‘There are 2 types of actors’ as the old saying goes. Or are there 4? Or 6? There are actors in their bodies, there are actors in their voices, there are even actors in their kitchens. The biggest percentage, though, are actors in their heads.
I’ll start out by saying I find the whole idea of ‘types of actors’ pretty convoluted, especially considering some of the best are those we are unable to pin down and put in boxes. I should also point out that being in your head, or anywhere else for that matter isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, when you have received a note like that more than once, it’s advisable to explore other avenues that might stretch the old acting muscle.
An actor who is constantly ‘in their head’ is often a studious, hardworking one. They know the character inside out, could tell you intricate details of the play and its socio-political connotations (whatever that means). But they struggle to realize this brilliant work onstage. The body is either not working, or is working against them, providing them not with a tool for the work, but an obstacle to overcome So, what can an actor do to combat this?
One of the greatest pieces of advice I ever received was from one of my acting tutors in my first year at drama school. “Your talent lies in your choices” and it is so true. For the actor who has done their research and has all this useful information, it’s time to put it to use.
Make decisions about the character. Let what you know about them inform the way you portray them. Thousands of actors have played Hamlet. The good ones have all picked different aspects of the Dane to explore. They’ve all done their research and chosen something to run with. Doing the research is one thing, but deciding what’s useful is the key.
Physical choices can also greatly inform a performance and allow a greater mastery over the actor’s body. Michael Chekov and various other swanky practitioners suggested actors objectively look at the human body for insight into the subconscious. When we are sat at the bus stop people-watching we automatically make assumptions about people based on the way they walk. Taking this into the rehearsal room is a great way to get into the character’s body.
Make some choices about the way they walk, where their tension is and where their weight is. Instantly, moving in this way will provide your brain with all the information it will need about a character and can encourage some brilliant unexpected choices.
As with any skill, you don’t practise, you forget. Don’t pick up the guitar, you forget the chords to Hey Jude, don’t drive, you end up reversing into the bins. The actor’s body is no different. I am by no means saying hit the gym four times a week, but keep the body awake during your everyday. Yoga and Pilates are great examples of simple ways to keep your body connected to the mind.
One of the most effective methods of activating the actor’s body is through Laban. Rudolf Laban was a 20th Century movement practitioner, and one of the first people to create a language for everyday movement. He saw what he called “The Eight basic efforts” of life, that every human goes through.
Today, Laban is taught extensively in drama schools and in actor’s workshops. A highly physical experience, moving through the efforts of “Float, Dab, Glide, Slash, Press, Wring, Flick and Punch” encourages the actor to have an emotional response to the way their body is moving. I personally found this highly effective. It allowed my body and my mind to work together and would recommend a Laban workshop to any actor, regardless of their “type”.
Sometimes it is just a case of changing the way you work. A bad plan is one that can’t be changed, and that goes for an actor’s personal process even more so. Maybe it’s time to scrap the hundreds of books you want to read before touching on the character? Maybe start the other way around, with an exploration of the character’s needs and mind encouraging research, not vice versa.
For the actor who is ‘blocked’ or ‘in their head’ it can feel like there is no getting out of the rut. It feels like a cycle you are stuck in. But you can change it. It starts with you. Even if the way you change your process doesn’t work, I guarantee the shake-up will have brought out some stellar choices and got you out of your noggin.