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Are Dummies the Best Actors?
To be a great performer you must be well informed, super smart and know a great deal about psychology relevant to acting. The greatest teachers know you can have a solid connection to your intellect…and also be spontaneous, focused on the other actors, unpredictable, imaginative and emotionally filled…all at once! One of the most common insults of the 20th Century came from acting teachers calling actors "too smart" or saying they were "in their heads." In some cases it implies, and in others directly asserts, that a well-developed intellect makes being a great performer harder while performing. That is utter nonsense. Many actors and singers, who have significant previous training, need to hear the liberating message: It is not only ok, it's vital to be smart.
Some might object to what I just wrote by stating the term "in your head" is valuable because it really means not being overly intellectual. However, some acting teachers say actors must be "liberated from thought." Messages are often inconsistent and paradoxical, from the very same teachers. But, if the phrase is supposed to actually mean not being overly intellectual, then most modern teachers are in total agreement. So, let's use phrases and teachings that literally mean what the words mean. Our work is devoted to cultivating a well-rounded approach to performance. Your voice, body and mind is liberated from oppressive rules and tension that block the full expression of who you are -- your talent. You must act from a wider variety of energies and archetypes -- excluding none, but not over-relying on any one, either.
A more careful examination of the specific meaning of "in your head," and the commonly taught rule you must be "in the moment" reveals two things: This vocabulary certainly helps some performers and has been useful. But, it is harmful or paralyzing for many performers if they attempt to achieve literal implementation of these vague teachings, and there is now a much more accurate and helpful way to talk about how to achieve great performance.
In great performer training, there are many phases. In the beginning, for both beginners and even many well-established professionals, the focus should be to enhance and/or facilitate emotional, vocal, and physical freedom; self-awareness and a deep connection to the awesome expanse of the imagination. Without this foundation, great performance is not possible. It is incredibly ironic that often performer training begins with script analysis and performance result work -- a much more narrow, intellectual approach than is helpful for most aspiring performers.
Only after the experiential work that frees the body, voice, emotional and imaginative worlds, should there be extensive training in critical thinking, world events, and in the most current psychology that helps great performers. A highly developed rational intelligence and knowledge, balanced by other "parts" of your personality, is essential. The great performers are some of the most conscious, evolved and informed people on the planet, despite the pop media obsession with the tragic downfalls of a teeny tiny percentage of actors.
The notion a performer must get "out of their head" and be "in the moment" does primitively address a very real issue many aspiring performers "act" from too much rationality. A valid point that must be addressed in actor and singer training. But, the issue is not to insult the reality and necessity of intelligence or thought, even while moment-to-moment performing. It is to teach performers what to DO with the imagination…and how to do it…specifically…clearly…step-by-step…Instead of simply telling actors to get "out of their heads." There ought to be many more acting teachers capable of this kind of sophisticated instruction.
The notion an actor must "be in the moment" is troublesome for many more reasons. What exactly does it mean? You're supposed to really be listening? Sounds good, but very incomplete. You're not supposed to notice yourself while acting? You're supposed to forget yourself or get lost in your spontaneity? Sounds really bad and dangerous. Please don't actually get lost "in the moment" of the circumstance of being a killer if you're on the film set with me. Please, please, remember you're acting.
So, upon scrutiny, it becomes a Zen kind of phrase that while, once very popular, either makes no sense, is impossible or undesirable to achieve. We just don't need this phrase in our work…especially because it harms so many performers. But, we know most actors need exercises that bring them more "in the room and present with the other actors" AND the fact they are acting and creating art.
The idea you must "get out of your head" (a physiologically nonsensical phrase), in part, stems from an historic bigotry that artists are pariahs: sluts, criminals, gypsies, communists, anarchists, traitors, stupid and more. Many of the great 20th Century teachers promoted this self-loathing religion, and it still infects significant amounts of training. I even hear some performers express this kind of thing.
In the 1940s and early '50s, the House Un-American Activities Committee actively promoted this nonsense to disempower artists from being political, informed and helping to change society. This was because actor-activists were effecting tremendous social change in the United States. Artists, just before this era, were having significant impact on the political landscape. And the government and orthodoxies did not like it at all. So, entertainment professionals were hauled before Congress and called communists and socialists and careers were ruined. Even Charlie Chaplin had to leave the United States to continue to get work. It's part of why you still constantly hear people insult actors when they comment about political issues, "They're just actors. What do they know? Shut up and do your job." Things like that.
What we want are actors that are super smart, highly informed, self-aware, emotionally available, physically and vocally free and psychologically very smart -- and available to really be with the other actors. The proof is in the pudding. The best actors are, ideally, constantly working on waking up: to themselves, to life, to their voices, bodies, mind, imaginations, each other, etc. They are always working on themselves. And, once you're connected fully to your imaginative and emotional world, the best actor training includes the most specific line-by-line, moment-by-moment text work one can find. It's intellectual, it's imaginative, it's psychological -- it's holistic and integrative. And it would give those who believe actors shouldn't be highly developed intellectuals the willies.
It's time to do away with the bigotry actors should not have "heads" and should just "be in the moment." The great performers I know are extremely smart, know they're performing and use their heads in the moment of the performance. And this reality is a basis of the best training. And it also happens to be in sync with the most current understanding of creative process and great performing. And it's how great performers report that they work!
You just do not hear actors report they are totally "in the moment" and are never thinking and forget they're acting. Although, you do hear great performers express things like this: When it all comes together, there is a feeling of mystery, magic, ease…and some even say it feels like the work is coming from another place…that they are a vessel through which the world of the story flows! This is the result of an ability to open oneself to the infinite world of the unconscious -- and let it do the acting for you.
Jason Bennett is Runner-Up for Best Acting Coach in 2010. And you can read more about his classes and coaching at "The Jason Bennett Actor's Workshop" at http://www.JBActors.com
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