The Only 4 Thoughts You Should Have While You’re Acting

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There are only four kinds of conscience thoughts you should be thinking when you’re acting. Everything else should be ignored. If you’re driving a car with people in it yelling at you (including that jerk telling you what a lousy driver you are), don’t entertain a conversation with them, concentrate on the traffic. Let those extraneous thoughts chatter away and take care of business. What you don’t relate to will not create behavior detectable by the audience. Having the confidence to do this, of course, is helped by having done the right kind of homework beforehand. You want to prepare the scene as a kind of tunnel for yourself, maybe filled with twists and turns, then, when it’s time to perform, you can go wild in the tunnel.

A good preparation would include digesting the language, getting your lines down cold, presetting your emotional connections (creating vivid, conditioned responses to the events in the scene), and visualizing your objectives. You should also make second nature as much of the staging as possible. If you’re doing character work, rehearse and habituate those special behaviors (the accent, the way your character carries themselves, the way they handle props and costume) and the actions you’ll be doing (comforting, seducing, confirming).

The four allowable thoughts when acting:

1. What’s happening now and what does it mean to me? Focusing on the assimilation of what’s unfolding around you is a precious banister that will lead you through any scene. It’s called “playing moments.” Most often those moments will be what the character or characters opposite you are doing, including what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, and how you feel about these things.

2. How close am I to getting what I want? You can relate to how “what’s happening” affects the status of your current objective. It will always be degrees of how good or bad it’s going. There’s no such thing as a neutral message. If your character is unsure how this moment affects their objective, that’s bad for them.

3. How can I better get what I want? Always be closing. It’s OK to think about adjusting and purifying your approach, and, through this, about the sense of what you’re saying. But remember: Acting is not saying words. You only speak as an outgrowth of what you’re already doing fully with your body.

4. What stage behaviors do I need to be executing? These types of allowable thoughts are the only ones not part of a continuing immersion into the imaginative world, as your character would be thinking, and have to do with the technical obligations you have as an actor that were determined before the scene or those that come up in the playing.

Acting is a lot like athletics. If you’ve trained properly, most of the actual performance is a lark, simply going for the ride and doing what’s natural as each moment dictates. Of course, that’s easier said than done because the pressure to perform can constantly be undermining your trust and causing you to second-guess yourself. We live in a world where the intellect has been made supreme and it doesn’t let itself get put into the background easily. It can be like a confused coach who, wanting his team to do well, charges out onto the field when the ball is in play and screws things up.

As problematic as that pressure may be, however, there is something magical about performance. The actor’s mission is to communicate a story and, by directing your attention to only the vital aspects of the immediate imaginative experience and the aesthetic demands of the show, a sense of this mission can elevate your acting to another level. By surrendering control, embracing the unknown, caring less about how well you’re being received, and keeping your head in the game, there’s a chance something interesting can happen. You may accomplish what’s really the sole purpose of the art of acting: the sharing of your humanity. The only reason you’re there is to be effected and respond. Nobody cares what you think.

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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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Joanne Baron
Joanne Baron is an actor, producer, and the artistic director of the Joanne Baron/D.W. Brown Studio in Santa Monica, Calif.
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Author Headshot
D.W. Brown
D.W. Brown is an actor, writer, director, and studio co-owner and head teacher of the Baron Brown Studio in Santa Monica, California. Brown is also the author of the acclaimed acting guide “You Can Act” and a second book, “2500 Years of Wisdom: Sayings of the Great Masters.”
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