A Few nights ago we got into that age old acting question... where do you act from?
To me, actors act from two places, either their head or their guts. I will always argue that you are much better off acting from your gut than your head. I know people who 'craft' performances by doing lots of homework and back ground work on their character. They ingest it into their head, but not their body or soul. In my world, looking at it from the outside, I see an actor who is never plugged into the moment with they're partner... they're thinking two steps ahead. Imagine having a conversation with a person who is trying to do two other things while talking to you. There is a distraction that takes place when you lose yourself in your head. You leave the moment. Guess, what? The audience leaves it as well.
The actor who plays from the gut is living the moment. They're not 'faking' the act of crying.. they are crying. It's real and tangible. They're partner is forced to deal with that issue in front of them in a real and raw kind of way. The gut also allows for more spontaneity within rehearsal or a performance. It allows for greater risks, because the character is not thinking about consequence or 'what is going on' in the performance. They are just living and breathing and failing and succeeding. It makes for a great performance and potentially a brilliant performance.
There are a lot of actors out there who are emotionally more comfortable with being in their head. The thought of being so emotionally bare for the audience is something they either scoff at as an un-necessary choice or they are just terrified at the prospect of being 'exposed'. And when I say 'exposed', I do not mean exposed as a fraud, I mean exposed as a person. It's easy to hide behind odd off the wall costuming, vocal choices and dialects as a sign of being a 'brilliant actor'. Heavens knows the industry 'apparently' rewards actors for those types of things, (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Robert DeNiro). For some reason, actors get it in their head that if they lose or gain 60 pounds for a role, they're sacrificing for their art, they are making a 'brilliant choice'. To me, it's no different than deciding if a character wears sneakers or penny loafers. It's just easier to slip on shoes than lose 60 pounds.
I spend a lot of time helping actors learn to stay out of their head and stay either "In the Moment" or "With their Partner". I do a lot of repetition work and improvisation work both as an actor and as a teacher. I find when teaching repetition an interesting thing occurs, especially with experienced or well-educated actors. Reps as you may or may not know is an exercise created by Sandford Meisner. In the exercise, two actors make observations about each other and repeat the words and phrases used to describe the observations until those words naturally change with the change of their relationship. The goal of the exercise is to make the actors leave their head and engage their partner on an emotinal gut level. Skilled actors, who do repetition have provided some of the most heart pounding and engaging performances within the exercise I have ever seen.
When I get the "Head" actor in class, they focus on pretty much one thing... doing it right. The concept of engaging their partner comes second to their need to demonstrate proficiency. It's as if they are trying to turn this art into a science. Repetition doesn't live in the space of the intellect. It lives in the heart. I once watched an actor blankly repeat 'blue shirt' with their partner in such an emotionally empty vaccuous state, that their partner walked off the stage, even after she changed the phrase to "I Hate You". The "Head Actor" simply calmly repeated "I Hate You". When the actress left him on stage, he turned to me and said, "I don't understand why she's walking off the stage? I'm doing it right." I then asked him if he was engaged in his relationship. His response, "What relationship? I don't even know her. "I told him that was precisely the problem, he didn't need to know her to be in a relationship with her. He was trying to understand the "Why" of the event, not reacting to the event itself. "The WHY can never help you on stage." I told him, if I had been his partner, and I simply walked up to him and punched him in the stomach, what would he do. He said, I would want to know why you punched me. And I said, "Okay, what if I just punched you again." He told me, he would try to stop me or walk away. I said, that's acting. You just got punched. You react. You run away, or your fight back. There is no thinking involved. So, if that is real life, and you are trying to emulate 'real life' why would you take the time to think between each interaction? Just react. And if I take this thought to the next level, what help is it that you know your character's favorite color when you are in the midst of an argument? It shapes nothing, it gives you nothing, and if nothing else, all that head space just stops the performance from working.
It's this simple thought, that is so hard to grasp because it doesn't live in the world of thought, it lives in your gut, and that is where actors need to live.