On my first day of acting class, my professor asked the class to define acting. I remember imagining zipping myself into the skin of a character and living inside them, but, of course, that wasn’t it at all (and looking back, seems kind of scary and a little Silence of the Lambs). After we made a couple feeble attempts at answering his question, my professor revealed in the most pretentious way possible (because, you know, he’s a drama teacher) that acting is “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances.”
Through learning some basic Stanislavski and touching on Meisner in my undergraduate experiences, I learned that we live our lives by and large as bad actors. To survive, we often deny the truth, don’t make the strongest choices, and even play against our character in a way that would never fly in a black box. But I think we can learn to live truthfully in real life circumstances, and these are ten principles of acting that could really help.
Always have a super objective
Entering a scene, monologue, or even just an entire play, characters always have a super objective: an overarching goal. Whether it’s just wanting a sandwich or discovering the meaning of life, every line a character says and every action a character commits should be working towards that goal. When actors “score” a script, they often write what that super objective is at the beginning of that scene, noting small objectives throughout the script that characters are using to get to that big super objective. There’s no reason you shouldn’t have a super objective in your life, and you should write it down! Put it on a sticky note, whether it’s “you know what, I want to get married” or “I want to get my book published” or “I’m going to be the CEO of my own company” or “I’m going to move to the place I’ve always wanted to move.” And you should be taking active steps towards getting there. They don’t have to be huge—maybe writing a couple pages of that book, getting on that dating website more, taking free small business classes online; nothing crazy. Every actor worth anything knows what their character wants, and so should you.
Everybody wants something
Speaking of objectives, everybody has them. Even when you’re talking to friends, you’re talking to them because you need the comfort of their company and they need yours. Every mode of communication comes from a need, whether it is emotional, monetary, or whatever. In your personal life and in business life, it’s important to know what people can do for you and what you can do for them. Backs gotta get scratched!
Know that your words have meaning
Using the Stanislavski technique, actors often attach verbs to each of their lines to know what they are doing to each other. For example, in a scene between you and your mom, the line “Well, look who’s home,” depending on what has transpired, could mean “to guilt” or “to welcome.” Not that you should be attaching verbs to every conversation of your life, but words do have meaning. It’s important to be aware that maybe when you say “hey” to someone that there are a million ways it could be interpreted. It’s important to be aware of your intent.
Don’t be afraid to raise the stakes
I can’t tell you how many times my acting professor yelled “What are you doing?!” or “Raise the Stakes!” at me. Going back to scoring and attaching verbs, there are a million ways you can approach a scene, but for you, there is only one right way. You have to choose the right actions to live your life. To achieve that super objective, to get what you really want—raise the stakes. Ask for that promotion, ask that cute boy/girl out, write that business plan. Don’t cower or hide. You are the master of your fate and you need to make the right choices.
There’s nothing more important than your partner
This may come as a surprise, but acting is never about the individual. It’s not a selfish trade at all: it is about you and your scene partner. Listening to what they are saying, knowing what you are doing to them—it’s not the audience, it’s just you and them living truthfully together. That’s something to take to real life: really be there for other people and support them in their endeavors. When they reach out, be there to take their hand. Whether romantic or platonic, on the stage and off, our relationships are the most important thing.
Don’t be afraid to feel things
This is one thing I am actually the worst at—in real life and most definitely on stage. If someone says something that hurts you, it’s okay to be hurt; if someone says something that makes you happy, it’s okay to be really happy. This especially applies with Meisner technique, which I don’t think I could begin to explain (think improv with everything fun about improv taken out plus about 80% more feelings). I think in the culture we live in we’re taught to bottle up a lot of feelings and not let people see, but it really is okay to feel things and confront people about problems.
Adding to that, it’s important to really listen to people. Most of acting is just listening to your partner and understanding what they want and what their words are doing to you and what you can do to them. In real life, sometimes just shutting up and listening to people’s concerns without feeling the need to fill the silences can make for better relationships.
Never fake it
One of the deepest sins of acting is something called “indicating”—where you use cliched actions to show you’re doing something rather than actually doing it the way you really would, like shivering and rubbing your arms to show it’s cold or making the actions of shoving rather than just really pushing someone. You shouldn’t pretend on stage and you shouldn’t pretend in real life. There’s no reason to fake something when you can actually do it (except shoving people, obviously—don’t do that.).
Do your research
Using the Stanislavski technique, actors do something called “scoring and packing.” Scoring is writing the verbs and objectives, while packing is doing the research—finding music, art, and answering any remaining questions so they can fully understand their character. There’s no reason not to research who you really are. Maybe instead of scrolling through other people’s lives on Facebook, find a piece of art that really speaks to who you are, think about why you like the music you do, and journal about who you are as a person. For Meisner class, I had to write a journal entry every day about my journey as an actor in order to learn and document what my issues were. That kind of research is easy to do in real life, and could even help you towards that super objective.
One thing my professor wrote over and over again in that acting journal were those two words: let go. That’s one thing you have to accomplish as an actor—let go of all of the inadequacies, the questions, the confusions, and allow yourself to live in those imaginary circumstances. Forget about the world, forget about how you look, and let it be just you, your partner, and the audience. You don’t have to be a bad actor. You don’t have to indicate, you don’t have to not make bold choices, you don’t have to submit to the norms of the world. You can let all that go and live truthfully. You can go for what you want and really live. I’m not there yet, and I don’t know if anyone is totally, but if there’s one thing to work for onstage and off, it’s to let go and be you.
Katy Koop is a recent graduate from Meredith College with degrees in English and Theatre. She currently works at a movie theatre by day and tries to do theatre and get freelance writing jobs by night (also netflix and general internet procrastination by night). She has a website at katykoop.com and can be found trying to be funny or trying desperately to get advice from celebrities on twitter with the handle @katykooped