When it comes to acting there are few buzzwords more overused yet more vaguely understood than “presence.”
You could call it star power, or “the x-factor.” You could say that presence applies to an actor who has “it,” an indefinable natural magnetism, charisma or charm that makes us fascinated with him or her. It makes them memorable and iconic–it’s the “secret sauce” that draws our attention and demands our focus. When it comes to people with presence, you just can’t get enough of them.
But presence goes far beyond traditional good looks; in fact, some rather unconventional-looking actors are imbued with a tremendous presence–think Steve Buscemi or Willem Dafoe for instance.
Perhaps it’s one of those things that you know when you see it, but which is nonetheless difficult to put into words. But how can we as actors go about improving our own presence? Is that even possible with something so intangible?
More to the point, where can I buy this secret sauce you speak of, and do they sell it in bulk?
The argument can be made that, while perhaps presence cannot be taught from scratch, we probably do have the ability to stretch its boundaries. Here’s how we might look at it.
1. Presence = present
For starters, look at the word presence. It comes from the same root as the word “present,” and in fact is defined as “the state of being present.” That’s a term with which we as actors should all be intimately familiar. So it’s important to understand that those actors about whom we say they possess great presence certainly show a great ability to be present: they are present in the moment, present in their roles, present in their bodies. In other words, they are fully realized actors and humans who are engaged with the moment that is happening around them right now. They are relaxed and comfortable with themselves, and open and ready to connect with whatever gets thrown at them. One thing you might notice about actors we think of as having presence is they are engaged and focused even when they are not speaking. Every moment they are on stage or on camera they are engaged, even when they’re just being still. Working on our listening and our focus can help us be more in the moment, and thus help our presence.
2. Be relaxed
Relaxation is another one of those terms that, when used in the context of acting is a little squishy–and easier said than done, to boot. But there are some concrete ways we can develop our ability to be more relaxed on stage. One is of course to do our proper warm-ups before taking the stage or stepping in front of the camera. It cannot be stressed enough that it is always, always apparent to theatre professionals and laymen alike when an actor isn’t warmed up. The layman may not be able to tell you exactly what’s missing, but they know something isn’t right. Stretch, do your vocal warm-ups, move around–whatever you have to do to get ramped up so that you will be fully engaged from the very first moment you’re on. You will warm up; whether you do it before curtain or after is up to you. It’s important to remember too that what we do is wholly unnatural: standing up in front of people and saying words that aren’t your own and pretending to be someone you are not couldn’t be any further from natural. The tricky part is of course that we must always appear to be natural in our movements and speaking patterns. Even if your character speaks or moves in a quirky or strange way, it is natural to them, and thus they are as comfortable behaving in this way as if they were putting on an old sock. This is impossible to achieve if you aren’t relaxed. To that end…
3. Rehearse, rehearse, then rehearse some more
Experience is of course another factor in an actor’s presence. And while time and the doing of the thing are the only ways to gain experience, one thing we can take control of is the experience we have with the particular piece we are working on. Have you ever had one of those actor’s nightmares where you’re pushed out onto a stage to perform in a show you’re wholly unfamiliar with? They give you a script for a minute or two, and then they take it away from you and then it’s time for your entrance. They tell you, “Oh don’t worry! It’ll be fine!” And for some reason you believe them–and you go out there! If you’ve never had this type of dream, count yourself lucky; it’s the worst. In real life, one way we can help ourselves to be more present when we perform–and thus hopefully improve what we call our presence–is to be utterly, completely confident in the material we are performing. In sports they say “you’re only cheating yourself” if you slack off on training. But in acting, if you’re lazy in your preparation, you are cheating not only yourself, you are also cheating your castmates, your director, your audience, and ultimately your career. If you’re ever working on something and you think it’s “good enough,” it’s not. It could be better. You need to put in all the work that is necessary for you to play your role, and then some more work, and then some more. I guarantee you that those actors we think of as having great presence are among the hardest working actors in the game.
4. Don’t forget who you are
Even if we acknowledge that the concept of presence is a bit mysterious and hard to pin down, one thing we can say about it is that all actors who have it in great abundance come across as very vital and very real–very human, in other words. When we step out in front of an audience or a camera to perform, we do not give up our humanity–the opposite in fact. Because what we do is so unnatural we must be even more aware of and connected to our humanity. We must celebrate it fully in all its flaws and imperfections. When we perform as actors and human beings who are present in the moment, we embrace ourselves and our species in all its greatness and horror. We accept ourselves and our characters as flawed but beautiful human beings doing their best to get by in a cruel and wonderful world. We love, in other words. Ourselves, our amazing job, and our fellow, flawed humans. If you can truly embrace this ethos you will not only have improved presence on stage, you will have improved presence in life.