Everyone who performs at a high level understands there are critical differences between training and performing. Boxers don’t jog because they’ll jog in a fight. They do it because it builds stamina. Ballet dancers stretch so their bodies move fluidly and land safely on the day. Many actors spend 80 percent of class time sitting in the audience watching other actors and another 10 percent listening to a teacher talk and still expect themselves to perform at a high level on set or in auditions. An actor’s instrument is their whole self—mind, body, and intuition—and they should train accordingly.
The 21st century has brought with it an epidemic of incomplete concentration—short attention spans that mock mental rigor as passé. The ability to focus one’s inner energy, memorize, occlude distractions, and explore for details are primary skills for an actor. There are many ways to go about sharpening the mind, all of which begin with putting down your “smart” phone. Read a book, go to a museum, or study a foreign language. All of these will help strengthen the mental muscle.
Research suggests playing games might be the fastest way for actors to enhance concentration, memory, and intellectual acuity all at once. Sociologist Neva Boyd noted, “Playing a game is psychologically different in degree but not in kind from dramatic acting. The ability to create a situation imaginatively and to play a role in it is a tremendous experience…We observe that this psychological freedom creates a condition in which strain and conflict are dissolved and potentialities are released in the spontaneous effort to meet the demands of the situation.” Or as Shaun White put it “Skateboarding is training, but I don’t think of it as training. It’s fun.”
Here’s a news flash: You don’t need a six pack to be a movie star. An actor’s skill is measured in part by their talent to communicate physically, non-verbally, the life of a character in a scene. Transformation is enabled by the ability to hold the body in ways that are true to the character. So much of Eddie Redmayne’s Academy Award-winning performance in “The Theory of Everything,” for example, was communicated by adjusting his physical life. Watch Kevin Spacey’s Oscar-winning work in “American Beauty” for a subtler example. Hidden beneath the detailed physicality of the award winners is a secret tool of great actors: Being in your body helps you get out of your head.
When the mind is focused and the body engaged, keen and quick insights leap from within us and creativity is liberated. It is these stunningly intuitive discoveries that allow actors to express the most beautiful truths: a pensive glance out the window, a pep talk in the mirror, even a preemptive laser-gun shot under the table. Although intuition is often viewed as mystical, using a system of games can make accessing it a trained skill.
Viola Spolin’s Singing Dialogue is part of the sequence of games I use in my scene study classes. The focus is singing with your whole body, from the tips of your toes to the back of your knees to the top of your head. Aside from heightening vocal action, it playfully coaxes the actor to further explore what they are saying and how it affects their partner. Amidst the joy of play, the mind is exercised, physicality is heightened, and new discoveries are made.
Training is not acting. Training is preparation for the job. Good training should engage every fiber of your being. Now sing with your feet.