This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.
Here is a simple truism: for something to have the ring of truth it must appear as something we recognize as truthful. And here is a correlating truism: nothing speaks from the stage but truth. Nothing! Whether you are a tree on the stage of your school auditorium or a professional actor on a sound stage in Hollywood, it is only when your performance has the appearance of truth that it will really touch your audience. This is not to say that acting that lacks verisimilitude can not still entertain, and even delight, an audience, particularly if that audience is rounded out by appreciative relatives watching your debut performance as a tree. But you can be sure that without that element no audience, no matter how appreciative, will be truly touched, moved, or affected by that which they see and hear on the stage in any meaningful, profound, or lasting way. The unfortunate footnote to these truisms is that many actors do not know them to be true or do not know how to make them happen. The much happier footnote is that bringing truth to your work on stage is simpler than you think and something you already know how to do, so let’s break it down.
To start with, all characters are people (ostensibly), and all actors are people too. This means that for characters on stage to appear to us as “real people” they must do what real people do, and what real people do all day, all the time is pursuewants. You always want something. Always! If you think about it as you go through your day you will see it is true. Those wants may be small, specific, and easily accomplished, and, in fact, they usually are – I want a drink of water to quench my thirst – or they may be large, amorphous, and persist for years – I want to connect deeply with someone I can love. But as human beings we ceaselessly engage in the activity of identifying and pursuing wants, and so this is what we must do on stage as well. (Stick with me here. I was resistant to this concept when I first learned it myself, but I promise you that believing this and understanding how to apply it to your acting will ground you on stage as you have never been grounded before!) Of course there are several big distinctions to be made, starting with this: Most wants in our everyday lives are easily achieved and require little thought, intention, or effort; however, achieving your character’s wants effortlessly on stage is boring for both the actor and the audience! After all, people do not go to theater or cinema to see ordinary people doing ordinary things; they go to see ordinary people doing extraordinary things, which means that as an actor you must determine characterwants that are both vital and challenging, and then pursue those wants with everything you’ve got. No lukewarm. No halfway. Create utterly compelling objectives, and then go after them for all you’re worth!
So the good news is that as an actor you can absolutely achieve verisimilitude because you just do on stage what you do in life every single day. Simple, right? Which is not to say easy. This is a big concept, but the most vital for any actor to get, so we’ll get there. We just need to tackle it in bits. Future articles will cover the often daunting task of figuring out what your character’s wants are, but for now what’s important to realize is that as long as you approach a role by determining a type of mood, contriving how your lines should sound, or deciding a kind of attitude to play, you will prevent yourself from creating characters that appear as truthful. Rather, you must determine your character’s wants and then commit to achieving them. Ground yourself in action and behavior, and you will quickly discover how much more truthful your acting becomes. (Act, actor, action. They all sound the same. Coincidence? I think not!)
For now, just ponder what I’ve written. It may feel new or strange, or maybe it makes sense but you don’t know what to do with it yet. That’s okay. Let it settle in on you, and in the meantime pay attention to yourself when you can. Stop at random times in the day and ask yourself, “What do I want right now and what am I doing to achieve it?” Become mindful and intentional in your pursuit of wants and then try to relate that awareness to your acting. Keep your eye out for future articles coming soon, feel free to connect with me, and continue to believe that acting is never about the words or about emoting; it is always about doing. And so, do.