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Ask An Acting Teacher: Are Great Actors Born or Made?

Ask An Acting Teacher: Are Great Actors Born or Made?

Ted Bardy

Ted Bardy Studio, New York

The truly great actors are indeed born. But, and this is important, they will not realize their true potential unless they train. They must be taught to harness the natural instincts with which they are born so that they can create the role and inhabit the imaginary world the writer has placed them in.

Great actors are born with more highly developed imaginations. When most children play "pretend" games, that is exactly what they are doing: pretending. Gifted children play "believe" games. To use a popular definition of acting: These children have an innate inclination to "live, behave, and do truthfully under the given set of imaginary circumstances."

A talented actor without training is like a river running wildly. To craft a performance, you must know how to read a script, how to create specific relationships (points of view) with the given circumstances (all the persons, places, things, events, environments, etc.) that the writer and/or director has provided. You must know who you are in the aesthetic reality that you have been placed in. How do you play a character, or more importantly, how do you allow the character, the scene, the given circumstances to play you?

Good acting teachers recognize raw talent when they see it and adjust their instruction accordingly. There are many excellent acting teachers, but there are also some, usually ego-driven, for whom technique, and the teaching of it, becomes fetishistic. As any good teacher knows, technique, when properly taught, will set the actor, even those born gifted, free.

Joanne Baron

Joanne Baron/D.W. Brown Studio, Los Angeles

In regard to acting, it has been said that the definition of talent is the degree of depth of an actor's imagination and ability to enter into the imaginary world and play pretend. Having said this, I do not believe that the natural gift of this facility means that a great actor is simply born.

Itzhak Perlman, the legendary violinist, was interviewed once and asked the same question regarding his mastery as a musician. His answer was that regardless of any inclination or natural talent or ability anyone is blessed to be born with, true craft is achieved only through rigorous study and the development of technique, which earns the artist full access to his talent and consistency.

There are very rare instances where an actor seems to have emerged untrained and yet possesses the technical skill that most actors achieve through intensive training. But even these rare actors might further develop their facilities if exposed to the power of a great technique. Hence I subscribe to the sentiment that great actors are born with the potential for greatness but that potential must be nurtured through training to be made.

Edith Meeks

HB Studio, New York

Great actors make themselves out of the stuff they are born with and all that they experience as their lives unfold. They challenge themselves to make the most of those assets and transcend those limitations -- to make sense of all they have been given.

It is not enough to have talent, but talent is important. Talent can mean many things. Each extraordinary artist possesses a unique combination of gifts and must work to bring them to fruition and to compensate for the ones he or she lacks. Authenticity, sensitivity, imagination, empathy; a good ear, clever tongue; a resonant voice; physical coordination, flexibility, strength; courage, vulnerability -- all these are key. Perhaps you are born with them; perhaps you must cultivate them. Probably it will be some combination of the two.

As Herbert Berghof was fond of saying, "Never mind your talent; do you have the determination?" You must be truthful with yourself and not rest at what comes easily. Each effort to communicate something meaningful and human presents new obstacles and demands. Each performance depends on a unique fusion of the intentions, efforts, and talents of the artists involved. You work as hard as you can to build a lightning rod, then hope and allow that lightning may strike.

If you are expecting to be great, you will likely miss the mark. If you are diligent, honest, and passionate about your work, you will do well. The reward: Sometimes, sometimes -- through the temerity of your efforts and some accident of grace -- something extraordinary will be revealed.

Amy Lyndon

The Lyndon Technique, Los Angeles

I'm sure not too many people share my views on this, but I do believe that anyone with a great emotional facility, imagination, and fortitude can become a great actor. The actor is made by his or her own willingness to be great. There are actors that were born to be actors; however, if they don't understand the work that it takes to be great, then it's just another person out there who never capitalized on their God-given gift.

Just because an actor has a television series or stars in major motion pictures does not make them great. They most certainly can fall into the category of "made" -- that is, in the sense that they had the right look and were placed into a project at the right time. There are many brilliant actors out there that work hard and are ready but were never made -- that is, made in the sense of the business making them a household name.

There are others like Philip Seymour Hoffman that are brilliant because they worked on anything and everything to be seen, heard, and exercised, to the extent where they built their career whereby the public came to them. Cream really does rise to the top.

Simi Horwitz can be reached at shorwitz@backstage.com.

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