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5 Tips for Actors

Updated on December 21, 2009

This famous scene from "On the Waterfront" is a prime example of the importance of listening.

Here are 5 simple tips that any actor can make use of, regardless of whether his or her preferred medium is film or theatre, amateur or professional:

#1) Observe the space. When performing a play, acting in front of the camera, or going into an audition, it is very important for the actor to be conscious of the space and how it can be manipulated. If you are performing a rehearsed monologue, don't "recite it" the way you've always done it but adjust to the requirements of the space. By getting into rehearsed patterns of behavior, you deny yourself the opportunity to make a monologue or scene fresh or relevant for a new audience and environment. You might be able to perform Tom's monologue from The Glass Menagerie in a loud, "big" way in an auditorium of 500 people, but even if that worked in a large space I can guarantee you the performance will seem ridiculous if you try it the same way in a casting director's office.

In film, it might be easy to say space isn't as important because the camera lens frames the space. In a sense, this is true from a technical standpoint (that's the director's business) but from an actor's standpoint, space is still very important. Let the space inform your character, rather than bringing a preconceived "routine" to the space.

#2) Always listen. This may sound obvious, but is one of the hardest things for an actor to do. Most of the best actors I've seen have also been very good listeners. I saw a really terrible play once, but there was an amazing actor in it. He only had 5 lines in a whole scene, but because he was listening so carefully to the overacted diatribe between the two leads, I found him completely captivating. He was a good listener, and that is far more important than the number of lines you are given.

If you watch the famous scene from "On the Waterfront" where Terry Malloy (played by Marlon Brando) tells his brother (Rod Steiger) how he "could have been a contender," some fascinating interactions are occurring. Of course, it is one of Brando's most famous roles and won him his first Oscar, but if you watch the scene carefully, you will see that Steiger is an equal match for Brando's talent in this scene. Brando's charisma and sheer number of lines can be upstaging, but Steiger acts alongside him beautifully, listening intently to everything Brando gives him. You can see it in his face, and especially his eyes. I promise you, if you focus on always listening, you will give more to your fellow actors, and your audience will feel the connection, even if they can't explain why.

#3) Practice flexibility. I don't mean stretching (although taking care of an actor's physical instrument is also very important). I'm talking about the ability to adjust to the challenges that new situations present. Acting is frequently an imprecise art that can be affected by countless unforeseen circumstances. An actor could become sick (forcing an understudy to go on) actors can be fired, leave a set or rehearsal for personal reasons, etc. Technical malfunctions and budget constraints can force a film or play to cut or completely alter entire scenes. Deadlines are not always honored (despite professional obligations), but the show must go on.

An actor cannot afford to be rigid in any aspect of his training or work. You really do have to go with the flow, because there are too many factors outside of your control and they can change at any moment and without just cause. It's very dangerous for actors to "expect" anything or take a person or schedule for granted. This is true in an organizational sense, but also in the heat of the moment. An actor might forget their cue. On film, the production can cut and do another take. But on the stage, the show has to continue. An actor could say a line or perform a scene completely differently then you had ever rehearsed, but you have to be flexible in the moment, because the audience is seeing the performance for the first time and they don't have your expectations.

Sir Ian on Acting (from "Extras")

If my advice doesn't help, try Sir Ian McKellen's: "If we were to draw a graph of my process, of my method, it would be something like this: Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian, action, wizard 'You shall not pass!', cut. Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian."
If my advice doesn't help, try Sir Ian McKellen's: "If we were to draw a graph of my process, of my method, it would be something like this: Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian, action, wizard 'You shall not pass!', cut. Sir Ian, Sir Ian, Sir Ian."

#4) Respect authority and your fellow actors. Disrespect, in any environment, is not acceptable behavior, but in film or theatre, it is damning. The process of creating film and television is almost always highly collaborative and frequently contains an intricate network of contributors, each of whom brings something important to the table. If an actor disrespects anyone in this system, he jeopardizes the success of the entire project.

For example, don't waste others time. A director once told me that if you are 5 minutes late and keep 12 other cast and crew members waiting, you have just wasted 1 hour of other people's time. Now imagine if you are 10 minutes late or if there are 30 people in a cast! Everyone's time is precious and there is no room for divas in the professional world (and the presence of divas in amateur or collegiate productions will not be tolerated if they try to pull the same behavior with the pros).

Also: what the director says goes. It may be a bad idea, and others may agree with you, but it is not the actor's place to challenge the director on artistic decisions. If the director is putting the life or well being of actors or crew in potential danger, that is a different matter, and should be addressed. If worse comes to worst, communicate with the director privately and at another time, but do NOT be disrespectful and especially not when such behavior is in front of other cast and crew and during rehearsals.

#5) Remember the ensemble. This tip ties into all four of the previous pieces of advice and is one of the most important parts of successful acting, in my opinion. Regardless of whether you have 500 lines or 5 lines, on camera for 5 seconds or 50 minutes, Equity, non-union, whatever - always remember that you are a piece of a larger framework and every member is crucial to the success of the whole. Listen to the needs of the group, be flexible when all does not go as planned, and be respectful despite the inevitable stress. This is a difficult business, much harder than many individuals appreciate, and requires diligence to one's craft as well as extraordinary inter-personal patience. To be a "star" to the detriment of a production and forget the contributing factors of each facet is a cardinal sin in any area of the performing or cinematic arts. Be mindful of everyone while doing the best job that you can do, and that is all anyone can ask of you.

I plan to write some more tips soon, perhaps more specifically delineated between acting technique and professional etiquette. Thanks for reading!

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