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Backstage Experts

Beware Directions That Create More Problems Than They Solve

Beware Directions That Create More Problems Than They Solve
Photo Source: Photo by Adrián Tormo on Unsplash

If you have an infected, ingrown toenail and I remove your whole leg at the hip, I have completely solved the problem. I've created greater problems in the process, but hey, why complain? After all, your toe no longer hurts. 

When you have a specific issue as an actor and you’re instructed that less is more, the result is likely to create more problems than benefits in the long term. Your short-term experience may say otherwise, first because it’s impossible to prove you would have survived with your whole leg intact, and second because you’re now just relieved that your teacher is no longer pointing out the initial issue they diagnosed.

Human beings move. They move their arms, bodies, legs, faces, eyes, and mouths. Human beings express themselves in a range of ways, sometimes big, sometimes small. If a tiny acting issue is “solved” by removing all movement, it’s no different than removing the entire leg to stop the pain in the toe. The small issue is resolved but an almost entirely healthy limb is no more.

And that’s if there was even an issue in the first place. After all, subjective distaste for a particular actor’s superficial habit should not prompt a scorched earth policy when it comes to helping an actor rise above it.

READ: 6 Red Flags When Auditing Acting Classes

Most actors’ issues are tiny. They really are. They may be physical, vocal, emotional, or psychological, but they’re minuscule. As they become more ingrained, they become larger and more problematic, which is why one would do well to address them early.

But let’s face it: they’re not deadly. Acting is never life threatening and therefore does not require equivalent treatment. In acting, as much healthy life should be preserved as possible. Broad, unspecific directions always produce more harm than good. 

I once had a client come to me after years with a teacher who repeatedly told her she was never allowed to look anywhere but the eyes of the other actor with whom she shared a scene. The ramifications of this irresponsible instruction infuriate me to this very day.

She knew in her heart that he was wrong, yet was soundly lectured and demeaned whenever she disagreed. My client didn’t have some magical intuition that whispered that her teacher was wrong, she just saw human beings conversing every day without having staring competitions and her own intelligence and observation proved his theory could not be correct. He continues teaching to this very day, like dodgy surgeons lopping off whole healthy limbs to prevent the spread of infection in a toe, but he is not alone. My goal is to help you identify and avoid such quacks before they can do too much damage. 

I’m not suggesting these teachers know they’re poor teachers in this respect. It’s entirely possible that a loving father can ruin his child’s confidence in the act of trying to increase it. The issue is not intention; it’s mastery of one’s subject.

If your teacher cannot pinpoint with laser precision the exact nature of the issue they identify in your performance, in a particular scene, or just generally, beware. If they can’t cogently guide you through the specific physical, vocal, emotional or psychological issue and provide workable ways to solve it, they may just be removing healthy parts of your performances by using a blowtorch technique instead of the laser.

Yes, master teachers can identify and isolate problems and help you remove them with laser precision whilst leaving your other wonderful qualities to thrive, but more importantly, they can discern between a life-threatening condition requiring drastic attention on one hand, and on the other, a momentary aberration, which will go away on its own if only those who profess to want to help would stop constantly picking at it.

Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs regular on-camera classes in Los Angeles and online around the world. For more information, check out Barry’s full bio!

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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