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  • Daniel Spragge

How to Act

A Beginner's Guide

Soulpepper actors exhibit how to act in the play Art
Photo by Dahlia Katz

I remember being in the twelfth grade, dreaming of being an actor and determined to get into a top theatre school. My high school drama program was fine, but I felt that I was not learning the skills needed to stand out in my school plays or at the top acting schools’ entry auditions. Information on how to act should not be difficult to procure, but it can be challenging to find if you are unsure what to look for. Allow me to be your bridge to the information.

Where to Begin?


You have been cast in a play or have selected materials for an audition (e.g., a monologue), what should you do now?


The Given Circumstances


We need to know the facts of the play: the plot, period, location, season, conditions of life, relationships (e.g., this person is married to me), etcetera (Moore, 1973). This information helps determine the world where we are living. A coastal town in the south of Norway in 1882 is very different from living in downtown Toronto in 2021.

You must read the entire play to pinpoint this information accurately. I recommend writing it down for reference later. It may also be worthwhile finding pictures that display the given circumstances visually. Images can explain how the location looked in the era and how people dressed and carried themselves.


Do not invent the given circumstances; they are “given” (by the writer) for a reason. Some directors may ask you to create a backstory. The problem with this is that it can lead you to incorrect character choices or to disrupting the action of the play. Instead, stick to the facts.


Character Analysis


It is paramount that you know how your character feels about themselves and assess their relationships with the other characters. Create 3 lists referencing dialogue from the script that answers these questions:


1. What do I say about myself?

2. What do others say about me?

3. What do I say about others?


Various character avatars showing how to act

Knowing how your character talks about themselves reveals their ego, interests, dislikes, and worldview. Focus on the facts. If your character says, “I love to read,” take note of that as it exposes a facet of their personality.


Not everything you say about yourself can be trusted though. You could be lying, trying to manipulate someone, or the image you have of yourself might not match how others perceive you. Therefore, it is essential to look at what others say about your character too. It is worth noting that not everything said to your character has the same level of honesty. For example, an employee may be respectful to their boss’s face but badmouth them once they are out of the room. Pay attention to whether your character can hear what is said about them or not, and which descriptions match your character’s actions best.


Knowing what your character says about others reveals – quite simply – how you feel about them. Get comfortable speaking as your character, in the first person – and write your analysis as such.


Now that you understand your character, let’s get on our feet and discover how to act!

Louise Pitre demonstrates how to act as Edith Piaf
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Objective


Acting objectives are often misunderstood. In acting school, it is often taught that your objective is what your character wants, but that is incomplete. An acting objective is what your character wants to do (Ball, 1984). The distinction is that by focusing on what your character is doing to others, you propel energy toward them to get the desired response. If you focus on what you want, all your energy is driven inward, which kills conflict, and leads to dreaded state-of-being acting.


Acting Objective Formula (from William Ball’s A Sense of Direction):


I want to [insert action verb] [insert character] [insert desired response].


Here are some examples (again from William Ball):


I want to win Gloria’s admiration.

I want to reduce my father to tears.

I want to ignite the crowd to riot.

I want to persuade Ann to kiss me.


Why is this method effective?

Nicola Hadjis demonstrates how to act in the play Clinic
Photo by Daniel Spragge

1. Action Verbs

The foundation of every good acting objective is the action verb. An action verb is something that you can do to someone else. Ensure you are choosing an action verb that you can act. Not all verbs are equal. For example, it is hard to fret someone actively. Instead, try agitating them.


A resource for discovering action verbs is the book/app, Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus.


2. Avoid Using Nouns

If you use a noun, you will end up with an acting objective like: I want friendship, which you cannot perform. Try reverse engineering your initial thought to include how you will achieve this goal. For example, I want to attract your friendship (Ball, 1984).


3. Avoid Using Adjectives.

You cannot use an adjective to craft an acting objective. If you do, you will end up with a statement about how your character feels. For example, I am angry, or I am in love (Ball, 1984). Performing an emotion is called state-of-being acting and will lead to a flat, one-note performance.


Good acting objectives are achievable. For example, before selecting “I want to persuade Ann to kiss me” as my objective, I should determine whether I think I can accomplish this goal by the end of the scene. However, this does not necessarily mean that you will succeed in winning that kiss. Your character can win or fail, but the opportunity to triumph must be feasible.


Levels of Acting Objectives


A super-objective is what your character hopes to achieve by the end of the play. This type of acting objective concentrates on your character’s complete arc from beginning to end. To determine your super-objective, evaluate where your character is in the first scene, then compare it with where they are in the final scene.


A scene objective concerns your character’s goal in a French scene. A French scene begins or ends with the entrance or exit of a character. For instance, if 3 people are on stage, then one person leaves, that is the beginning of a new French scene. Scene objectives should contribute to your character accomplishing their super-objective.

Listening


Have you heard the adage “acting is reacting?” Richard Rose, a director I once worked for, said that “plays are not about characters, they are about the conflict between the characters.” Acting is a two-way street; you can’t just play your objective and ignore what everyone else is saying to you in return. Being open to absorbing the counter-objectives of others is critical in sculpting your performance.


Actors in Peer Gynt show how to act
Photo by Raph Nogal

For example, you are trying to persuade Ann to kiss you, but Ann is trying to halt your advances. She bludgeons you with insults on how her mother thinks you are worthless. Soak in this information. You love Ann, and her words cut deep. Let them affect you. Then continue to fight to accomplish your acting objective.


Listening is the most challenging facet of acting and is what separates the professionals from the amateurs. After all, you’ve read the dialogue. You know what’s coming next. The trick is to listen and react to what is being said as if it was your first time hearing it.

Soulpepper actors demonstrate how to act
Photo by Dahlia Katz

Final Thoughts


Learning how to act is something that seems easy but is quite tricky to do well. Becoming proficient takes time – years in most cases. Be patient and get your 10,000 hours. Accept that failure is part of the job and an opportunity for personal growth. Push yourself to take risks and explore outside-of-the-box ideas.


This post is by no means everything there is to know about acting – I didn’t even cover physicality! The information I covered is what I believe is essential for actors to know when beginning work on a new project. There are various acting techniques out there, so if what I am saying doesn’t resonate with you, feel free to try another. There is no one correct way to do things in this field.


If you have any questions or think I’ve missed something important, send me an email or post a comment! I would love to chat.

Suggested Reading


A Sense of Direction by William Ball

Actions: The Actors’ Thesaurus by Marina Caldarone and Maggie Lloyd-Williams

True and False by David Mamet

The Stanislavski System by Sonia Moore


References

Ball, W. (1984). A Sense of Direction. Quite Specific Media Group Ltd.

Moore, S. (1973). The Stanislavski System (9th ed.). Viking Compass.

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