How to Effectively Learn An Actor’s Skills

Can acting be taught? Nobody can teach that essential ingredient, talent, which I’ll try to define shortly Given talent, the actor must be able to express it by acquiring technique, by learning the skills of the performer: command of voice and speech, a feeling for words, movement and body language, and how to think about bringing all these things together.

Voice and speech is still the actor’s primary skill. Most of their communication is by the spoken word, and the scripts actors now work with require much greater variety in ways of speaking than they did forty years ago. Yet whatever the mode or style of speech, it must convey articulate sense, and it must be a pleasure to listen to. However, as the actor is also the interpreter of the text, he must develop finesse and subtlety and be highly responsive to his character’s use of language. The simpler the human being, the harder it is to speak as that character.

Actors Skills

Present day acting is also very visual and makes great demands of the actor’s movement skills. The actor may have to represent not only a great diversity of human types, but also things and machines. From East, by Steven Berkoff;

Mike turns Les into a motor bike and jumps on his back using Les’s arms as handle-bars. The two clearly create the sound of a motor bike revving up and changing gear during the scene. The strength of the engine as it careers round corners should be apparent. MIKE: I am a Harley Davidson…

Agility; repose; economy; expressiveness; all qualities an actor needs to convey through the body. He may also find himself working in performances which involve dancing, tumbling and acrobatics.

Quite apart from the physical skills he must acquire, the actor has to develop a level of awareness which amounts to a form of mental training; he has to learn to concentrate, to think and respond creatively, to observe, to recall and recreate emotion in a selective way. He also has to think deeply about a text, to analyze it. Acting is not an intellectual activity, but the evolutionary process of a performance is helped by having learned ways of thinking, of going about things, experimenting. An actor needs to have acquired these ways of thinking and perceiving if he is to find full creative expression in his work. He also has to learn to work with his fellow actors, his text, his director and his audience. He must learn how to rehearse, and about stagecraft. Acting is a very pragmatic business, and what you do has to look and sound right. The audience may not know about the mysteries of acting, but they do know about people and life.

In past times, actors learned their skills simply by doing it, undergoing a very long apprenticeship, usually in provincial theatre, since until this century theatre was the only place where acting happened. Nowadays there are many good and successful actors who have hardly ever acted on the stage, confining their work to the cinema and television. Often celebrated older actors pronounce against any form of training except experience itself, though they have in fact received many hundreds of acting lessons from working with talented and craftsman like actors and actresses. The art of acting will always be passed on by the fine performers, since other actors will try to emulate them, but there is a great risk that they may merely be imitated. Actors are great because of their talent and individuality, and illustrate vividly how each and every actor, are unique. Modern training emphasizes that individuality, and aims to ally it with performance skills.

Most modern actors are highly trained. They earn their living in widely differing media, the size of the stage needing very different techniques from those required by the film or television screen. Most of the professional actors under fifty today would probably have spent three years at drama school (in other countries, especially Eastern Europe, perhaps four or five years) mastering the basic skills and methods taught them by specialists. They will have gained practical experience as a working actor by appearing in a variety of plays under the guidance of professional directors who also have a talent for teaching. The real making of an actor is a process that may take many years; some actors ‘come into their own’ (as it is comfortingly put) in middle age, especially the intelligent, gifted, but not especially good-looking actor.

Becoming a good actor is a matter of both growing and refining, reflecting an increased knowledge, experience and understanding in performance. After ten years of doing it an actor, amateur or professional, has probably stabilized and improved his or her voice and speech, learned economy of movement and above all repose and stillness, and has found out what he or she is good at. The other important discovery he’s probably made is how other people see him, and how this may influence the way in which he is cast. Actors complain bitterly about being ‘type cast’ but it’s a fact of life. However skilled or experienced the actor, there is no reason why he should not continue to polish his skills throughout his working life, by study, practice and taking classes with experts, in much the same way as singers, musicians and dancers do. Over the last thirty years the training of actors has improved greatly, and the mature working actor will nowadays take advice from an appropriate teacher. The National Theatre and the RSC provide workshops in specialist areas and have voice and movement experts on their staff. Laurence Olivier worked for six months with his voice tutor to add two lower notes to his voice in preparation for playing Othello.

Filed Under: Education & Training


About the Author: Darlene Aronson holds a degree in English literature and is a college teacher in Texas, USA. She likes to help others by sharing her experiences in education and training field. She has written for many blogs as well as local magazines.

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