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  • Writer's pictureGlenn English

"How Actors Improve Their Skills Everyday"

There’s an old saying, “When fishermen cannot go to sea, they tend to their nets.” Nice advice but what does that mean exactly for the actor? Well, I think it means that when you’re not acting in a play or doing a film, you should be actively improving your skills and knowledge of your craft. Like all artists, the actor cannot afford to be stagnant in his/her work, regardless of their level of achievement. This is something that Strasberg spoke of frequently at the Actor’s Studio, this need for actors to be always “active” in their development.

For he believed that in a certain regard, one of the worst things that could happen to actors was to achieve success too soon, as that tended to derail their training. Even worse, to maintain their careers at a certain level, they began to repeat the same performance over and over, in effect doing an imitation of themselves. Now certainly there’s nothing wrong with an actor having a career and getting work, everybody wants that but not at the expense of the thing that got you the work to begin with, which is your talent. For while they are interrelated, the actor’s craft, talent and career are in fact separate aspects of his work and they are not necessarily nurtured by the same things.

So how do you keep your development going? Certainly being in acting class helps and a good one at that, but you can’t be in class your entire life either. I think that once an actor has a solid Method that’s reliable, they should go out into the world and set it on fire anyway that seems reasonable. Sure, it’s good to get back to basics from time to time, for in truth, the problems of the actor in professional performance are very different from the technical problems of actors. Technique is akin to fine wine, it really does get better with time as long as it’s attended to properly.

However, beyond technical development, there are other aspects of the actor’s growth that aren’t classroom-based, but you need them just as much. Reading and research are key factors in an actor’s progress, for they allow you to gain a lot of knowledge in a very short period of time. Frankly speaking, the problems that James Franco has to deal with are not all that different from the ones that Pacino had to solve in his day. Now not all actors are that forthcoming regarding their process but enough of them are, so if you take the time to dig around, you can unearth quite a lot that’s helpful.

Years ago I was taking the A train uptown and at the time I was struggling with a role in a Chekov play for class. The play was Cherry Orchard, I was playing the tutor who everyone thinks is in love with the daughter, Anya except nothing ever happens between them and I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Then I looked up and sitting about 20 feet away from me was Ben Kingsley! I knew from my script that he had played the same role years earlier in London and without thinking, I sat down next to him. Kingsley looked up from his book, I told him my problem and asked what was the key to playing Trofimov? He looked at me carefully and said, “Trofimov isn’t in love with Anya, he’s in love with Ranevskaya. Everyone in the play thinks he loves the daughter but he’s in love with the mother. “ Kingsley waited while I took it in and when he saw that I got it, he went back to his book. I thanked him and went back to my seat.

That’s Chekov and New York City for you.

Now you don’t get to ask famous actors for advice every day but like we’ve already said, you can find out a lot of information if you take the time and ask the right questions. Let me give you a real trade secret - the best actors are the ones who like to read and read voraciously. Of course, the internet gives you much handier access to certain types of information but there are lots of things that just aren’t digital and you have to go looking for them in hard copy.

More than anything else, actors need to read plays, they need to read scripts and they need to know writers. Playwrights and I mean real playwrights, are the backbone of the theater, if you don’t have a working knowledge of at least the major ones, you have a lot of catching up to do. You should start with a shortlist, get your hands on collections if possible, it will save you a little time and some money. Also, please don’t just read the men, I know they outnumber the women but read them too, a lot of them are really good, so don’t be sexist. Listen, I know the Performing Arts Library in NYC is closed right now because of Covid, but it will reopen and when it does get there and take advantage of it.

If you don’t have access to that resource, you can order things and share the cost with friends. Start a reading group with other actors and don’t just discuss the plays, read them aloud because that’s what they were written for! Breath life into them, find the music in them, because every great writer has their own music and part of their greatness is their ability to get it on the page somehow. It’s up to the actor to find it

and give it voice, even if it’s been silent for a while.

Now reading scripts isn’t the only way for actors to expand their minds and grow artistically, you should watch great cinema as well, for there’s a lot to learn from old masters. Besides knowing writers, you should know directors and some of the technical disciplines of film making as well. Even if you have no ambitions in that area, the more well-rounded you are as an actor, the better performer you’ll be. If you want to be a professional actor, you have to learn your profession and that means knowing all the stuff that happens around the actor. There’s a lot to learn, so don’t wait to start learning it.

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