How to Transform From Actor to Artist

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“When acting is an art, it is so because of its expressive force: in this context it is not enough to move about normally, making the words sound genuine, striving for simple believability,” wrote my mentor, friend, and former teacher Ric Murphy in a 1975 article for Southern Theater Journal. For actors to transform into artists, realism is not enough.

Great acting goes beyond simple believability and offers audiences a vision of worlds that might be, people that could be, even realities that should be. As Picasso said, “We all know that art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth…”

To provide context, consider when Daniel Day-Lewis taps his glass eye with a knife in “Gangs of New York,” when Anthony Hopkins hisses in “Silence of the Lambs,” or more recently, when Leonardo DiCaprio opens the door of the Lamborghini with his foot in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

Great actors create moments like these, which go beyond the realistic, in order to express the profoundness of the human experience. When an actor creates a moment like that, I call it a “Glass Eye Moment” (GEM for short). While these GEMs are not exactly realistic behavior, audiences accept them because they express a deeper truth, and in doing so, the audience suspends their disbelief. Once on screen, they seem like the perfect, inspired, truest, Academy Award-winning choice, but they are not the kind of moments you just sit down and think up.

In order to find the GEMs, actors must first relinquish their adherence to realism and then try some things that might be considered more metaphorical. Using the right improvisation games can help actors access the part of themselves that understands the deeper truth of a moment in the script. Einstein used a similar tactic, which he called combinatory play. When he needed inspiration to solve a physics problem, he’d play the violin! He opened a creative channel in his mind by focusing it elsewhere. Actors confronted with creating unbelievable but memorable work can go through a similar process of getting “lost” in order to be “found.”

Recently I was coaching two actors playing mother and daughter-in-law in a dark comedy. They came in prepared, having made good choices after successfully analyzing the text. But when they played it on set, the dynamics of the relationship were realistic but, well…boring. And Hitchcock reminded us that movies are “like life with the dull bits cut out.”

“Let’s play a game,” I suggested. “Run the scene again, but this time, for every new thought or line, you must make fresh physical contact with your partner no matter how strange that may seem.” After some pedestrian touching, I encouraged them to heighten it. They sprung into action, exploring all kinds of moves. The widow hugged her mother-in-law around the waist. The mother-in-law squeezed back a little too tight. By the end, the ruthless old matriarch was insisting her grieving widow daughter-in-law massage her feet (a real “GEM”) and the crew was grabbing their ribs to hold back the laughter. Viola Spolin’s contact game allowed the actors to explore and go beyond the limitations of “real” behavior to reveal their characters’ inner truths in a way that transformed the scene.

The painter puts her soul on the canvas, a poet in her words. To be an artist means more than having the technical proficiency to “do the job.” It means you are in touch with the depths of the human spirit and able to express it. Actors must be able to take the deepest truths from inside them and put them were people can see. It is in the ability to express the profound that actors can transform into great artists.

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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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