A problem I often encounter with actors that are just starting to work with me is they rush to learn their lines and then say those lines with little regard to the thought process and emotional content necessary to bring those lines to life.
As human beings, when we experience something: the birth of a child, a wedding, or a car accident, or being mugged, the details of those events are ingrained in our consciousness and we’re able, for the most part, to recall those moments and the accompanying emotions vividly and precisely.
But as actors our characters come to us as one-dimensional entities that initially only exist on a piece of paper. It is our job to consciously develop a subconscious for our characters so we can present them in a truthful, impactful manner. We need to know not only what they’re thinking but how they feel about those thoughts so our presentation seems believable and genuine.
Ask ten different accomplished actors how they do this and you’ll get ten different answers. Here’s the way Mark Rylance (two-time Tony Award winner and 2015 Academy Award winner) so aptly put it in a recent interview in the New York Times. “I like to do all this work before, which to my mind is like turning the soil in a garden,” so that when he begins rehearsals, “the soil is all turned, it’s all bouncing around in my psyche.” (Art Section NY Times, August 16th, 2016).
I feel every actor, rookie or veteran, should do this and do it as early in the process as possible. The sooner you start “tilling the soil”, the more time you’ll have for those thoughts (and emotions) to ruminate. That way, by the time you get ready to preform, you will have had the time to weigh both the good and the bad ideas and toss out the ones that don’t work and re-enforce and solidify the ones that do. I feel we owe this not only to the writer, the director, but to the characters themselves. And, oh yeah, the audience will appreciate it as well.
Maybe it’s because my grandfather was a farmer that this tilling the soil metaphor resonates so strongly with me. I feel by tilling the soil, by getting our hands dirty, our work will be stronger, the roots will run deeper, and the opportunity to produce well-developed, believable characters will be greater. It will certainly be a richer experience than just learning and repeating a bunch of lines.
By doing this kind of “cultivating” you give your character a background filled with events and emotions that will bring him into the present moment as a fully realized, complete person. That makes for exciting acting. Please dare to be an exciting actor.
My October classes are already filling up. There are only 6 spots left in my Scene Study class and 4 left in the commercial class. For more information or to sign up go to https://johnhowardswain.com/classes-2/