As with any profession, actors have tools. Just as a doctor needs a stethoscope or a fireman needs a hose, there are certain items an actor must keep in their toolbox. I usually start classes or lessons by asking my new students or clients what they think these tools might be. Sometimes, the answer is very literal (“Script!”), and other times abstract (“Passion!”).
None of these are wrong answers. Being an actor or artist is subjective and everyone’s process is different and valid. But there are basic acting tips that I believe actors must start with in order to find success as a storyteller. The most essential acting tools are voice, body, and imagination. If you think about it, these three things inform all of the more specific techniques an actor might utilize when crafting a character or performance. While perhaps not as tangible as a stethoscope or a hose, your voice, body, and imagination are still items that need to be exercised.
When working on material so much is decided upon by these building blocks. Decisions about one thing can inform the other. When I am creating a character, I always find the physicality first. I pick a body part that this character would lead from. You can use clues that exist in the text to decide (for instance if your character works at an office, maybe they hunch over and lead with their shoulders) or you can let your imagination (another tool) run wild – maybe they lead with their arms, creating a confident stride, or maybe they have a swagger that makes them appear as if they are leading with their hips.
Once this is established, I let the other tools play around a bit. I find the pitch and timbre of the voice and I create little back stories. The audience may never know about the back story you invent, but it will deepen your own connection to this character whose skin you are slipping into for a spell.
That is the order I use, but there is no rule to follow. See what works best for you. Maybe you will find the voice first and that will help you understand the physical life. Maybe your character is less fully drawn and there aren’t as many details. Use your imagination to fill in the blanks and before you know it you have found their voice, the way they sit, stand, walk, run, etc.
You don’t have to wait for a role to practice these tools. In fact, you shouldn’t. Just like we go to the gym to keep our physical fitness up, we need to do the same with our acting muscles. Sharpen them from time to time. Create characters just for the sake of shaking the dust off. It can be fun and lead to some very rewarding self-scripting. Now of course there are many different styles of acting. On-camera, Musical Theatre, classical, contemporary, etc. But no matter what your task at hand, just by using your voice, body, and imagination you will be on your way to creating something that is as rewarding for you as it is for the audiences that get to witness your work.
Ethan P. teaches singing and acting lessons in New York, NY. He specializes in career coaching and helping his students get ahead in the entertainment industry. Ethan has been teaching for 5 years and he joined the TakeLessons team in July 2013. Learn more about Ethan or search for a teacher near you!
Photo by Nick Gregan