Act Smart!: Watch Who You Watch

An exercise in determining fabulousness, nothingness and everything in between.

Many years ago, when I was a beginning improv actor and dinosaurs roamed the earth, I got one of the best pieces of advice on understanding star quality that I’ve ever heard:

Watch who you watch.

In other words, as that very wise, very opinionated, genius improv teacher, Cynthia Szigeti, said that on that fateful day some 12-odd years ago, start paying attention to who you’re paying attention to. To whom are your eyes and ears drawn? And why: what is it about that person that makes them compelling? Is he compelling just to you, or to everyone? (You may need to watch the other people watching to get this part.) What does she do, or not do, that draws your eye to her?

Now, I’m not talking about people you’re drawn to because they’re making holy asses of themselves. (Although I suppose that’s worth noting, if only to file away in the “never do x” drawer.) You may be drawn to certain theatrical blowhards at first, but that has more to do with what I call “fiery wreck phenomenon”: in other words, most of us will slow down to look at something monstrous, but most of us don’t want to look at it for very long.

What you’ll start noticing is basically the acting version of signal-to-noise ratio, or how much of what an actor is putting out there is coming through loud and clear, versus how much is being obscured by that actor’s “noise”: their very human clutch of insecurities, fears, wants and needs.

Great actors, seeming shapeshifters and “naturals,” the ones you can’t tear your eyes from no matter how small their role, generally have an extremely high signal-to-noise ratio: lots of signal, little noise. You see and hear the work, not their worries about whether they can pull it off or whether people like them or whether enough people are watching them doing their strutting and fretting or any one of a million other things that can swirl around in our heads.

This is not to say that all the people you find yourself watching have their acts 100% together. Far from it, as a profession, acting is probably second only to standup comedy for attracting the, er, psychologically “interesting”. (Okay, the music industry, the mental health care field and politics are right up there, as well.) Someone may well be a swirling mass of insecurity offstage, but onstage, they fully commit to the work, they’re focused like a laser beam and if they do have insecurities about themselves or other agendas, they’ve either learned to compartmentalize and put them aside for the role, or to funnel them into it.

A high signal-to-noise ratio also makes someone very “present,” which also makes them very watch-able. They’re not living in the past, thinking about what just happened, nor projecting themselves into the future, planning what they’re going to do next; they’re open to the magic of whatever can happen in the moment.

Comedy improv actors learn this right away. It’s virtually impossible to be a great improvisational actor if you’re planning what hilarious thing you’re going to do or say next, because by definition, you’re denying what is happening in the “now.” My favorite story illustrating this is the improv actor who, when his partner opened their scene with “So we’re finally going to Houston to meet your parents!”, blurted out, white-knuckling his imaginary steering wheel, “No, we’re not, you’re the babysitter and I’m driving you home!”

The exercise does not really work watching TV or film, since camera positioning and editing can put the focus on something that might not earn it on its own. In a play, even though a good director will do his best to put the focus where it belongs to tell the story, the audience member functions essentially as camera and editor, so you get a cleaner read.

You can also learn a lot by watching who you watch on the great stage of Life. We all know civilians who are every bit as compelling as actors, if not more so. Children at play can be especially fascinating to watch because of their incredible commitment and lack of self-consciousness.  For that matter, so are crazy people, they live so much in the moment that you never have any idea what they’ll do next.

Of course, it’s up to you to take the input you get and apply it to yourself. The process of discovery is, in this case, a lot about uncovering, ridding yourself of the flotsam and jetsam that muddy your own signal-to-noise ratio. Even when you do, there’s no guarantee that what you’re selling is what Hollywood is going to be buying. You will be putting yourself out there in the best available light, though.

And there’s that great, life benefit to being present: like the best improv actor, you’re always prepared for whatever comes next.