Acting for directors

When I was doing my 12-week Film Intensive at NYU SCPS, one of the things I heard a few times was that to be a good director, you should take an acting class. As I made UNTITLED, I realized that understanding what an actor goes through, how he/she prepares, can help a director in ensuring she gets the best performance from her cast.

Now, I have acted as a child but as I grew into my teens, I veered more towards debate than acting. Primarily because I started to become extremely self-conscious – the surefire way to be unable to act (clearly this was just my issue – both my siblings acted into their teens and both were freaking fabulous at it). So despite the high will, the self-consciousness meant low skill and the nervousness prevented me from really doing what I used to love.

Anyway, back to the present – or rather, back to early 2006. I signed up for another class at NYU’s SCPS, Beginning Acting: The ABCs ((This class was not specifically tailored for aspiring directors. It was a beginners acting class and I thought it would serve the purpose quite nicely.)), taught by Kathryn Rossetter – three hours on a weekday evening that I hoped would cure me of my mental block and help me learn more about how “real” actors do their thing.

I still remember the first class so vividly – she asked us each to share an experience that had an impact on us. It could be positive or negative, but it had to have had a big impact on you. I remember sitting in front of the semi-circle of fellow students and sharing my story. And as I did, I started to look inwards, seeing the events happen again. And I started to cry. As the tears welled up, I stopped briefly, held back, got control of myself and kept telling the story.

Each student told his or her story – some happy, some sad, some creepy. Then Kathryn gave us feedback. She pointed out how I had held back, not let the emotions flow. While it had been great that I could reach into my past and find emotion like that, I needed to learn how to go with the flow of that emotion and let it come out – even in front of a group full of complete strangers.

We are all conditioned in our lives to pretend, to not show our emotions. But acting is just the opposite – it is about reaching in and being able to bare your emotions for all to see. Yes, within the constructs of the character, but to bare all. To help lose the inhibitions, Kathryn gave me a little exercise to do – as I walked home, I was to skip, shout and otherwise act like a five year old. In the middle of Manhattan. With people all around me. Er… say what? She insisted that no one would look at me and if they did, they wouldn’t do so for more than a second. To prove her point, she started skipping down the street we were on, singing loudly. No one looked at her. And so, that day, I skipped home. I astounded myself – it was quite liberating.

That was the first class. We progressed from there. I learned how to relax my body – the vehicle that allowed me to act, to recognize where I stored stress and held my body stiff, and to loosen up with out embarrassment in front of my classmates. I learned how to react to words, translating them into images and reactions. She’d say “You’re under a warm shower” and then suddenly switch to “it’s scalding” or “it’s freezing” and we would react to the words as if there were events, all while seated in our chairs. There were a whole host of other exercises we practiced – each geared to loosen us up and just react.

We did impromptu skits and role play exercises. We enacted scenes where one person knows what is going on, but the other person, who was asked to leave the classroom, walks into the situation cold and has to adapt. I learned to make up conversation on the fly based on the character traits I was given. I happily flailed about as a lunatic, entangled myself with a classmate in a simulated make-out session (never fear, he was/is a friend, we were/are both married and we were/are patently disinterested in one another), and learned to draw on my life experiences to enable me to emote.

I loved it. Really loved it. From time to time, I would still hold back, but I was improving every class (even if I do say so myself!). We finished off the course with groups of two enacting scenes from David Auburn’s Proof – a great play that was made into a sub-par movie. Memorizing just a scene was harder than I would have thought, but it was worth it and it was so much fun!

To be clear, I have no illusions that I am an actor. I took a very, very basic course. A tiny baby step compared to what so many aspiring actors go through. Could I be an actor? Possibly, but a lot more training awaits me before I could even think of that. And honestly, that is not my dream.

But this class did help me move towards my goal of losing some of my inhibitions. I am sure I could easily slip into bit, fill-in roles if required. More importantly though, it brought back the fun I had a child – when I didn’t care who was looking.

My dream is to direct and in that regard, this class gave me a better understanding of actors and acting – the immense amounts of training they subject themselves to, the preparation required for any shoot, and the effort involved in doing an emotional scene (if you are drawing on real emotion from your personal life – a scene can wreck you for days).

I will definitely look to take more acting classes in my life – each will be a baby step compared to what a real actor will go through, but I am sure I will enjoy each one and that each one will make me a better director.

I would love your opinion – if you are an actor, do you see a difference in directors who have spent the time to learn more about acting? And if you are a director and you have taken an acting class – how has it helped you?