Richard Brestoff’s Tips on Training

Photo Source: Courtesy Richard Brestoff

Author of five acting books, Richard Brestoff provided on-camera expert commentary and analysis for the 2008 documentary “Great American Masters of American Acting Training: Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler.”

What is an actor’s most valuable skill?

The ability to personalize in character. Personalization means experiencing the role rather than demonstrating it. It allows acting on impulse, instinct, and emotion regardless of what the actor thinks the role or circumstance requires. It teaches actors to trust their reactions in the moment, react instinctively to their partner, and play what is actually going on in front of them instead of what they have previously determined should be happening. The actor needs to understand that while personalization training is central, it is not, by itself, enough. Once actors understand how to use themselves in their work, they can then add craft considerations such as, “Which of my personal feelings, reactions, and behaviors are useful in the portrayal of this character, and which can recede to the background?”

What do you look for when reviewing an actor’s training?

I look to see if they have been trained in both classical acting (Shakespeare) and American realism (Meisner or some other Stanislavsky-based method). This tells me that I am seeing an actor with a range of training, and increases my confidence in his or her ability to handle whatever is given. I then look to see if there is some sort of training in improvisation (Spolin-based, Del Close–based, or Johnstone-based).

What are the similarities between stage and camera acting?

When an ocean wave comes, you can jump into it with great power, or you can dive underneath it and effortlessly surface after it has passed. In theater, we often challenge the wave with our physical and vocal power. For the camera, we resist such waves and come under them. Resisting moments rather than giving in to them is very useful in both film and onstage.

The skills needed to thrive on camera are largely learned while a scene is shot over and over again from different angles. The actor must then learn to create the illusion of a continuous performance when there is actually nothing continuous about the shooting process. The single performance we see onscreen is assembled from dozens or hundreds of different takes cut together to create the illusion of a single, continuous performance. In this regard, camera actors face the same challenge that stage actors do: staying spontaneous and alive when you give a performance over and over again.

What are the differences?

I find it useful to think of camera acting as a 20th century style, and, like Restoration or farce, it has rules and jargon of its own. First of all, the camera is close while the theater audience is far away. This means that coming under the wave rather than overpowering it usually works better onscreen. The theater audience also remains in a single spot, while the screen audience is always moving because the camera changes perspectives. The other important difference is that, unlike stage performances that proceed from beginning to end, screen performances are shot out of order. Also, camera actors often have little or no rehearsal time before shooting.

If you had one piece of acting advice, what would it be?

Instead of trying to be good, just try to be.