Before I actually get there, let me say a word or two about your teachers. You are going to have a lot of dramatic arts teachers in your time. You’re going to have coaches and directors and student teachers, acting 1, 2, and whatever comes next teachers. All of these teachers will have wonderful and terrible things to teach you, and no two are alike. It’s very difficult, at the time you are being taught, to know what the wonderful things are and what the terrible things are. You may think one year you’ve found the Messiah of all acting instructors, or go to a fabulous summer program, and then two years later be taught that everything you learned in those classes is stupid and counterproductive. By the same token, you may have a teacher you think is absolutely insane, or just dumb as a bag of hair, and then realize in college that he really knew what he was talking about. It’s almost impossible to tell at the moment. The sixty-five-thousand-dollar question is, what do you do when you don’t know if you’re being fed gourmet pizza or 2-week-old Brussels sprouts with pink spots? Glad you asked.
Assume it’s gourmet pizza.
It’s a lot easier to chuck out knowledge or training that you have a solid understanding of than it is to try to remember that really great exercise or concept that you didn’t want to try three years ago. More likely than not, even if you have received bad or out-of-date training, it’s not completely useless. I believe (and this is my own personal philosophy) that there is at least one valuable or relevant aspect to any lesson or exercise given. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be taught at all. It worked for someone, somewhere, sometime, and who knows, it may work for you. Acting is not mathematics. There are very few, very basic hard-and-fast rules to it (see Secret to Success). It’s a subjective, constantly changing and evolving art. It’s like the ocean. Always there in the same place doing what it’s always done, but always different. Sometimes more exciting or frightening or even boring than at other times, but always changing. Affected constantly by variables. Things within it die and are replaced or regenerated every minute. And no matter how long you’re away from it, you can always go back and it’s still where it was before.
- DO YOUR EXERCISES
Acting exercises, especially the beginning ones, have got to be the most idiotic-looking things ever. While doing them, you tend to look stupid, feel stupid, and wonder what the heck you were thinking when you got into this. From warmups to guided imagery, mirrors to trust falls, there are going to be LOTS of moments when you feel really goofy. I know I did, I know my students do. And when you’re not busy feeling stupid, you are often anxious, thinking, “Am I doing it right? Am I doing it well? I don’t feel anything. Is she looking at me? I can’t do it that way- he’s doing it that way. He took my idea. I suck.” For Pete’s sake, relax.
Most of your time, you are in classes at school where there is a right and wrong way to do things. There are formulas and exceptions to rules, trick questions and pop quizzes. Acting class is a place to leave all that literal rule-ridden world and figure out what works for YOU. What pushes your buttons, how does that make you feel, what did you think of, what did you see? Who did the exercise just like you did? You may have something in common with classmates that you didn’t realize before. Which exercises did absolutely nothing for you the first time, but the third time took hold? Which felt so cool the first time you couldn’t wait to do it again, only to be disappointed? (This experience, in itself, is a great exercise.) In order to answer all these questions, and more, you have to really do what the teacher is asking of you. It’s best not to ask any questions before you begin. Do the exercise the way you initially understand it. Get as deeply into it as you can as quickly as you can without thinking too much. If you are missing part of the exercise, or have misunderstood, the teacher will correct you, and you will go on from there, again as deeply and quickly as you can. It’s a concept generally termed getting out of your own way.
I had the unique experience once of being at a drama conference full of people (adults) who did not know much about acting. It was a conference for people who had been asked to lead church drama teams, but had little or no training or experience. One of the classes, of course, was Acting I. Back to the very basics. I thought I knew this stuff- learned it in drama camp when I was 8. Again in Junior High. Again in High School. College. But I realized as I watched these people do these age-old exercises that I had a lot to learn from them. They had never seen a mirror exercise done, and were exploring it for the first time. The concentration and wonder in their faces as they experienced a linking of mind and body with someone whose name they might not even know, as they moved as one unit, was inspiring almost to the point of tears. A simple mirror exercise, but done without worrying what anyone thought of them, without thinking about how they looked, not trying to find the best or the funniest or the most original way to move. Without trying to make their partner laugh or moving too fast to make their partner work to catch up. I could go on and on about how much crap you can throw into the works of even the simplest exercise, but I think you get the idea.
Taking risks is one of the most terrifying and desperately important things you can learn to do as an actor- and you have to start with the exercises and class stuff.
If you can, starting with the very simplest bits- even just warmups- practice just doing the work. Take it one day at a time. Even one exercise at a time. Think, “for this one exercise- the next 15 minutes- I will just do what I think I’m supposed to do the best way I can. The heck with what anyone else does or thinks. A piano will not fall on my head if it’s not what the teacher is looking for. After this, I can go back to the way I usually do things.” Once you can do it for warmups (or whatever you’ve chosen as your experiment) without sweating, add the next exercise. Then the next, and the next. If, by the end of high school, you are to where you can throw yourself right away into any exercise given to you like a warm swimming pool or a fabulous trampoline, you are going to have the time of your life in college. You will possess a confidence, perspective and a sense of adventure far beyond that of most of your classmates. You will be out of your own way, and it’s a beautiful feeling.