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The Craft

What Is This Thing Called Craft?

What Is This Thing Called Craft?
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Lee Strasberg once said, "Every actor needs a craft which is commensurate with his talent." Stella Adler said, "Without craft there can be no art." What they meant was that no matter how vivid and rich an artist's imagination may be, unless he or she has mastered the tools necessary to express it, that person is not an artist. A singer may be so sensitive to a certain piece of music that every time she hears it, she bursts into tears. But if she cannot hit each note beautifully and effortlessly, if she ends up slightly flat or sharp, then she won't be able to convey that feeling to an audience. Indeed, she is not a singer at all; she is merely a music lover. A painter may have an exciting vision in his head, but if he cannot apply his paints in a way that accurately reflects that vision, then he too is relegated to that larger group of people who have imaginations and love art but are not themselves artists. So craft would seem to be a pretty important thing. Young actors would be remiss if they didn't ask themselves, "What is this thing called craft, and how do I go about getting it?"

Trying to define craft can be confusing. In many places around the world, including many schools, when they speak of craft, they are really talking about voice, speech, and physical training. But to a great many American actors and teachers, craft means much more than that. This is not to say these external things are unimportant. Actors ignore doing serious work in these areas at their peril. You cannot handle literate scripts if you cannot speak. Those who write for the theater do so because they love language. In the recent Broadway revival of American Buffalo, we witnessed what happens when actors who don't have real speech skills attempt to do David Mamet. Disaster is what happens. The poor audience had no opportunity to hear the wonderful piece of work that Mamet wrote. Yet if the actor only speaks well and moves well, there will still be something missing. The performance will be devoid of any real life.

In America, we are the true recipients of Stanislavsky's legacy, bequeathed by the members of the Group Theater, who taught many of us the wonders that can be created by actors who aspire to present fully alive human beings. Those of us who were influenced by Meisner, Strasberg, and Adler believe that it is not enough to create only the outward manifestations of the character; it is also necessary to create the inner emotional life. We believe that the very best actors create inner journeys for their characters. Not only that, but as professionals, they must be able to re-create the character's experience over and over—performance after performance and take after take. This is indeed a tall order. But amazingly, many actors have been trained to achieve this very thing, and they do it with an ease and freedom that would lead a viewer to believe that no work has been done at all. The uninformed person would conclude there was no such thing as a craft involved.

Art Isn't Easy

Many are seduced by the idea that acting is easy. After all, when you see very good actors perform, they don't seem to be acting at all; they appear as if they are simply being themselves. When you see an actor like Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies or Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, the virtuosity is completely concealed. This is not true in other types of performance. If you go to the Metropolitan Opera or the New York City Ballet, you wouldn't think you could simply run up on stage and do what those folks are doing. It is clear they must have spent an enormous amount of time preparing for their profession. But part of what makes an acting performance wonderful is that all the effort is invisible. That is why almost everyone believes he or she could act. (Fortunately for audiences, many of these people never try because they fear they would never be able to memorize all those lines.)

This misperception is the reason many would-be actors turn their backs on serious training and traverse a dubious path consisting of countless short-term classes and workshops, most lasting anywhere from one day to six weeks. As the head of an acting studio, I see them listed on the résumés of many applicants. In truth, many of these actors were trying to avoid a serious commitment to training. They wanted a shortcut to a job and hoped that the casting director or agent teaching the class would respond to them with an offer. And you can't blame them. America is a capitalistic, hurry-up place. There is a lot of pressure on anyone embarking on a career to succeed and do it as soon as possible. Happily, when I see their résumés, it is because they have at last realized that this strategy is not securing them anything of value. They are ready to embark on a serious quest for a craft that will sustain them for the rest of their careers.

The good news is that there is such a thing as a professional craft of acting. It consists of a finite number of concrete and learnable skills. A few of the most basic ones: the ability to listen with the heightened awareness required of an actor; to hear subtext and expertly read behavior, then respond freely and openly from your true self to everything you see, hear, and sense; to use your imagination to create fully emotionalized behavior. Another is knowing how to create any emotional life you desire, then leave everything alone and proceed through an experience from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment. In short, you must be able to take words off a page and create vital, specific characters. You must know how to create living relationships and to justify any action. All of this takes time.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is a good actor. If you are talented and willing to work in a very concentrated way, it is possible to gain a practical, hands-on working knowledge of all the elements of the professional craft of acting in two to two and a half years. I do not believe it can be achieved in less time. One reason is that craft, if it is to be useful, consists of conditioned habits. Ultimately, your craft must free you of technical considerations and allow you to fix your full attention on your interpretation. You need to be confident that anything you conceive, you will be able to realize. Isn't that something that's worth the effort?

William Esper is the head of his own studio in New York and the co-author of "The Actor's Art and Craft." He teaches the Meisner technique.

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