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the truth is not what you think it is and more...

the truth is not what you think it is

The word “truth” is something actors hear a lot about. Meisner’s famous formulation that acting is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” is invoked again and again, by me and many other acting teachers, whether they teach Meisner or not. Actors come to understand that truth is synonymous with good acting. But is that really saying anything?


What is truth, anyway?

I think a lot of people equate truth with believability. But this is begging the question. What makes an audience believe something?

The answer that I think most people walk around with in their heads is that a performance has to have the appearance of real life. It has to look like real life. It has to be life-like. It has to be natural. It has to appear real.

But let’s think about that for a minute.

A few observations:

  • I ran into some recent grads from the acting program at the Yale School of Drama not too long ago. I asked them about the curriculum there (it’s been a couple of decades since I walked the hallowed halls there). I was interested to learn that while they were introduced to a number of movement modalities during their time there, the only one that they were required to study for all three years while they were there was the Alexander technique. And what is the Alexander technique? Well, in a nutshell, it’s a practice of bringing an awareness of the design of the skeleton and muscles to everyday life, so that as we move through our days, we do so with less effort and greater ease than we would otherwise employ. Of course there is a lot more to it than that, but that’s my nutshell description. Anyway, Yale requires all actors to study three years of it, and that is the only movement form that actors are required to study for three years. Why? Because actors who make use of it are just better than they would be otherwise. Alexander work has a dramatic effect on a performer’s work. BUT, in real life, most people are going through their days without any awareness of the Alexander technique, so they are just using their habitual ways of moving, all of the ways of moving that the Alexander technique teaches them to leave behind. So how is this life-like? The Alexander technique helps actors to appear more “real”, more “natural”, more “life-like” than they otherwise would, anyone who has witnessed its effect on actors can attest to that. But yet people in real life have all of the constricting bad habits that the Alexander technique is meant to help people to overcome. Is a puzzlement, as the King of Siam would say.
  • Perennially, in class, I see people in scenes shift their weight on to one leg or the other, so that their hip is “popped”, like a teen-ager. By asking them to shift their weight so that their weight is evenly distributed over their two feet, their performance immediately improves. I could talk about why this is ( the hip-popping is a stepping out of the physical attitude of engagement and confrontation, that is, of relationship, it’s a signal that says “I am not a threat” to their scene partner), but that’s not really material here. What is material is that standing with the weight evenly distributed invariably makes their work better. And yet, people in “real life” sometimes to pop their hip and shift their weight on to one foot. In fact, I just recently heard an Alexander teacher explain to people why that wasn’t a good thing to do. And she wouldn’t have had to explain it if people didn’t do it. So what gives? Standing “over the center” makes people more engaging to watch, as well as, somehow, more real to watch, and yet people in real life do stand with their weight not over their center, but rather shifted to one side.
  • Another one: eye contact. Actors often want to disengage visually from their partners before they start to speak. Often, this is about trying to remember their line (the eye contact is distracting and makes it harder to concentrate on recalling the line), and then there is also the matter that if I am looking into someone else’s eyes, they are looking into mine, which is scary, because of that business about the eyes being the window of the soul, and all that. It’s intimate. So it’s less scary, in the moment when starting to speak, to express one’s self, to look away. Here’s the thing: when I stop said actors from doing this, when I ask them to always make eye contact with the partner before starting to speak, and then I insist on it, and stop them every time they don’t do what I’ve asked and call attention to that, until they make the shift into eye-contact-when starting-to-speak, their work gets much better! Again, I could get into the reasons for this (they are finding the impulse to speak in the partner by looking at them when starting to speak), but that’s not really the point. The point is that they get indisputably better, more engaging to watch and more authentic, when they submit to this discipline, and yet, and yet, people in real life look away when they start to speak. They do it often! So, again, what gives?

In all three of these cases, a technical, physical adjustment was requested of actors, and the adjustment made them better, more engaging, more real. And yet, the habits they were letting go of were things that people do in real life! How can that be?

In the history of people thinking about art, there was a dispute about whether art was like a mirror or a lamp. Prior to the late eighteenth century, art was (grossly speaking) understood to be a mirror: it showed you what life was like. It reflected the surfaces of life. It reproduced life.

But in the era of Romanticism, this was broadly challenged: the Romantic ethos looked at art as more like a lamp, as something that was a source of illumination, something that allowed us to see something not normally visible, something beneath or behind the surfaces of life, something that the surfaces ordinarily conceal.

The notion of truth that most people walk around with, I think, is based on the idea of “believability”. Believability asks: do I (in the audience) believe this? Does this look enough like life that I can suspend my disbelief? Has the actor successfully reproduced the surfaces of life in such a way that I accept what she is doing? This is the actor as mirror: have I made my performance look enough like real life so that it is believed?

But what the examples above suggest is that there is another criteria for truth, which we might call expressive power. An actor who can, while reproducing the surfaces of life, also reveal the depths, has this expressive power. All of the adjustments I talked about above make it more possible for us, as the audience, to experience what is happening in the core of the actor, in ways that we don’t really even realize as we watch (mirror neurons! ). We can see into the actor. So acting is not just reproducing the surfaces of life, but doing so while simultaneously letting us experience the depths. A friend of mine, a very good actor and a playwright as well, once said she thought that a good actor was someone who could make themselves transparent. I remember being surprised by this at the time, but now I know exactly what she means.

Real people aren’t transparent in everyday life, in the way that a great actor is in enacting a life prepared by a writer. The actor is a lamp, not a mirror. He lets us see something ordinarily invisible.

I think this helps us understand what Stanislavsky meant when he said that acting is “the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique.” Most of us don’t walk around being aware of our own souls, or anyone else’s, all the time. That’s what art and spiritual practice help us to recall and reconnect with. What Stanislavsky was saying is that the actor is someone who, as she enacts a story, pulls back the curtain and gives us an experience of her soul. She shines a light.

And that, my friends, is the honest truth.

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the trouble with “method” and emotional memory

Most people, actors or not, I’d venture to guess, are familiar with the basic idea of emotional memory: an actor tries to relive an episode from his or her own life in order to conjure the emotional state called for in a scene or even a moment.


It’s an idea that’s fairly simple to grasp, and seems intuitively appealing: why shouldn’t the actor be able to make use of her own experiences in realizing the emotional life of the role? And in fact it became the basis of the Method, as evangelized by Lee Strasberg.

One reason, articulated by Stanislavsky and by Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, is that the emotional memory takes the actor out of the present moment of the scene he is attempting to play. If he is focused on something that happened years ago, he is not relating to the actors he is in the scene with. Actors everywhere understand that it’s important to be in the moment, and so this explanation of why emotional memory is problematic carries some weight.

I think there is another, very important reason that emotional memory is problematic. And that is its superficiality. Let me explain.

We’ve all had the experience of having a fight with someone close to us. When we’re in the throes of the fight, we can feel righteous anger coursing through us: this person has failed us in some absolutely egregious way, and the anger we feel is vigorous, often overwhelming.

Then, time passes. Some hours. A day. A few days. A week. A month. We begin to feel something else towards this person: a mixture of regret at having fought, sadness at feeling disconnected, and some measure of tenderness towards the person in question.

Now, if that that moment, someone said to us, “Well, what about the anger? What happened to that?”, we would likely just shrug our shoulders and say “I was just mad. It passed.” And then if we’re asked, “So which is the truer, deeper reflection of how you really feel about this person, the anger or the emotions you’re feeling now?”, we would almost certainly say the feelings we are feeling now are truer and deeper. And I think we can recognize that the emotions we are feeling now, some distance from the fight, don’t just feel truer and deeper because we happen to be feeling them now: they are our deepest, truest feelings about the person in question.

So what we can see here is that our emotional life has two layers, or it appears to at least: one, the in-the-moment, transient emotional states that arise and vanish in the rough-and-tumble of a day in the life. And then the deeper layer, where we can sense the true significance that people have for us, their true importance for us as ongoing partners in the pursuit of connection and satisfaction.

Emotional memory deals only with the surface emotional states: I’m mad, I’m joyful, I’m worried, I’m confused, etc. It doesn’t touch the deeper layer that is the source of feeling in the superficial layer. We get mad at someone BECAUSE they are someone we count on and have been supported by in the past, but in THIS moment he or she is failing to have our back or letting us down or betraying us, etc.

The deeper layer is what is known by psychologists as attachment. We become attached to people as ongoing sources of good stuff in our lives. We can have a range of emotions about someone in any given encounter, but none of that changes deeper way in which we recognize them as important sources of value for us.

The approach to acting that I teach attempts to bring the actor into connection with the deep attachment to the partner. This attachment finds expression through need, or what we call underlying objective. The actor attempts to be in touch with the deep need for connection that is the basis of the attachment. Then, as the partner is encountered in the scene, and sh*t goes down in the crucible of encounter, a whole host of feelings can arise and transform from moment to moment in response to those developments, and they arise organically from the deep sense of connection we have in the relationships in our lives.

With emotional memory, the actor has to come up with one memory for one section of the scene where jealousy is called for, and another where fear is called for, and another where arousal is called for, etc. This is an entirely inorganic process, where the actor is manipulating her own emotional state based on what she thinks the scene should look like, as considered from the perspective of the observer. It’s not a performance that arises organically from the give and take with the partner or from a connection to the essence of the relationship itself.

Which brings us to a basic truth about drama: it’s about what happens between people, not about what happens inside the actor. Emotional memory focuses entirely on what happens inside the actor, and disregards relationship as an essential, defining component of drama.

There may be specific kinds of challenges for which emotional memory is useful (“He enters, weeping.”), but as the basis of an actor’s process, it misses the mark. Entirely.

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no is huge

Interesting anecdote about Ian McKellen aka Gandalf:


“I got offered a part in Mission: Impossible II with Tom Cruise, but they wouldn’t let me see the whole script because I might have spilled the beans. I only got my scenes,” he explains to the magazine.

But that is not how McKellen rolls. The actor couldn’t figure out if he liked the film or not based on the partial scenes alone, so he played it safe and rejected the project.

“I couldn’t judge from reading just those scenes what the script was like. So I said no,” McKellen says. “And my agent said, ‘You cant say no to working with Tom Cruise!’ and I said, ‘I think I will.'”

And he did. And what happened?

“The next day, Bryan Singer asked me to play Magneto and then Peter Jackson asked me to play Gandalf, and I said yes to both,” he continued.

He’s since played Gandalf in three Lord of the Rings films and three Hobbit films, and Magneto in four X-Men films and once (uncredited) in The Wolverine.

This is a powerful story. I remember someone telling me a story about Madonna being interviewed, and someone asked her what was the most important thing she wanted to teach her kids, and she replied “To say no. No is huge.” I haven’t been able to find a transcript of this interview, but the story has always stayed with me.

It’s been a lesson I have had to learn the hard way, many times over, in my career and in my personal life. The desire to be an artist is connected with the desire to please. Yes, we all want to please by expressing our vision and in our own voice. But we want that expression to be appreciated. Anyone who tells you that’s not true is lying. It’s not a good idea to become dependent on that appreciation, but it’s fine to want it, and it’s a part of being an artist.

But that desire to please makes compromising ourselves by saying yes to things that we don’t actually want a powerful, and, in my experience, ever-present temptation. And the biggest mistakes in my life have been saying yes to things that I knew I didn’t actually want.

This story about Ian McKellen shows how saying no to what you don’t want makes room for what you do.

Of course, we need to stay open, we can’t be phobic about everything that isn’t exactly what we want. But when we know that something is wrong for us, we need to be able to say no.

And you know what? The Tom Cruises of the world will respect us for it.

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the actor: child AND adult

What draws many of us to acting is the “play-acting” aspect of it: we like to dress up and pretend to be other people, with other people who like to do that as well. There is something wonderfully child-like about all of this, and in fact, Earle Gister, one of my teachers at the Yale School of Drama, liked to quote Nietzsche: “Man’s maturity: to have regained the seriousness that he had as a child at play.” To be able to abandon ourselves to a world of the imagination, and allow our inner lives, our moments of triumph and exaltation, and our moments of devastating grief and loss, to be laid bare in the process. This process of fearlessly sharing ourselves with child-like abandon is what draws most of us to this prodigious pursuit.

However, on the way to being able to do that is an enormous amount of hard work. The acting we consume on TV and in the movies has been air-brushed, so to speak, with musical underscoring, lighting, editing, and all manner of show biz magic. That’s not to say it isn’t good, but great care has been taken to make sure that it looks effortless.

Acting isn’t effortless, though, most of the time, and learning to act is even less so. Learning to act necessarily means being brought face-to-face with your limitations, so you can begin to see the need to get beyond them, and to understand how what is being offered you in acting class helps you to get beyond them. In any endeavor, acting or otherwise, this process of being confronted with your current limitations is difficult but absolutely unavoidable. There is no growth without this, no matter how you slice it, no matter what technique you are doing. And not everyone wants to go through that process, frankly, or at least acting, they learn, is not the craft for which they wish to subject themselves to this process.

The ability to face limitations, persevere, and ultimately move past them is an adult faculty. Children have to do some of it, as part of the process of growing up, but we tend to limit the amount of this that we ask children to subject themselves to, I suppose because growing up is hard enough, and because we worry that children don’t yet have the emotional resilience to handle this process.

Facing limitations, failing, and getting up again and soldiering on: the ability to do this is something that we think of as a form of maturity. Whether this is in a martial art, or in learning a musical instrument, or a foreign language, or whatever: the tenacity and the ability to keep going in the face of failure is a hallmark of the grown-up. The real word is a tough place for anyone lacking some measure of this.

And there are other ways in which acting, in spite of its child-like essence of make-believe, asks for adult characteristics. In a previous post, I wrote about how adults are more sensitive to context in the way they understand things than children are. This is very important for actors, as every scene is embedded in a larger narrative, the full script, that functions as a context. But beyond that, acting asks for the readiness to take on a complex task that requires an array of abilities. We must be able to read closely and carefully, from the character’s point of view. We must envision, with all of our senses, the people, places and things that make up the imaginary world of the role, and invest in that world, make that world of make-believe matter to us in the ways it needs to. We have to identify compelling goals to pursue as the character, that help us to become absorbed with our whole being, heart, mind, and body, with the scene at hand. We must identify the major milestones or shifts in the scene, and understand how we arrive at them and how we are changed by them. We must have the ability, as we develop a performance, to maintain the shape of that performance, so that important parts of it don’t disappear from one rehearsal to the next (a mentor of mine in graduate school, who had won awards directing Off-Broadway, said that it was ten years out of graduate school before she felt she was working with actors with whom she didn’t have to live in terror of what was going to deteriorate in any given performance. Ten years! Out of graduate school!)

There is a breadth and complexity to what I have described above that requires maturity to undertake and sustain. This is not child’s play, any more than playing a Mozart Concerto is, or playing a tournament tennis game.

It’s these “adult” aspects of acting that surprise many beginning students of the craft. Again, after all, on TV they make it look so easy.

So we need both: we need never to lose our child-like ability to abandon ourselves to the present moment of make-believe, and we also need the very “adult” ability to craft our work. Both are indispensable.

“Plans are worthless but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

“The readiness is all.” – Hamlet


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do you really want to know?

I write often on my blog about how getting better as an actor is generally not a matter of tips and tricks, but rather a matter of learning a craft, something that takes time, persistence, dedication, and patience.
However, here is a simple thing that can make a difference: whenever you have a line in a scene that is phrased as a question, in other words, a sentence that ends in a question mark, TREAT IT AS A REAL QUESTION! All the time, I see actors treat lines written as questions as merely rhetorical questions. This is almost never a good idea.

Why not? Because a rhetorical question is by definition, a question that is not intended to elicit an answer.

And why is that a problem? Because the poser of a rhetorical question is assuming that she knows how the person on the receiving end of the question will answer.
And why is that a problem? Because it’s making a decision about the UNIMPORTANCE of input from the partner at some point in the scene. And that is never a good thing to do. Usually, when actors unconsciously decide to make a question rhetorical, it’s so that they can get on to the next line without having to do anything like look for an answer from the other person, that is, to receive off of them, as we say in my classes.

But that receiving is what exactly has to be happening at each moment.
“Treat it as a real question. Wait for an answer.” is a simple directive that often achieves powerful results very quickly.
Just treating a line written as a question as a real question is already a good thing to do, but a further next step is to ask yourself: if this question that my lines include is in fact a real question, how might that prompt me to reconsider how I have understood the scene? This can be a powerful nutcracker for getting at what is really going on in the scene. Usually the choice to make a question rhetorical gives aid and comfort to some (unhelpful) assumptions an actor has made about the scene. The question of how the scene would be viewed differently if what were taken to be rhetorical questions were actually treated as real questions has revolutionary potential in the mind of the actor, but she has to be open to seeing things differently.

I can hear you thinking: can you give me an example?

Consider this speech of Stanley’s from Streetcar:

“When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them colored lights going! And wasn’t we happy together, wasn’t it all okay till she showed here?”
The speech ends with a question: “wasn’t it all okay till she showed here?”
Now do the thought experiment. How would you speak the above paraphrase as a rhetorical question, which is the way we are all likely to be tempted to say it? In other words, if you know that it was all ok until Blanch showed up?

Now — what would it be like to really ask that question as a real question, to which the answer was important?

Do you see how it changes the scene?

Do you?

By speaking the speech as a real question, Stella’s answer — to the all-important question of whether the relationship was sound or not — matters. Which is a much more high-stakes, much “hotter” way of treating that moment then treating her answer as a foregone conclusion. That would make the speech veer perilously close to being a lecture, something that has no place in a scene like this.

PS While in real life people do ask rhetorical questions, it’s better to err on the side of caution as an actor and assume a question is a real one, and then let a director tell you otherwise if she wants the line delivered as a rhetorical question. We as actors are tempted to treat questions as rhetorical, and not for good reasons, so the best rule of thumb is to always treat questions as real rather than rhetorical.

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