The Myth of Screen Acting

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Have you heard the big myth? It has been passed around like a game of telephone. It is so commonplace that many consider it a fact. The myth is “the camera sees you think.” The logical progression goes like this: Today’s 4k digital cameras have super vision. They can see every pore on your face and, if you still see movies in the theater, those pores get magnified to 40 feet wide. Therefore, all a good actor needs to do is think. If the camera really saw you think though, neuroscientists would be decades ahead of where they are in their research. What the camera actually sees is movement, shape, light, and color. The camera cannot read your mind. But the myth, unfortunately, leaves many talented actors stuck in their head.

The task of all artists is take what’s inside your head and make it available for the world to touch, taste, smell, feel, or hear. If you were a pianist, your job would be to express yourself through the piano into the listener’s ears. A poet shares their passion through their pen; a painter puts their creativity on the canvas. Where does the actor communicate what’s in their head or heart?

The late American author David Foster Wallace may have shed some light on this with an anecdote during his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. He said, “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods to them and says, ‘Morning boys, how’s the water?’ The two young fish swim on for a bit and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’ ”

The very space between us—our “water”—is an actor’s canvas; the lens sees what happens there. The actor must send what’s inside them through the space into the lens so that the camera may see it. The tools of the actor are the tools of communication. How you use them is what makes you an artist.

“Acting has to reach everybody on some level. It’s a communication of feeling,” said 19-time Academy Award nominated actor Meryl Streep. Unfortunately, too often, the consequence of “the mind-reading camera myth” is non-communicative acting. Actors mistakenly believe that all they have to do is think, which only leaves you pulling your energy inward (and thus stuck in your head), instead of sending your inner life outward. The best way to get out of your head is to get into the space.

One basic exercise to explore this is Viola Spolin’s “Two Scenes” game. You can play this with a camera. The gist of the game is this: Two two-person scenes are on the sound stage simultaneously. Both teams pursue some physical activity while they explore the problem of communicating relationship to the lens/audience. Only one team moves at a time; when one team takes the audience’s focus, the other team gives. Both teams keep exploring the relationships through the entire game. This allows you to explore the relationship while simultaneously discovering what behavior communicates in both a close-up (the giving team) as well as a wide shot (the taking team). A coach can switch the teams back and forth between giving and taking to keep up the spontaneity. Spolin suggests a host of variations, each which target something specific. Watch the video back to see how well the relationship was communicated and ask yourself if you maintained concentration throughout.

The great actor and acting teacher Uta Hagen wrote, “Ideal communication between actor and audience occurs when the actor is intensely alive, physically and psychologically involved in fulfilling his character’s needs, in action—within the magic circle of his playing area.” To simplify, act is a three-letter word with a two-letter definition (do). It’s not enough to think. Actors must do. Get out of your head and into the space. Communicate.

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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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Rob Adler
Rob Adler teaches you how to get out of your head and bring spontaneity, presence, and play to TV and film scripts so well prepared performances look improvised. He is an actor, director, teacher, founder of the AdlerImprov Studio in Hollywood, an on-camera coach, and a faculty member of the USC School of Dramatic Arts.
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