How to Take Criticism – The Actor’s Progress

The actor’s goad – many actors say ‘I never read the notices’. Whilst an actor must live in some degree of illusion about his charisma, charm and talent, he or she shouldn’t live in a world cut off from the public. He must know what critics to respect and take note of, and which critics are high-flown fools or sourpusses. A critic will give a notice to the public of the general effect and import of a play or film, and an opinion as to whether it was worth saying, and whether the actors said it well. Yet critical opinion can sometimes prove very contrary to the opinion of the general public; fine sensitive plays and films have flopped, whilst many a shallow stinker has run for years. But the actor must say, if reviewed ‘That was his impression and he is the audience’s guide and representative’.

All criticism can be useful and can be easily dismissed if perverse or trivial (that’s the critic’s problem). But a criticism from someone like the late Kenneth Tynan was well worth noting. He could capture the essence of a performance in a few elegant sentences, often causing the actor to think ‘So that’s what I did!’ What is the director, but a kindly critic and advisor during rehearsals, when the performance is being created? He is standing in for a future audience as a judge of the actor’s believability, clarity in story telling, and ability to move to tears or laughter. Criticism of skill, or lack of it, is often of more significance than criticism of meaning. Actors and critics, even members of the audience, may argue about the interpretation of a character, a speech or a scene, and the actor can usually advance the defense that they thought long and deep, did much research, and rehearsed for six weeks, and believe the interpretation presented to be true. People will generally not risk reputations, integrity and money on grossly perverse, whimsical, or off-the wall interpretations, which can be experimented with more cheaply on the fringe or in the actors’ workshop.


The actor must always be technically competent. This means being at the least:

1- Audible – loud enough and clear enough.

2- Relaxed and economical in movement, knowing the moves and business of the production.

3- Knowing the text infallibly. Inside out, forwards, backwards, and upside down. And have a very good impression of what the people he’s playing a scene with have to say and do.

4- In charge of his or her emotions and fears.

5- Energized and alert.

6- Full of purpose: to convey character, situation, and dialogue to the best of his ability.

An actor who fulfils these basic requirements has already delivered half his obligation to the play, the audience and his fellow actors, and puts himself into the realm where he commands deeper and more subtle criticism or informed and serious praise. Good actors relish above all informed praise from their peers. Max Wall, Tommy Cooper and Eric Morecambe, and in the present time, Billy Connolly, Mike McShane, Ruby Wax, Victoria Wood and Rowan Atkinson are invariably spoken of as ‘comedians’ comedians’. There is no higher praise than to be thought of as ‘an actor’s actor’.

All criticism is useful to the actor. It is a barometer of his effect, and he must accept it with common sense, a constructive attitude, and a very large pinch of salt. Whilst the actor must not be a panic-stricken slave to adverse criticism, it’s a valuable indicator of a number of things:

  • I need to improve voice/speech/movement.
  • I need to think more clearly about character/timing/narrative.
  • I must think about how I’m being seen as an actor. I must expand my range/not play any more of this kind of character/play more comedy/ I’m good at it/I can play weighty serious people and move an audience.

A last word of warning. Friends and loved ones are usually much too kind.

The Actor’s Progress-Where Am I?

What do you need to develop? Being an actor is a process of continuous growth, and the actor, like all other creative artists, never stops learning and exploring new forms and subjects. John Gielgud, at the ripe age of eighty-seven appeared in Peter Greenaway’s innovatory film of The Tempest; our greatest Shakespearian, the Pope of a noble tradition, happily embarked on a new way of presenting the play, himself speaking all the characters.

Let’s start with the youthful beginner. You may be any age between fifteen and twenty-five. If you want to act purely for the fun of it, but not take it up as a profession, the only difference between you and the pro is that you have less time to devote to acting, and you don’t need to go to drama school. But you should share the same aim – to be a good and growing actor, and play a large number of parts, whether in an area you’re good at, or over a wide range of characters. Knock on the doors of the amateur companies, approach the nearest youth theatre organization, students’ theatre club, any group of people who mount plays, however small or underfunded an outfit it may be.

Get involved in any capacity, helping to paint scenery, hunting props, making the tea, helping stage management or playing any part you’re offered, large or small. Part of the experience is not only what you do but observing others. What they do, how they go about it, and how and why they succeed and fail. Stick at it. Acting is not a ‘now and then’ activity.

Along with the excitement, creativeness and companionship of actual experience, start acquiring the skills has been talking about. These are:

1 Relaxation, for body, voice and mind.

2- Work on voice and speech. Buy a book on the subject by one of the acknowledged experts. Your voice may be in the process of change, if you’re very young. So be happy to have a young voice if you look young. Don’t ‘put on’ a voice. It will change, with work, time and practice.

3- Acquire fluent and accurate speech. Many young people are afraid of being mocked for ‘talking posh’, and in Great Britain particularly there is a trendy inverted snobbery among the otherwise intelligent middle class that to be well-spoken marks you out as a snob and a class enemy. This is nonsense. Don’t however go to the opposite extreme and speak affectedly, or you’ll deserve the ridicule you get.

4- Read voraciously, especially plays. See every play you can, including some very imperfect performances by inexpert actors, just to examine what not to do. Watch television and movies selectively. Consider and make an assessment of every performance you see. Try to get the feel of the actor’s personality and skill. Compare different performances by the same actor.

5- Listen to music, to develop your sense of ‘tune’ and rhythm, absorbing a wide range of music from pop to opera to Bach and Beethoven, especially musical theatre.

6- Explore your own musical skills, especially for singing. If you have a good natural voice, get a singing teacher; if you can’t afford that, join a choir or group with a musically skilled leader.

7- Find out if you have any talent for dance, mime and movement, allying this to (1) above. Young and not-so-young people go through agonies of embarrassment about awkwardness, gaucherie, clumsiness. Attend every dance and movement workshop going. Don’t worry a bit if you’re obviously not going to be a Nureyev or Tommy Tune, it will all be useful.

This advice applies even more to the would-be drama student, but should be taken seriously (not solemnly) by the pure amateur. There’s no point in doing a thing badly or half-heartedly. The amateur tradition is a great tradition, in writing, football, music, painting and a host of other activities, but acting has too often been done in a facetious and slapdash way, on the assumption that it’s a thing anyone can do. They can, but badly.

Filed Under: Arts & Entertainment


About the Author: Cody Riffel is a regular contributor to MegaHowTo. She likes to write on variety of topics, whatever interests her. She also likes to share what she learns over the Internet and her day-to-day life.

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