I’ve tried almost every acting class under the sun and from each I’ve taken away different things. But there’s generally an undiscussed point, that serves as an important reminder: technique is about locating and accessing your feelings. It’s that simple and you don’t have to use just one technique to get there.
As actors, we can get so caught up in following each method perfectly that we forget technique is personal. I know this has happened to me. I’ve sat in a cold black box studio with an instructor yelling at me to drudge up a painful memory. I’ve stood and pantomimed my entire morning routine. Need more examples? I've got plenty. While I fully committed myself to each exercise and enjoyed doing so, I think many times I missed the point. These practices weren’t golden rules, they were mine to keep or throw away.
Each class is not an infallible map of how to feel a certain way. In fact, audiences don’t even want to watch you feel, they want to feel as a result of your honest living in a scene. So, be honest with yourself about what works and what doesn’t. Learn as much as possible, but don’t waste time trying to squeeze into a mold that’s not made for you. Only add the lessons you click with to your actor toolbox. Over the years, I’ve begun to see my process (if I have one) as a patchwork quilt, various techniques stitched together.
Let’s look at Meryl Streep and her experience with the Yale School of Drama. Every year, aspiring actors flood the school with applications hoping to scoop up even a sprinkle of Streep’s supreme skillset. The truth: her acting teachers there had incredibly different approaches. “I decided to make it up as I went along,” she revealed while speaking at Princeton University. “The least valuable classes may have been in acting.”
On the other hand, the Oscar-favorite dubs her movement, singing, and verse-speaking classes as invaluable. These seemed to jive with her, giving her keys to unlock certain aspects of fleshing out a performance. From dance class, she took away something she uses with every role to this day: “the center of your strength is located somewhere slightly below the belt. It’s the strength to hold the whole thing together. It’s where your breath actually comes from,” she said. Meanwhile, singing lessons proved to provide her “a portal to the soul,” acting “as a necessary catalyst to my inner work as is my memory.”
In all, Streep has always kept her acting cards close to her chest. “I’ve cultivated a deliberate reluctance to investigate my own method of working because I’m afraid of killing the goose,” she said. “I’m afraid if I parse it I won’t be able to do it anymore.” However, if there’s one golden nugget to take away from her lauded trajectory it’s that she seems to have mixed together her own personal acting recipe. And why shouldn’t she? Or YOU for that matter?
While we’d, of course, all love to crack the Streep code, we have to make our own: take bits and pieces of different approaches and blend them together. Storytelling is an incredibly personal journey. It’s about using your mind, body, and soul to connect with people. So why wouldn’t you cobble together a private road that works for you?
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