about the play other than to please the director deserves to be slapped in the face with a mouldy piece of bread. Good Actors think about their character, their scenes, and the world of the play and walk into rehearsal with something to offer.
It doesn’t matter if what they come in with matches the director’s ideas. It doesn’t even matter if the actor has mis-read a scene and come to a wrong understanding. ‘Wrong’ is still a thousand times better than ‘Nothing.’ Good Actors come to rehearsal having thought about what they want the audience’s experience of their character to be, and what they want to get from other characters. If you want to get better as an actor, think about the play and your character, come to some conclusions, and form some opinions before rehearsals begin.
I mean, how likely is it that I’ll ask “What is your Opinion of __________?” You know it’s going to happen to someone. That’s because I ask that question whenever an actor’s work isn’t clear, or if s/he is doing Nothing on stage. If you make it your personal goal to never get asked this question by me in rehearsal, odds are you are going to be trying lots of exciting, clear, specific work on stage.
Bad Actors walk into rehearsal as a blank slate; dutifully memorized but having no thoughts about the play or character. “Tell me what I should do in this scene,” they say. “I don’t want to ruin the scene.” Sometimes we mistakenly think that this is noble or kind of the actor who only wants to please his director and humbly refuses to impose her ideas on others. But it’s the most obnoxious sort of withholding behavior that places all the burden on everyone else. If that doesn’t deserve a faceful of mouldy bread, what does?
Listen, artists are going to make mistakes and go down wrong paths. I spent three days making a blouse for Amaryllis, and later decided I didn’t like it enough so I spent another three days making a second one. Do I feel bad about making the first one? Nope. I learned a new overlay technique, and parts of it were very successful, and maybe in the future it’ll be just what we need, and there it will be. In order to create, you have to develop enough positive self-talk to keep yourself loose enough to generate creative impulses. In order to create, you can’t live in a zero-sum world of “good” and “bad,” of “success” and “failure.” In order to create, you can’t hold onto the things you did “wrong” to beat yourself up any more than you can hold onto the things you did “right” to never deviate from in the future. The creative mind simply takes note and says “That happened. I wonder what’s next?”
As an actor, I’ve spent time working out Actions and picking verbs and dutifully noting them in my script only to toss it all the instant I was playing a scene. As a director, I’ve had visions for stage pictures and ideas for important moments that all changed once my actors gave me something better to work with. As a playwright I’ve written and deleted hundreds of pages—sometimes even good stuff had to go because it didn’t serve the scene. Tossing creative work doesn’t matter; what matters is that I never walk into a rehearsal as an actor as a blank page.
AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU.