At its core, acting is a rediscovery of the sense of play and make-believe that were second nature to us as children. As soon as we begin school, our sense of freedom is systematically limited by expectations: "Sit up straight," "Be quiet," "Stop clowning," "No daydreaming." Socially, we begin to learn that certain behaviors might result in ridicule from our peers, and our freedom becomes limited by our wish to be accepted or praised. Put simply, we begin to judge ourselves. We think before we act. While these are great skills for conforming to societal standards, they can become impediments to the actor's sense of spontaneity.
All actors—adults and children—are most alive on stage when they feel free. Early childhood, for most people, is a time when engaging all of the senses without impediment comes easily. Our ability to imagine and create is at its peak. It is a time when adults encourage children to play, create, dream, and imagine, and when people expect children to behave with unconventional abandon. It is a time of possibilities. These are the very things we strive for in acting. Kids possess the keys to the kingdom. It still exists in all actors; it just needs to be unearthed and rediscovered.
The goal of the actor is to respond instinctively, without thinking or censoring, while remaining open to all possibilities without judging. If you watch 4-year-olds respond to their world, it is striking how completely they focus on a given task. They are totally in the moment yet fully capable of allowing their imaginations to enhance their experience. It is not unusual to see them become different characters, with improvised dialogue and specific circumstances. Remarkably, they are fully committed to every choice and confident in their ability to give life to the characters. Many adult actors spend much of their training trying to recapture the focus, innocence, and abandon they had as children. This is the reason why improvisations and theater games are such an important part of the actor's process. These activities help to ignite the imagination while demanding that the individual respond instinctively.
Learning to Feel the Real
The exciting thing about teaching young actors is their ability to remember and to readily access their sense of play. I teach middle-school students between the ages of 10 and 13. While they are no longer young children, it has only been a few years since they were completely invested in imaginative play. This gives them a great advantage when asked to use their imaginations. Many of the insecurities, anxieties, and "baggage" that hinder adult actors have not yet fully taken hold of these students, allowing them to spontaneously respond to the given circumstances. In many instances, the students make remarkably truthful acting choices without any awareness of how they did it. It is my task to give them the skills to repeat truthful behavior without making them too self-conscious about what comes so naturally to them.
One of the greatest skills a young actor can possess is the ability to know when something is working and to be able to repeat it. One way to achieve this is for students to begin to understand what it feels like when something is real. Improvisation provides students with the ability to engage their instincts under imaginary circumstances. A great exercise for fostering their ability to identify when something is real is the Bus Stop Game, in which the actor, as a character with a specific age and occupation, must wait for a bus. The rest of the class then must guess what the actor is playing. The feedback from the audience provides the actor with valuable information as to the accuracy of his or her portrayal. For example, if an actor is attempting to portray a 40-year-old construction worker and the audience guesses that the character is a 22-year-old college student, then the actor can use this feedback to make the necessary adjustments to his or her physical and emotional life on stage.
Once students develop the language to articulate the difference between being effective and ineffective on stage, they are on their way to embracing and benefiting from the craft of acting. Toward this end, I caution young actors to be wary of teachers and coaches who employ a heavy-handed approach to the work. An actor's instincts are to be respected and nurtured. Any training for young people should take place in a safe environment and involve a good amount of positive feedback. Too much early criticism will only serve to block the actor and make him or her insecure about self-expression. The best training should have play at the center of its curriculum and allow ample opportunity for students to use their imaginations through improvisation and theater games. Emphasis should be placed on listening and responding, as well as on the importance of working as an ensemble.
The best advice I can give young actors is to observe younger children. Watch how they respond to the world. See how immediate their needs are and how singular they are in getting those needs met. Watch how they consistently engage in the process of discovery. Observe how many senses they employ in exploring their environment. Watch how little it takes to ignite their imaginations and how much they do with these ideas. See how economical they are with their movements. Take note of the level of focus and concentration.
I have been an actor and teacher for almost 20 years. It has been my privilege to teach the craft of acting to aspiring young professionals. Children continue to teach me about the importance of play and fun in the acting process. It is too easy for actors to get caught up in how serious it is to act, losing sight of their sense of play and excitement. Look to the kids. They've got it figured out. The rest of acting is just details.
Vincent Sagona has been the drama teacher at New York's Professional Children's School, founded in 1914, for 11 years. The school provides an academic education for young people working in or studying for careers in the performing and visual arts, competitive sports, and other endeavors. Alumni include Macaulay Culkin, Sandra Dee, Scarlett Johansson, Jane Krakowski, Yo-Yo Ma, Julia Stiles, and Christopher Walken. Sagona is also a professional actor who has been working in the theater for more than 20 years. He has studied acting with F. Murray Abraham and Uta Hagen.