Crafting begins and ends with the fundamentals of acting. These include listening, responding fully and freely, having the correct placement of concentration, truthfully doing, and creating a truthful reality. All these fundamentals must become second nature. You don't have the time to conjure them up; they must be conditioned in you so that you are free to work. When you have a problem as an actor, 90 percent of the time it goes back to the fundamentals of acting.
Actors must learn to be very simple in their crafting. Simplicity is everything in acting, and it costs you everything to achieve it. Crafting should not put you in your head. Rather, true crafting will put you in closer contact with your heart. Art is not taught or perceived through the intellect. Artists comprehend through their hearts and souls, with sensitivity and grit.
Crafting is crucial to successful scene work. Where does the actor begin? What does one do with the script or with the other actors to create the behavior of the character? After all, that is the true job of the actor: to create truthful behavior for the character, the circumstances, and the issues embedded in the script.
There are 10 key questions that can get you started when approaching scene work. All of these questions must be answered from the character's point of view:
1) What is the script really about? (To find this out, you must read the script an endless number of times.)
2) How does the scene fit into the play, and what aspect of the character is being dramatized in it?
3) What is the circumstance that has happened offstage to my character that propels him or her into the scene?
4) How would I feel about it? How would the character feel about it?
5) What is the acting relationship with all the characters in the scene?
6) What is my character's objective?
7) What is my character doing?
8) What are my character's actions that lead him or her to the objective?
9) What are the issues for my character in the scene?
10) What is my idea for the part? How will I play the character?
Then the scene must be broken down into beats, so that you can create the impulses for what your character says and does. You work on the text to make the text and the words your own, from the character's point of view. You wed the text to the character's actions. Then you can live your way through the scene, from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment, to see what falls into place.
Ultimately, your goal is to breathe life into the character in every moment. To do this, you must do your homework, leave yourself alone, and go with the spontaneous moment. This is a good way to work, because if you leave yourself alone and let the chips fall where they may, you will see what works and what doesn't work. If you aren't really doing, or meanings aren't alive in you, or you are not in true contact with the other actor, then you need to do more homework to answer the above questions.
If you are doing a long run or a lot of takes, certain moments may not have as much meaning as they once did. Your crafting must be second nature so you can still make vivid and meaningful choices the umpteenth time out. You need to know how to ask the right questions and how to quickly access meaning inside of you. And always the answers must come from your heart and instincts.
If you have done your homework and are open physically and emotionally in the rehearsal and are living from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment through the scene, your talent and instincts will take over. They will come to the surface, and the work you have done will begin to course through you with truthful behavior and rich meaning that has everything to do with the character. You are opening the channel to the unconscious.
Even when I coach professional working actors, many of their problems have to do with the fundamentals. The business is corrupting, and sometimes the very best actors need to be reminded of the fundamentals and how to craft. The best actors, those whom I really respect, are those who are always working on themselves—with a vocal coach, on their physical instrument, working when there is no work to be had. They know that an actor must always keep his or her instrument fresh, always shaping and transforming it.
The actor must be master of his technical instrument, because free expression is very important. Crafting is lost without free expression. The actor should be able to process experience in his or her body fully and freely, without impediment. Actors are a living work of art. You are your own living instrument and you must take care of that instrument.
Acting is difficult. All one carries from one job to the next is an increasing amount of craft, patience, flexibility, and the knowledge that whether or not you were successful in your last job has no bearing on how your next job turns out. You are starting fresh with each script. There is always that time in the creative process when you feel as if you don't know anything. You have to be willing to struggle anew with the material, always looking for a personal hook into the character. You must love that struggle.
It is such a wonderful privilege being an actor, to have the talent and the craft to put yourself in the shoes of another human being. To me, that is the only reason to act: to breathe life into the character. I strongly urge actors to train themselves in a rigorous way, so that the fundamentals of crafting are second nature. The business is so difficult, and there are so many reasons why you won't get parts. It often has nothing to do with you or your work.
You must remember that what is in your control in an audition or a rehearsal is your crafting and your freedom. So put yourself out there at your very best. That is the only way to do it.
Maggie Flanigan will participate in the master class "Warming Up Your Cold Readings" at Actorfest NY on Sat., Oct. 2. For more information, go to www.actorfest.com. The Maggie Flanigan Studio, 153 W. 27th St., Suite 803, NYC; (917) 606-0982; firstname.lastname@example.org.