The Problem With ‘Less Is More’ and Other Acting Instructions

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As a director, my job is to collaborate with actors in guiding the audiences’ attention to what’s important, and away from distractions that may obscure the story. It is not to teach them to act.

As a teacher, my job is to create self-sufficient performers, capable of working with directors who may not know how to adhere to my first point. It is not to direct them.

The two jobs are quite different, but the common denominator of all great teachers and directors is their ability to use an acting vocabulary that is doable.

Aphorisms such as “less is more,” “just feel it,” “sit back into it,” and “really connect” do nothing to help you become self-sufficient. Less what is more what? At best, such generalities foster dependence on the apparently omniscient instruction-giver, and at worst cause distrust in all future instructors’ advice, because such suggestions—without the fortification of reliable technique—are ultimately indefinable and therefore unplayable.

Good acting teachers will help you understand the mechanics of translating generalized direction into specific, doable action, and good directors will speak only in such terms. Anything else, though often well intentioned, perpetuates the myth that acting is probably an unlearnable art; that it is mystical, ephemeral, and can only be mastered through closing one’s eyes, rolling the dice, and praying not to land snake eyes.

Aside from being a fundamentally flawed strategy, this line of thinking disempowers all who see it as normal.

Unproven dicta, such as “just listen,” “build the chemistry” and “it’s all in the eyes” are additional clichés eroding actors’ common sense understanding that acting is not a guessing game, that it should be doable, and that doing is everything. None of the above suggestions can be done, and certainly not to a point where everyone would agree on the actual result. Even listening has sub-considerations, such as “What do you want?” “What is your opinion of what you just heard in that moment?” and “Are you getting closer to/further away from your objective as a result?” Reactions and feelings in the moment are the reflexive result of things being done by us, and done to us.

Doing is everything.

It is very easy to hear sounds and make facial expressions indicating that you have been affected, but knowing what you want, and having opinions of everything you hear makes listening more real for your scene partner, more engaging to the audience, and of paramount importance, more doable by you.

A great director may inadvertently teach you a tremendous amount about acting. A great teacher may inadvertently give you a stellar direction in a scene. But it is incumbent upon neither to do the other person’s job whilst attempting to do their own. The fact that many teachers and directors are confused on this point is evident in much of the advice offered to actors these days, from both fields.

The terrific advice of Sanford Meisner, that acting is “living truthfully in imaginary circumstances” is useless without the specific exercises he taught to ensure that such a generalization could actually produce the “truth” he so passionately advocated. Stanislavsky’s assertion that, “The person you are is a thousand times more interesting than the best actor you could ever hope to be,” is icing on the cake of his “system” designed to help you do, through techniques such as objectives, given circumstances, and sense memory. David Mamet and William H. Macy’s method of script analysis though Practical Aesthetics repeatedly emphasizes viewing the work stoically and finding the achievable action in order to provide a foundation for Mamet’s advice in “True and False” to “invent nothing, deny nothing, speak up, stand up, stay out of school,” which would otherwise be a catchy quotable sound bite, but ultimately hollow, useless advice.

Declan Donnellan in “The Actor and the Target” coined the term “unuseful truths,” and suggested that when viewed as the garnish rather than the meal, there is nothing wrong with hearing, or even repeating them. Treating such truisms as some kind of panacea for what ails your acting though is incredibly dangerous, since each one seems to promise that its pat and pithy structure holds a deeper meaning. Yet with no clear instruction on how to actually enact them, we are left worse off than we were before they entered our ear. Much like someone advising that, “Happiness is simply a matter of being true to oneself,” it draws our attention to an ideal we now have no idea how to personally attain, due to the advice’s lack of specifics.

The antidote to such deceptive sound bites in acting is the kind of specific instruction one can easily understand, successfully interpret, and finally, competently do.

Next time you hear a teacher or director describe acting in generalized terms, make it easy on yourself and ask instead: “What am I doing?” If you can’t say it, you’re certainly not doing it. The problem is not that you haven’t “dropped it in,” “kicked it up a notch,” or “really opened up.” The problem is that you don’t know what to do.

Work out what to do, and then do it. Doing is everything.

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Paul Barry
Paul Barry is an L.A.-based Australian acting teacher, author of “Choices,” and a Backstage Expert. Barry runs on-camera classes in Santa Monica as well as online worldwide and conducts a six-week program called Dreaming for a Living, coaching actors, writers, and filmmakers in how to generate online incomes to support their art.
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