A colleague and I, a fellow professional actor/consultant on our team, often love to debate acting technique. (We’re actors, that’s what we do…) There are quite a few schools of thought when it comes to the actual “process” of acting, but one that most actors I know agree on is that acting is not just about “feeling” or “emoting." As the kids might say, it’s not just about “feeling all of the feels." An actor who merely yells, weeps, wildly laughs through a performance, without regard to the other characters, how he or she is affecting them, or what he/she may want from them, usually ends up with an indulgent performance, not a real one. It’s all about THEM. It’s like watching an overblown firework display in the middle of winter- sure, it might look nice, but it doesn’t affect you the same way as the perfect show on the Fourth of July.
A strong, nuanced performance takes more than simply feeling, with a capital FEEL. It requires the ability to interpret not only how the character feels and what they are doing, but how they interact with every other character in the play and the world around them. Actors will spend copious amounts of time pouring over a script to find references made by other characters about their own- they need to discover how their character is seen through the eyes of the people around them. They need to discover how they interact with everyone, interpret the actions and feelings of others, and recognize what makes each relationship in the play unique.
In short, they have to be emotionally intelligent.
When you respond to an actor’s performance, what is it that draws you in? From the stage, to the screens big and small, chances are it is not just basic character traits- how funny, or smart, or resourceful a character may seem. More likely it is how that actor navigates the character’s various relationships. Here are some of the most important techniques actors use when building those moving, strong, impactful relationships:
Listen, listen, listen: Recently, I was doing a play where the playwright had clearly written sections of dialogue with the intention that the two characters ignore what the other was saying. They were incredibly hard sections to play, because they weren’t actually having a conversation- talking, listening, and responding to what was being said. The difficulty was pointed up by the fact that, as actors, we are taught to always, ALWAYS be listening. The playwright’s point was that the two characters had extreme difficulties building strong relationships, an idea expertly embodied in the inverse through to characters who couldn’t communicate.
Active listening is of the utmost importance when developing your own emotional intelligence. The active part is the key. Just like an actor, in order to build a relationship we have to discover what the other person wants, as well.
Process not only what you are feeling, but the feelings of others: It is always difficult to be in a development situation with an actor that can only begin discussions with either the word “I” or “My”- “Well, I think it’s this. “ “Well, MY character would never do that!” This leads to creative dead ends again and again. I’ve found the same issue alive and well in the business world- the team member who can’t process beyond his own interests can be the wrench in the works.
In order to process how characters are feeling, there are two golden words that are helpful regardless of whether people are on or off stage- “Why” and “What." Asking questions that begin with those two words can lead you down a path of great discovery. “Why does my colleague feel this project should progress this way? What is their approach? Why do I feel so strongly? What can I do to make this work for both of us?” Asking questions, rather than only making statements, enables you to process information, not ignore it.
You can’t do it alone: There is no “One Man Show." The theatre is a largely collaborative art form- from directors to designers to production staff and beyond. No actor is an island. Effective collaboration calls for high emotional intelligence and requires the entire team to buy in to the idea that all input is important and necessary. That doesn’t mean that no one ever disagrees- on the contrary, I’ve been witness to some truly lively debates between people with differing opinions. But the point is that there is no production- ever- that gets off the ground on the steam of only one person.
If you have a strong-willed, “if-you-want-it-done-right-you-have-to-do-it-yourself” person on your team, it can be difficult to navigate the waters of collaboration. Start by asking yourself some of those “What” and “Why” questions, and then start to think about what you are willing to give up. Actors often talk about the character choices they can’t part with- they’ve become so attached to an idea that they are willing to fight tooth and nail for it. Of course, personal conviction is important. But at some point, they’ve got to be willing to give something up for the sake of collaboration. The best actors are the ones who can say “I’m not married to this idea/action/moment” and experiment with something new.
The inherently collaborative nature of the theatre, film, and television requires that one develop a high level of emotional intelligence to create the most effective performance- just like in offices around the globe. After all, what are you and your team working towards, if not a successful performance of some kind? Approach it like an actor, with a mind open to not only how you feel, but how others feel and how to process that information into successful collaboration. As the late, great Peter O’Toole once said, “I’m a working stiff, baby, just like everybody else.” And aren’t we all?