Last night, a very talented female actor presented a monologue in class. The acting was simple, clear, direct, and active—the hallmarks of proficiency. “How did it go?” I asked.
“Fine,” she squeezed.
“Did you do what you wanted to do?” I probed.
“No, it wasn’t true,” she responded.
After an improvisational acting exercise, she did a second take. My USC colleague Jack Rowe is often quick to note when an actor’s performance changes the air in the room. This was one of those moments. My gut seized and breath shortened as she spoke each syllable. A new kind of quiet filled the studio. With each move she made and each word she uttered, she seemed to be embarking upon a hero’s struggle, defying the gods for her sense of justice and peace. I felt a connection to the actors seated behind me and sensed I wasn’t the only one with tears in my eyes. The actor performing was not crying.
There was a long silence when she finished the monologue. The moment transformed and she looked at me. “How did it go?” I queried.
“Fine,” she said. I was surprised by her response, so I used her barometer from earlier and asked, “Was it true?”
She responded, “I don’t know. It was true for me but I don’t know if some guy on the street would think it was true!” The actor, who had succeeded at the highest levels of the art form—reaching her audience, moving them, making them feel—was deferring to a stranger on the street to measure her success.
From the moment we’re born, we’re labeled good or bad—by our parents and other adults, our teachers, our bosses, our spouses. It cycles, first validated or rejected by others, and then, as a result, seeking validation or rejection from others. Viola Spolin called this the Approval/Disapproval Syndrome, and it leads to creative paralysis.
An actor’s value is constantly billboarded as synonymous with red carpets, expensive minimalist clothing, and pharmaceutical endorsements. Even in training, you perform a scene in the typical acting class and then receive the teacher’s critique about what was good or not. Regardless of the teacher’s talent, they can perpetuate the approval/disapproval cycle that promotes dependency and prevents creative freedom. Choice is the province of the artist and the trained actor must be able to answer for themselves if they did what they wanted to do.
Henri Matisse, the famous painter, was painting a model. A guest in his studio looked at the model, looked at the painting, then looked at Matisse and said, “You got her arm wrong.” Matisse looked at the model, smiled, and then gestured to the canvas and responded, “You see my friend, this, is a painting.”
The knowledge of whether the artist did what they wanted to do is vital for the kind of collaboration required on film sets because it allows for a degree of objectivity. I once watched a generous director ask an actor if he was good with the last take and ready to move on. The actor thought for a moment and said, “No, I wanna try something. Do we have time for one more take?”
Without the ability to answer the question, “Did I do what I wanted to do?” the actor would’ve been the equivalent of a deferential child waiting for the director’s approval to move on instead of a collaborator who was part of the whole, free and willing to take risks to capture just the right brush stroke.
If an actor is able to set specific goals in a scene, then they can measure them. If you decide in a scene to work on subtext, for example, then ask yourself afterward, “Did I do what I wanted to do, work on the subtext?” Then you may evaluate your focus on the inner life of the scene and assess if the inner action colored the text in a way that is beautiful and true (or if you lost concentration and became distracted by something else).
Regardless of the answer, you will have a qualitative measurement about the relationship of subtext to the scene (or your own ability to concentrate). Most importantly, you will be breaking the cycle of reading the reviews to determine how good you are, and instead possess the freedom to paint the world truly, as you see it.