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Getting The Actor To Act

( Originally Published 1938 )

FULLY half the directors avoid the work of getting their actors to act, either because they don't know any better or because they are unwilling to spend the time and labor this procedure demands. They may argue with themselves that so much work with the actors is unnecessary; they may turn their attention to the more pleasant matter of pretty costumes and striking lighting effects and colorful scenery, telling themselves that the audience likes these things and exclaims enthusiastically over them. This may be partly true, since the audience tries to find something in the performance worthy of an exclamation; and if it cannot exclaim over the play itself, it may comment on the scenery. But good scenery does not excuse bad acting; and because half the directors avoid the work involved in training their actors to act, half the amateur plays are badly acted.

If the director honestly wants to direct, if he faces the task of putting on a clear, intelligent, dramatic performance, he should accept the responsibility for a performance that is adequately acted as well as prettily staged; and this means, whether he likes it or not, that he shall take his acting material and teach it how to act.

Methods of Directing Amateurs

There are several methods of directing . amateur actors. One method, modeled on a method that is practiced in some of our present-day educational systems, declares that the ac-tor shall be left alone to his own interpretation. The director brings the actors together, explains the play and characters, then sits back and observes, commenting only when necessary and interfering only when the interpretation of one actor either disrupts the unity of the play or clashes with the interpretation of another actor. The argument in favor of this method would be that the actors will know and be able to create the character more logically than the director; that freshness and sincerity will, more likely, be found in the interpretation; and that the actor, instead of being only so much pliable clay in the director's hands, is himself the sculptor.

A second method would permit the actor a certain creative opportunity and freedom of expression, but would place the director, not in the position of observer and critic, but in that of a contractor who holds the plans in his hands and dictates that no important variation be made from the plans, no matter how much the individual workman would like to increase the width of a cornice or the height of a pillar. The director has something which he wishes to have ex-pressed, but the actor is the one who must actually give expression to it. Therefore the director says: "Here is what I wish done in this scene. Here is the mood you shall have; here is the emotion. Now go ahead." The actor takes the plan as outlined. He can create, but only within the limitations set. He can use his own inflections and pauses and can express the mood and emotion according to his own ideas; but if these ideas are at variance with the director's plan, they must be discarded. This method, we are in-formed, keeps a unity of production and, at the same time, gives the actor a share in the creation of the play.

A third method would make the actor an individual completely under the will of the director who, instead of permitting the actor freedom, prescribes that he shall do exactly as told and nothing more. The actor becomes the material with which the director works; and this human material has almost as little to say about where he shall be moved and what position he shall occupy in the play structure as the stone that is to be used in the façade of a building. The justification for this third method seems to rest on the assumption that the director has a sound and excellent plan in mind, which he is capable of putting into execution, and, also, that the actor is incapable of adding to the plan or enriching it beyond the powers of the director. The method may work; in fact it does work and can give the production a marvelous unity and personality, but it may do so at the sacrifice of the actors, who must lose much of the joy of acting and opportunity for self-improvement.

Characteristics of the Amateur Actor

With these three possible methods in mind, let us turn to the amateur actor. Let us ask ourselves just what sort of material he is; of what he is capable and incapable; what he can be made to do.

The majority of amateur actors in the United States are young men and women of high-school and college age; the amateurs are made up largely of students. Their ages testify that they are likely to be immature mentally; their occupations as students, that they, perhaps, possess an intelligence above the average.

Indeed, upon examination, the amateur is found to possess a good mind and an amazing potpourri of information. He knows some history, literature, and science; perhaps a smattering of foreign language, though he is the exception if he can speak any language besides English. He reads magazines, current books, a few plays; he has picked up quite a bit of information and misinformation at the movies. His reasoning powers are not yet well developed; he has no philosophy of life that is his own (but he appropriates the latest philosophy he has heard or read for his immediate need, which is not great). His schooling has given him a fair power of concentration, an ability to listen and to under-stand what is said to him. And he has quick perception.

The amateur is weaker in imagination than in intelligence. Not that he possesses no imagination; he has one, but he is out of practice in using it. At a much younger age, his imagination provided him with many a grand adventure; but the public schools, which make a fetish of democracy, have geared his work for the majority, which means for the group below his capacity; and things other than the preservation and encouragement of the imagination are considered practical and important for the great lower groups. So he has taken on the habits of his companions and has used his imagination less and less until now he rarely exercises it at all.

He is still weaker in knowledge of and experience with the emotions. Of course, he is still young; he has, perhaps, lived a sheltered, uneventful life and has experienced no deep emotion. But the schools are partly to blame for this ignorance of emotional knowledge. The amateur has received no education in the emotions. Expression of feeling has been frowned upon by his teachers and laughed at by that "majority" among his companions of whom we have spoken. He has been permitted to experience sensations, shocks, thrills, but he knows little or nothing about the emotions of terror, pity, love—those emotions which he will be called upon to express on the stage. He is capable of understanding and feeling emotions, but he is without experience with them.

These observations constitute three general characteristics which our examination of a number of American amateurs (whose ages we have arbitrarily placed at eighteen or twenty) would be likely to reveal to us. Turning to the physical qualifications for acting, we would discover that our actors possess bodies that are well developed. Both the men and women have played strenuously as children and have continued to play in some form of athletics in school and college. Here and there one may be found who is awkward in the manipulation of his body, though, frequently, these young people handle their bodies reasonably well. They do not, however, use them with power or effete tiveness. Grace and rhythm of movement are usually lacking, and a strength and a sense of pride which give the body a theatrical effectiveness are unknown to most beginners.

The voices of our actors are found to be harsh and unpleasant, though there has been an improvement in vocal quality in recent years. Still, a full, resonant voice, which is a joy to hear, is seldom discovered. This matter of the cultivation of a good speaking voice has also been neglected in the schools. The actor, however, generally speaks the English language commendably, when we consider his training and his speech environment. Compared with the best standards, he speaks his language carelessly and incoherently; compared with the speech of the streets, he does remarkably well.

Perhaps, then, we are able to visualize this young actor sufficiently for a general characterization. He seems to be a keen, responsive, but immature, person whose imagination is dormant, whose emotional experiences and training have not been important; his body is adequately developed but untrained for acting; his speaking of his language is better than his vocal quality; and he does possess a capacity for accomplishment and development.

Application of the Methods to the Amateurs

Applying the three methods of direction to our amateur, I believe we can say, conclusively, that the first method, even if we were convinced of its complete reasonableness, would be disastrous.

If we disagree, let us look at this prospective actor as he arrives at the theater for the first tryout (and the director discovers many people at tryouts who have never before acted or tried to act). He has, of course, no technique of acting. He is blissfully unconscious that it will be necessary for him to learn anything about acting. He can act, of course; everybody can. It is as easy and natural as that.

Remember, the boy or girl who accepts acting as some-thing easy and instinctive is behaving completely normally. We are all desirous of appearing well before our fellow men. We are all acting every day, if we give the word a broad enough meaning. Evidence of this is seen in the way we dress, the way we keep our faces shaved and our hair cut in the latest style, and the way we telephone our dinner parties to the society editor of the local paper. We are always trying to make a good impression, constantly appearing for an audience. Every normal person is acting, daily, for his neighbors, though it is his own personality and appearance, not the creation of a character, which he counts on to make the impression. So the actor, appearing at a tryout, is motivated by this same universal desire and habit. He may be carrying the desire beyond that of the ordinary individual, but the difference is one of degree, not of kind.

If he thinks about it at all, the amateur probably looks upon the stage as a place where, in an easy and effective manner, he may exhibit himself to his own advantage before his fellow men; and if he could rationalize on this ambition, he would probably justify it in the common, accepted behavior of mankind, for he would make no distinction between exhibitionism and the craft of stage acting. Save in exceptional cases, he doesn't want to learn to act; he doesn't even think he has to learn to act; he just wants to appear on the stage in a leading part.

There are, we say, exceptions. A few beginners sense the difficulties of acting; many with experience realize these difficulties; but the majority of beginners possess much the attitude we have outlined.

Surely the beginner cannot be allowed to go his own way in a play. He does not know how to work; he cannot create. The play would get nowhere if it depended upon him. Indeed, he would have very little to contribute if we adopted the second method of directing. The director is fortunate if he can teach the beginner to do, adequately, those things which he is told to do during the few weeks allotted for rehearsal.

Therefore, necessity dictates, even if reason does not suggest, that with inexperienced amateurs the director (if he wants to present a good play) cannot give his actors much freedom and get anything accomplished; he will find, even though he has the best of intentions, that he will often have to resort to the third method we have mentioned for his be-ginning actors, especially if he is desirous of giving a play worth the time and admission money of an audience. As his group grows in experience, as this or that actor develops, he can use the second method advantageously.

If our examination has been reasonably correct, it is clear by now that the director, as he directs, must teach at the same time. If he does not set to work upon the task of teaching the actor to act, if the beginner is permitted to go his own way and keep his delusion that exhibitionism is acting, he will develop into an egoist, a cocksure, impossible person who has been the appropriate subject for the satiric pens of dramatists from Shakespeare's characterizations of Bottom and his company in A Midsummer Night's Dream to George Kelly's The Torch Bearers.

The director has to teach. How much he does to and for the amateur actor is determined by the specific objective he has in mind. If his purpose is to present a public play in a way to give his audience the greatest experience possible, then the actor becomes material to be used in the creation of a well-acted play. If his task is to train actors, regardless of the public performance and the experience of the audience, then direction, in the accepted sense, ceases, and he assumes completely the role of teacher.

Working With the Amateur

Whether teacher or director, the first thing the director often needs to do is to stun the beginner by convincing him of the great difference between exhibitionism and acting and, thus, bring him to a state of humility before the difficulties of the acting task which confronts him. We have credited the amateur with intelligence and a capacity for work. He will soon recover from the shock we have given him. The chances are that he will set to work sincerely and do a creditable piece of acting. But if he does, it will be the di-rector who has turned him around and prodded him toward such an accomplishment.

The director, we repeat, may as well accept teaching as a part of his work. It will do no good to bewail that he has not enough experienced actors, so that he can devote all his time to the realization of his dream production. He probably hasn't many experienced actors, can't get them, and that's the end of that. He would do better to congratulate himself that his imperfect material is willing to learn and is possessed of the capacity for learning.

The director's approach to the problem of training the actor to play the part includes the approach of the teacher. Several pedagogical principles find application in his work. One of the most necessary of these is the principle of discipline.

The director has a great deal to accomplish, before the play is ready for an audience, and a very limited amount of time in which to accomplish it; he finds it necessary to communicate hundreds of suggestions, warnings, and orders to the cast collectively and individually; he must have concentration upon the work at hand, unbroken by interruptions, otherwise valuable time will be wasted. So, he must have discipline from the first meeting of the cast.

The actors must know that rehearsal time is for attentive work on the play, that rehearsals begin at the hour scheduled, that they proceed as any serious job should proceed, that people are to be ready to take their entrances without being called, and that it is the business of the actors, as well as the director, to follow the scene being played. Such discipline of the rehearsal period is necessary, whether the actors are mature men and women or young students.

When the actors are young, discipline is essential for an-other reason. Young people are quick to take advantage of any laxity, any slip in authority. If, for instance, a teacher lets down a bar in some trifling matter in the classroom, the students will begin to act upon the assumption that other bars are going down; in short, they will seek to break down discipline. If, while conducting rehearsals, the director makes the remark, "Henry Jones is late tonight; we can't begin for fifteen minutes," and does not make Henry's tardiness important, the chances are that Henry, Lucille Smith, and Bob Brown will all be late at next rehearsal. If he permits audible whispering during the rehearsal, the whispering will swell into chatter, and attention will be lost and the rehearsal disturbed.

From every point of view discipline is necessary. The di-rector must demand and enforce prompt attendance, orderly behavior, and punctuality in doing the work as assigned.

The next principle we would suggest is the creation of an atmosphere of informality in the rehearsal room. A congenial, companionable attitude on the part of the director is desirable. The actors must feel at ease; they must feel free to ask questions; free to feel the emotions without embarrassment; and free to make mistakes without fear, just as the director ought to feel free to suggest, demand, or criticize without arousing antagonism or making the actors retire within themselves. The director, then, must not become some aloof, critical person who occasionally issues a cold, unsympathetic order. No good will be engendered by this attitude. He should be one of the several individuals who are working together, trying to get a play ready for a performance. The actors will do more and will do it more easily, if they feel their director is one of them.

There is a quality that should be the cherished possession of every teacher and director, one that makes possible the enforcement of discipline and, at the same time, the establishment of an atmosphere of freedom and comradeship; this is the quality of unaffected sincerity. Directors, as well as actors, are sometimes found to be exhibitionists and poseurs; they try to pass for what they are not. But if they are sincere and unaffected, the actors will be aware of it and respond to it. Sincerity inspires confidence. If the actor has confidence in his director, the director may make stern demands or permit freedom without danger.

The principles of discipline and informality are important; the quality of sincerity is significant; but these are more general than specific in their application in the rehearsal room. The director has an actor who is a definite problem. He cannot remember his lines, or he is not getting into his part.

Neither discipline nor congeniality seem to help much now. Just what is to be done about this specific case ?—that is the disturbing question.

Discipline, on the one hand, and familiarity, on the other, will not interfere with the director's sympathetic consideration of the actor as he tries to get into his part. We would suggest, then, that the director add to his personal equipment the quality of sympathetic consideration.

Let us take for granted that the beginning actor has discovered what acting is, and that he wants to act rather than just exhibit himself. He is downright serious about his part. He wants to do a good job of it. He should feel free to appeal to his director-teacher for assistance. The director, because he has had acting experience and knows something about acting difficulties, should be capable of diagnosing the trouble and prescribing for it. It becomes increasingly apparent why the director should know about the creation of the play from the actor's standpoint.

Perhaps the difficulty we have mentioned is due to the fact that the actor is trying to portray a character which he does not thoroughly understand, and, in consequence, his characterization is thin, uncertain, and he cannot hold onto it. He is discouraged, and he doesn't know what to do. Of course, he needs to learn more about the character's background, his thought processes, his emotional reactions, his habits of living, his physical behavior. The director, comprehending the difficulty, can give him the needed information or show him how to get it.

Perhaps the actor is trying too hard. He is using up energy in fuss and noise, endeavoring to force a character onto the stage, who will not be forced in this manner. Thought about the character has been lost in this thoughtless effort. So the director calms down the actor, slows him up, and gets him to relax and give some reasonable attention to what he is doing.

Perhaps the actor is trying to do something that demands a capacity beyond his powers or the use of some tools which he has not been able to get ready for use. The director may have wished him to dominate a scene vocally, when he hasn't the equipment, in power and flexibility, to dominate it. The director should be able to recognize the difficulty, and, in-stead of calling down the wrath of the gods on the poor actor, he should set out to do something about it. Possibly, the director can tone down the other voices and still keep some effect of vocal domination; or, he may be able to change his stage business and movement and secure the effect and feeling of domination entirely through the physical movement of his actor.

Perhaps in the actor's acting, the character he is trying to be doesn't appear at all, but only the actor who is trying to be the character. The director knows that the actor has a clear knowledge of the character and has the physical and vocal equipment with which to play him. What is wrong in this case? Upon examination, the director discovers that in rehearsal the actor is always watching himself, is always standing as a judge over himself, questioning whether or not he is being the character. The character, therefore, never has a chance to break through the actor's own personality, which, remember, is not what the actor wants to project. Nevertheless, it is present and in the way. This is a troublesome situation. The director tries to get the actor to forget hou) he is doing, to quit judging himself, to feel and be and take his mind off the thought of the character, and to let the question of success or failure lie with the director. Occasionally an actor can obey these injunctions of the director; frequently it takes a long time before the actor can break himself of this habit.

So, against a background of discipline and informality, the sincere director gives to each actor his sympathetic consideration. From this sympathetic consideration comes his diagnosis and his prescription for the particular ailment.

It is this same sympathetic consideration that suggests to the director any unfair demands he may be making upon the actor. A few moments spent upon the question of what the director should demand may prove profitable.

The work of production must be finished on a set date; therefore, a certain rate of speed must be maintained; yet, some actors cannot work as rapidly as others. Here is a circumstance which, if the director is not watchful, may result in a major difficulty. The director, in this circumstance, is like the mechanic who should know the capacity of his ma-chine and should recognize that if he forces the machine beyond its capacity, the machine may break down.

To avoid unfair or dangerous demands, the director should allow sufficient time for the production period and not try to hurry the work through too rapidly. A modern play needs a four-weeks' production period, dating from the first rehearsal and allowing for a minimum of two hours of rehearsal each day with the exception of Sundays. The director should not rehearse his people longer than three hours at a time and should arrange his schedule of work so his actors can get to bed at a reasonable hour. It is not to the director's credit to boast, "Well, I kept my cast in the theater until midnight last night.' This remark shows that he is a poor psychologist and a poorer business man.

He can reasonably ask of an actor that all lines be learned not later than two weeks after the first rehearsal. And, as the work proceeds, he can keep his eyes open to see that his demands are not too great on some individual. He has much to do, but he should be considerate of what his actors are asked to do. They cannot create a part in a few days. They cannot remember every little detail he tells them. They cannot work until midnight and be fresh and clear-minded at the next rehearsal. They cannot exhaust them-selves during the days and nights before a performance and have anything to bring to the performance.

Let us take a definite problem on this subject of getting the actor to act: the problem of creating a character. Since modern plays no longer have type characterizations—such as the thoroughly evil villain, the sweet and lovely heroine, and other stock types—but possess definite, clear-cut individuals, the actor of today is asked to portray a specific character. So important is characterization that many directors begin working on it as soon as the plan of production is blocked out.

The professional actor may not have more intelligence than the amateur, but he has experience and he has technique. He knows the physical and vocal expressions that are symbols for emotion; he knows the value of pace and pause; he has a conception of the vocal quality, mannerisms, and thought processes, which are appropriate to a character of a certain station and of a certain age. But the amateur has little technique and the beginner none at all. In the limited number of days at his disposal, the director has slight opportunity to give him even the rudiments of technique. So, something has to be done to get him into the character, without the conscious use of technique.

Now, people are moved to action by different stimuli. There is the person known as the reasoning being who, having been given a clear exposition of his duty, will, thereafter, of his own volition, be able to do his duty. There is the per-son who, listening to an impressive speech about the condition of some of his fellow men, is moved by the pathos of their condition and wants to do something for them; his action toward them grows out of his emotional response to them. There is another who, through some chance word or through sense perception, is made aware of the possibilities in a certain situation; he then seems to retire into himself and literally dreams himself into action. And there is still another individual who, unaffected by the above stimuli, but beholding his acquaintances doing their duty, follows their example.

The director finds these same four types of individuals among his actors, and he makes use of now one or now an-other approach to set them to acting and move them into the characters they must portray.

A limited number of actors correspond to the reasoning individual we have mentioned. They won't be rushed or impressed into acting a character. They respond to fact, clearly presented. This individual invites the mental approach. The director explains, talks about the play, and asks and answers questions. Nothing happens to the actor for a time, because he is busy building up his idea of the character. It goes without saying that the director has to know the answers to the questions asked and the answers to some questions the actor doesn't think to ask. He must be able to ex-plain the character, his exact position in the scheme of the play, the motivation for this or that action, the reason for such and such a speech. Then, after much time has been spent on this exposition, the actor begins to reveal the character in his acting.

Someone may ask: "How is it possible for a clear exposition of the character to impart to the amateur the power to create the character on the stage?" No power is imparted to him, except the power to see and to reason clearly. The character has become so vital, so real, so near at hand that it is a clear mental conception. He has the power to create that which he sees and understands. In a sense he imitates his visualization. And, for some, imitation is neither a difficult nor an extraordinary accomplishment.

A large number of actors are not persons who are stimulated to action through thought but are persons who are stimulated through their feelings. Of course, they need to have an adequate conception of the character in mind; but the mental conception does not stimulate them to imitation. They haven't reasoned very much about the character, but they have felt about him. And they must be made to feel more; they must be impressed before they will be able to act.

The director, in the case of this person, takes the position of the impressive orator. He stops the scene. He builds up atmosphere, pictures the feelings of the young mother as she weeps over the death of her first born; and the actress, wide-eyed, drinks in the story in silence for she, in that moment, has changed places with the imaginary mother. Then quietly the director says: "Now let's try the scene again." He says nothing more for a while. Under the spell of the emotion, he will allow the actress to speak the lines of the mother; and the feeling engendered in the actress impels her into the character. Because she feels sincerely, her voice and actions are in harmony with the character. The characterization may not be perfect, and she may lose some of it at a subsequent rehearsal; but she has made a start; a door into the character has been opened and the actress will perhaps know how to open it again.

Some few inexperienced actors find it necessary to have their imaginations stimulated. They are the creative-minded among the actors. They may, naturally, find some interest in a complete comprehension of the character, but as far as their acting is concerned, they remain cold to rational ex-position; they are not insensitive to the emotional appeal of the character, but this does not move them into the character.

It may be a vision of the completed production, with its costumes, lights, and scenery; it may be a conception of the unified play in which the actor's stage character becomes an integral part; it may be the purpose or idea behind the character, seen now, not in terms of the stage play, but standing as a symbol of life in the world outside the theater, which will touch his imagination. However he is touched, when his imagination is stimulated into action, the play will begin to take on new proportions. There will be a challenge in his task which was absent before. The stimulus for acting has been supplied. So the actor begins to create, within himself, and a character begins to evolve. The director has helped guide the actor to the initial conception. The evolving character may not be a blood brother to the conception in the dramatist's mind, but, unless the character becomes too much of an outsider, the director should permit the actor his own interpretation, in the confidence that the character will possess vigor and life.

Many actors, especially among beginners, are not mature enough to build a character from a mental conception of it; they are not sufficiently educated in the emotions to characterize through the stimulus of feeling; and they are not creative-minded. Actors may be capable of developing men-tally and emotionally, but a play must be given in four weeks, and we haven't time to wait for their development. The only method applicable to these actors is the coaching method.

No director should find much pleasure in coaching; no actor should want to be coached, though many of them do. Coaching, however, is at times the only method by which a director can get his actor into a part.

As a matter of fact, coaching doesn't get an actor into a part. Coaching results in an imitation of the director's expression of the character. The director has his idea of the character and knows, in detail, how it should be expressed. So he expresses, or describes this expression, as to inflection, pause, tone, gesture, movement about the stage, and then has the actor repeat the expression after him. In theatrical lingo, the director "hangs something on" the actor. This some-thing, understand, is not what we want to get from the actor. It rarely results in an honest portrayal of the character and is seldom convincing. It is a substitute for the real thing which we sometimes have to accept and give to the audience, hoping that they will be fooled into thinking it is the real thing.

Besides resulting in a poor imitation, the coaching method is to be shunned because it gives so little to the actor. It tends to make him a puppet and gives nothing to help him create a part the next time he is called upon to act. It tends to give him a few stage tricks and forces him to rely on his coach; instead, he should be developing initiative and acquiring technique.

Generally one or another of these approaches will be of help to the actor in creating his character. None is thoroughly reliable. Sometimes they may be used in combination. The director, becoming temporarily the psychologist, discovers which type his actor is and then chooses the method that he decides will be most useful.

Most of this chapter would be bad advice if a more reasonable circumstance surrounded the amateur theater. A director needs some sort of training school from whence he can draw experienced actors—actors who have had long and intensive drill in all phases of the acting craft. It is asking too much of him to create, in four weeks' time with incompetent material, an expertly acted play. But he generally has no such school from which to draw. All he can do is admit this most serious weakness of the amateur theater—its inexperienced acting—and do the best he can in circumstances as he finds them. Certainly when he discovers alert, competent actors, from whom movement flows naturally and with significance, in whom inflection is characterful and convincing, then the director can use the first method of directing, with the conviction that his play will possess greater genuineness and spontaneity.

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