One of the principle challenges for any actor is taking control of your own internal work. It can seem impossible with so many people ready to give you notes, feedback, criticism. Learning to cope with all the requests and demands to adjust your performance is part of the job, but there are times when acting jargon gets used in place of clear direction, leaving the actor in the worst place – feeling that they are doing something wrong and not knowing what to do about it.
Complicating matters is the fact that these phrases have been around so long that everyone expects actors to know what they mean. Let’s take a look at what our defensive response to the comment might be and then how we can understand them each in a way that pushes us closer to an act-able solution. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Too many good actors accept all their notes with humility (or worse defensiveness) and assume that they are destined to be unsatisfactory and misunderstood. Don’t waste your time explaining or defending your choices, learn to listen to what is being said to you.
How many times have you heard one of the following?
“You’re in your head” Well where would you like me to be? This one is used a lot. It’s part of the “act first, think later” branch of terminology. To me, this is an attempt to tell the actor that he appears to be thinking about how he is doing instead of what he is doing. In other words, the judgement, planning, and self-watching has become visible. There are a couple of quick fixes. Put your attention on your partner. Engage yourself physically. Put your brain to better use. You cannot be out of your head. Your brain will not turn itself off, you can only encourage it to focus on something useful – like hitting your mark, or maintaining your continuity, or really completing whatever task your character is dong in the scene.
“You’re not connected” This classic can tie an actor up in knots. What does it mean to be connected anyway? Connected to the text, to your partner, to your own body? It’s your work being addressed, take your work seriously. Maybe you need to pay more attention to your partner, maybe you are forgetting to engage enough breath, maybe you haven’t taken enough of the given circumstances into consideration.
“You’re not grounded” This usually means that you look like you don’t know what to do with yourself. Choosing an activity is helpful – something in which you can fully engage. For those of you with a heavier movement background, being grounded has to do with the ways in which you disperse energy. Actors who are not grounded tend to pace and wander. Sometimes they are literally standing on their toes, sometimes they just don’t seem to know what scene they are in.
“You’re not being specific” Again, this begs a question – specific about what? Ask the question. The problem is the director isn’t seeing a suitable/believable/relatable response when you hear that your wife has left you. When a director says that a moment is not specific enough, I recommend dealing with the opposite. Jump to the external, what are some universal signs of loss and despair that you can create? Make a shape or picture with your body that would make an audience in a theater or cinema sit up and say, “whoa, she’s heartbroken” before you utter a word. Your physicalization will inform your inner life. To get specific you must begin with the general.
“You’re not breathing” Okay, so we know that’s not true. Clearly you are breathing or you would have lost consciousness. This note usually means that either the director would like to actually see you inhale and exhale or that you don’t seem to really be listening with your entire body to what’s going on in the scene. Breathing is the first and most important human behavior. We can tell a lot about people and circumstances by the way they breathe. Breathing is one of the best ways to get that which is outside of you in, and what is inside of you out. In life we often breathe in a particular way so that we keep ourselves together. Fight that impulse on stage.
Face it, acting is about pretending. And the goal is to pretend in a way that looks and sounds believable. Almost every note you will ever get is based in something the outsider is seeing or hearing. We run into problems when we have not yet learned to calibrate ourselves so that our outsides accurately reflect our insides. Understanding jargon is about coming to terms with the fact that you are getting notes based on something external even if the note tries to get at something internal. This is the eternal inside/out vs outside/in conflict. Lots of directors and teachers try to address external issues by suggesting internal corrections. And often it works, modifying your moment before or changing what your character wants can create different behavior, but make no mistake, the director or teacher is trying to fix a problem they see or hear. The easiest way to deal is to accept that they are looking for a certain product and not a particular process. The sign of a good preparation is a good performance and most people don’t care how you get there.
Richard Omar, President, Artistic Director at The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts
After completing his degree at Hofstra University, Richard Omar trained under famed acting teachers Uta Hagen and Bobby Lewis in NYC. Richard’s New York theatre credits include Dance with Me, Harker, The First Day, Never the Sinner, The Secret History, and Richard III, which played at the New York International Fringe Festival. As a ballroom dancer, he appeared on film with Leslie Caron, Patrick Stewart and Jennifer Beals. Richard has been an acting instructor at NYCDA for 17 years. He has also taught acting at SUNY Purchase, Hofstra University, and the New Actors Workshop for Mike Nichols.