The Art of the Thespian

Turn up on time, remember your lines and don’t knock over the furniture. That’s the classic advice for would-be performers. It’s good advice, of course, but it’s not the whole story. Ask a dozen actors and you’ll get a dozen different hints – some of them conflicting. So how do you go about thespianising?

The best way to start

Well, a good start is to go to acting school – RADA in the UK, The Young Actors’ School or Stella Adler in California, or the New York Academy on the East Coast. Though, curiously, you may not learn much about acting at any of them. You won’t be wasting your time, of course; they’ll teach you voice production, how to move and find marks, and a little bit about horse-riding and sword fighting. And you learn to fall down without hurting yourself. You really start to learn about acting when you play opposite an experienced person. In other words, the best way to learn about acting is to act! But there’s a lot you can do before you risk the horror of the audition!

To see ourselves as others see us

Most people these days have access to a video camera, even if it’s really a mobile telephone. Find a script of a fairly-well known film in your local library, or download it from Drew’s Script-O-Rama or similar. Learn a couple of short speeches, and record yourself performing them. Now (and only now), find a DVD of the film. Compare the performance on that with what you’ve just committed! The first thing you’ll notice is that you’re ‘acting’, but the experienced performer seems to be living the role. Ask yourself what you were thinking about when you were on camera. Were you trying to remember the words? Or were you thinking about what the character would have been thinking about? For instance, if the person you were portraying was trying to get a loan from a bank manager, he’d have been thinking about how the money was to be spent – or what he or she would do if the application was refused. Try to think as the character, then try again.


Observe people. Some schools recommend that you get a part-time job where you’ll have an opportunity to watch people going about their business – waiting in a restaurant, for instance. You’ll notice that most people don’t just say words – they fiddle with a glass or cutlery, stroke a moustache (though not many ladies do that), or twiddle with a button on a jacket or shirt. Try your piece for the third time, but this time juggle with a fork or whatever. It’s surprising how this simple ruse can improve things. One of Mike Leigh’s early masterpieces featured a man (a driving instructor, I believe) who constantly fiddled with a Vick inhaler. At one big turning point, he sat up in his seat with the thing still stuck up his nose. You don’t have to go that far, but business can be very powerful – as long as it’s the right sort of business.

Don’t Act – React!

The next stage is to persuade someone to try a short scene with you. A two-hander. If your opposite number is reluctant, let him or her stand out of shot, near the camera, and read the lines from the script. Try to get the camera close – a close-up or MCU is best. You probably know the lines, but try to hear them as if they’re fresh. If they were unexpected, you’d probably take a second or so to process the thought in your brain. They you’d react physically – frowning, jaw dropping, blinking, whatever. Then you’d collect your thoughts, then you’d reply. Try it; hopefully it will look a lot less like ‘acting’ now. And, hopefully, you’re learning to think like the character. Not to think what effect you’re going to have on the viewer or other people in the cast, but almost becoming that person. You might well surprise yourself if you’re really successful; people have been known to burst into unexpected laughter or tears. (I must be honest here, and admit that many actors disagree with this approach. They say you can do just as well thinking about lunch as about the character’s emotions. But try it this way first; it’s free, and it’s a start.)

Look and Hear

If you think I’ve been concentrating on the look of things a bit too much, you may be right. But films are about visuals more than anything else. But the visuals convey emotion; words move the plot forwards. Compare your vocal production with the DVD performance again. How was your voice? Chances are you gabbled a bit – and maybe there was a suggestion of monotone there. Try slowing it down, and opening your mouth. Don’t overdo things, but when you’re nervous, your jaw tends to clamp shut and you speak through your teeth. Open your mouth wide enough to get a finger between your top and bottom teeth. That’s a good guide to how much you need to open up for clear speech. (If you think that’s wide, consider that singers are taught to open wide enough for two fingers!) When we speak normally, there are high and low notes, pauses and stresses that just happen without us thinking about them. The big important words are usually stressed, little words almost silent. You have to replicate that rhythm by thinking! What are the important words in the short piece you’ve learned? Now take your time, and try to mean each line as you say it. Think about what you’re saying and why your character is saying it. Don’t over-enunciate, but go much slower than you think is right. When you see and hear the result, I hope you’re much happier.