In this blog, I will discuss the uses of five ways to be a better actor or performer. These come from my experiences and desires for and within improv. I warn you, there is a mini blog in this on clown... just so you know, as most other points are brief and concisely given. However, I like clown quite a lot. To be an actor or performer comes with assumptions and the main one is that improv uses them. This is to be pointed out, as a lot of people that get into it are not actors or performers, they are computer software engineers and veterinarians (etc.). Performing comes after and with a lot more value added into one's life too. So, here is how to become a better actor.
1. Take classes, any classes helps but acting classes works for this blog
Through taking further training outside of improv, you can gain skills in physical representation of the character, vocal training to produce increased control, sound quality and accuracy to the needs of them. The training can provide experiences in the differing rhythms, cadences and timing of a character. Whether this is RADA providing you with professional skills that will enrich your creative journey, or LIPA with their psychological and physical processes of acting. There are many well-established and famed school for actors to professionally develop. In this case, all that improvisers may desire is the exploration and not a full three year course. What aspect of acting training will best suit your current needs? Perhaps a bit of Meisner, a bit of Meisner, ...or maybe you wish to listen to Mamet’s acting approach. In any case, it is wise to find your route through the treacherous path.
I will advocate various paths in this blog, and the first (and largest section of the blog) is clown. Do clown. Not circus clown, but theatre clown… Whether it is a Lecoq-based class or a Mario Gonzales class, try it out. There are many styles to all art forms and clown is included. It could be that you wish to do the six masks of yourself with Sue Morrison, which has your personal mythology define your clown. By doing this you adopt the Native American and European style based on Richard Pochinko’s work. However, it could be that you instead wish to try renowned french teacher Phillipe Gaulier and his approach of childish pleasure and play to respectfully avoid the (Mr.) Flop. There are various types of clown teachers too. It is possibly a good idea to find out how the teacher works, if such information is available. The stereotype of a clown teacher is that they are brutal. However, this is not always the case. Dependent on their approach to being the clown (that is you) and how they go about teaching will result in vastly different results in the performer’s take-home discoveries. Whether that is ‘aren’t we all really stupid in the world’ or ‘connecting to one’s naivety helps personal growth’, we can celebrate all impacts that it has for individuals.
I teach clown. I teach it for its own sake and for improvisers. It works well for self-discoveries that support the basis of how people develop within their work. It translates into important stylistic methods in improv. This includes those that focus on Game of the Scene to those that enjoy thriving in short-form games. Clown centres around playfulness through listening, so the value strives from inputting this into your performances. It is good for life too, as we get to acknowledge when we are stupid and connect with others. When I first performed with Denni Dennis’ Company Clowns in Cardiff, it was an experiment - that was the performance - and was entitled, ‘Connections’. Clown is based on making those connections with each other and especially the audience.
A closely linked lesson to get involved in is tumbling. I recall Keith Johnstone stating to go take a tumbling class in 2009 to the whole room. Physicality can bring so much to the production that you improvise. The skill that is attained can bring a professional air to the work that you do. To bring an ability to be so vastly physical can open the windows of prospects to the comedic theatre that you create in your ensemble. Imagine being able to improvise something so beautiful (and funny) like it is directly from Gecko Theatre’s The Wedding. Having only personally taken a little bit of this, I still await the day when I can do a triple backwards somersault in some devastatingly exciting spontaneous car chase, as the vehicle caterpaults over a cliff and into the depths of the deep, clashing sea. One day.
Even non-acting classes help. Deepen your knowledge-breadth and it will bring more insight into the philosophical underpinning of the work: more understanding. I am not overly keen on clever d*cks prancing around spouting all they know; however, specific knowledge at points in a production that seems to have a use to the whole theatre show in-creation can be awe-inspiring. Any adult-ed class will enrich what you do, even if not directly the information gained.
2. Western vs. Eastern acting
A valid point about acting is that there are many approaches, and, furthermore, these are entrenched in the culture that surrounds it. Therefore, the western style of acting, albeit developing over the years, still has more of a psychological system than the eastern. Admittedly, this is a generalisation and it does not fit every practitioner and teacher. A good example is Tadeusz Kantor who treated theatre like visual art (to an extent). The meaning behind the theatre was tremendous and dealt with psychology of humans: our memory is forever dying. We only remember the last time we remembered that memory. Gloriously true from my experience. In any case, we can opt to discover what the opposing ‘broadly-speaking’ system can offer. If we were to act and perform from embodying a physical form first, then the results could present the inner workings of the character from an external-inwards approach. This is in comparison to the inner-outwards approach that configures how the character functions and brings about their physical form of being thereafter.
Eastern acting tradition comes from the combined duality of mind/body. This tradition stems from the thought that all performance comes from spirituality. It is about non-attachment and being ego-less (Forsythe, 1996). This approach has more focus on acting through movements, such as the Noh kata (movement patterns; Thorpe, 2014). Therefore, the system that an actor can work within is vastly different to the one’s that (perhaps) we are used to already.
By all means, this does link to the first suggestion of taking an acting class, but, more than that, explore where you come from as an actor. In the next few years, it is plausible to explore the eastern philosophy in your acting life (in which, I do mean your improv).
3. Study people; be interested in how people are
I have found that most actors have a common fascination: people. Actors like to watch others. On the tube, these types of people will be observing how people are within their bubble of existence, or even those doing the same thing and they briefly lock eyes with you (it has happened). So, study people. Personally, it is more of a natural tendency than a skill that I chose to engage in, as I probably could not act out how family and friends behave. However, I have brought observed behaviours and subconsciously embodied traits of many people I have met onstage. I do accidentally use other’s characteristics in my daily life, anyway. Through increasing your interest in other people, you can engage in these qualities in many ways for the spontaneous creation in the productions you improvise.
It could be suggested that more importantly you should study yourself. Be interested in how you are. This skill is very useful in improv. All the reasons to explore how other people present themselves are reasons that you should notice how you are too. What do you do? How are you in certain and various situations. By paying attention to whatever aspect that you so desire, you will conclude (to a level of accuracy) performable aspects of yourself. Furthermore, by being able to do so in the moment, you can begin using the skill onstage. The latter is probably more greatly useful than the first.
4. Be entrenched in the character
You are an actor. You are onstage. You (hopefully) have an audience, unless you chose not to for that huge artistic reason. This means that they see what you are doing, saying, being and, as a theatre production, it holds meaning to the overall piece you perform. What you bring to a scene, firstly, is a character. For that character to exist, you must be within it completely. There is no longer the actor acting, but the character being. This implies an acting approach, to some extent. However, even if those not willing wished to explore this, it translates: commit one hundred percent, be fully invested in the character.
I explored trance-based improv a couple of times over the last few years and this links to that practice. This is without masks, just performers being in trance. This sounds the same as being entrenched in the character. I will write a blog about this topic, separately. It is more to do with flow and trance, with a little potential for NLP and hypnotic states (areas for me to look into for practice-as-research sometime).
Nonetheless, the idea of a character without the actor present means that the audience can be with the character too. You can think of films that had famous actors in and you only noticed at the end or part way through; this is because they were swept away and you went with them. Be encompassed by what the character is - go on the journey with them and see where they take you.
5. Explore mentalities and physicalities
Fundamentally, these prior four suggestions are all about exploration of mentalities and physicalities. You can achieve a lot by leaning into the discoveries and letting go of what the usual practice is. What more can you do? Try a distinctly new mentality of your practice and within your practice of improv. The characters can come from a novel mental state. Explore who they are and what that means for the scene. Likewise, by adopting some of the previous advice, you will be performing from a mentality that could bring about something cataclysmically different. Similarly, the exploration of physicality can lead to stylistic choices that could be of great intrigue. Who improvises Beckett? What is that physicality to your scene? How about Berkoff? I taught improvised Berkoff once. It asks so much more of your improvisers - even more in a rehearsal room, as to teach a short class requires reducing it to more usual improv gimmicks and games.
In conclusion, try stuff. Not the normal tenets of improv. That has existed for quite some time and we can explore further. Comedy happens in Beckett, in Berkoff, but theatre practitioners (more generally) create different theatre to one and another. We can do so in improv too. Skill-up, explore and you can bring about improv that is definitely performed better than most.
Those names in parentheses:
Forsythe, J. (1996). Spirituality in Actor Training. Theatre Research in Canada, 17(1). Available at: https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/TRIC/article/view/7160/8219.
Thorpe, A. (2014). How can Westerners study Japanese Noh? An interview with Richard Emmert, Director of the Noh Training Project and Theatre Nohgaku. Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 5(3), 321-333. doi:10.1080/19443927.2014.940113.