Eric Bryant

What is Good Acting?

OK, I’m not really going to attempt to quantify what “good acting” is. I’m not even sure I am qualified to do so. What prompted this was the confluence of a couple of things. First, there is a video going around of Uta Hagen stating that “if the acting is visible, it’s bad acting.” Next, in my re-reading of the text that we are using in the Meisner class, a quote by Arthur Miller jumped out at me, “I can pretty well tell which ones have studied with Meisner. It is because they are honest and simple and don’t lay on complications that aren’t necessary.” The final event that got me thinking was a production I saw of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge on National Theatre at Home last night, with Mark Strong as Eddie Carbone, and Nicola Walker as Beatrice. Both actors gave remarkable performances, particularly notable for their honesty, simplicity, and full commitment and immersion into the circumstances of the play. Both performances were beautifully nuanced and grounded, and both actors allowed the words and actions to tell the story. In Meisner terms, they “left themselves alone,” were able to “pick up and deal” with what was happening as it happened, and both “trusted themselves” to allow the play to unfold without the need to guide it anywhere. In Ms. Hagen’s terms, I believed that I was watching two human beings in the midst of their lives dealing with unusual circumstances.

I have no clue as to the training that these actors have undergone. Being British, I have some suspicions that more than likely it was RADA training. I’m not even saying that the actors have studied Meisner, Strasberg, Adler, Hagen, or any of the teachers we associate with continuing the Stanislavsky method. I don’t even know that any of these methods is better than the other, but rather different interpretations of the principles established in the Moscow Arts Theatre. It’s similar to how the primary schools of yoga in the West (Iyengar, Ashtanga, and Hatha) were all different interpretations of the teachings of Desikachar. Each is valid and beneficial depending on the needs of the student.

So it is with schools of thought on acting methods, even if the method is not “Method.” But since this is the discipline I am most familiar with, and that I relate the most to, it is the one that I will speak to.

I guess that what I am advocating is training, especially for those actors who are interested in growing in their craft. It seems odd to me that singers will study voice, musicians will study their instrument, dancers will take movement classes, but actors in Indianapolis tend to feel that they can learn what they need just by getting cast in a show. Don’t get me wrong, working on a role in a show is valuable, but it is not the same as training. The actor may pick up some tricks, or have the good fortune to work with a director or another actor who is able to guide them, however without the challenge and discipline of training the actor become reliant only on what he/she has done in the past, which may or may not address the areas where the actor needs to grow. (Of course, I am speaking generally here – there are exceptions to every rule). Training will provide the opportunity to work specifically on areas where the actor is stuck or on behaviors and habits that no longer serve the actor, but also help the actor develop technique. I know that “technique” may seem like a dirty word to many actors who rely on instinct alone, but technique allows the actor to sharpen instincts and develop a method (another dirty word) to work that will vastly expand their range.

There was an instance in a class I was teaching that focused on five of Uta Hagen’s object exercises. One actor in the class was struggling to trust herself and the exercises, and would inevitably try to force something to occur that wasn’t intrinsic to the exercise. After one exercise (called Finding Occupation While Waiting) where she had made some adjustments that I recommended, I asked her how she felt. She said that she felt like what she did was boring and uninteresting. I asked the class to give her feedback, and to a person they said that what she did was not only the best work she had done that term, but that they were, as one person said, on the edge of their seats waiting to see what would happen next. The difference was that she just allowed herself to trust the exercise and to stay true to her objective. She let go of all of the attempts to make the exercise “entertaining,” and as a result it was mesmerizing.

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