Act Smart!: Great actors don’t (just) study acting

You’re a good actor, working hard to become a better one.

You live great chunks of your life on your feet in the aisles of Sam French and the performing arts section of Barnes & Noble, devouring everything ever written by anyone who ever did anything in or around the profession.

You read every column and every article on the biz in every newspaper, newsletter, e-newsletter and magazine.

You know the budget matinee price of every local theater, sign up for every SAG Foundation Event, return DVDs late because you need to watch them again with the commentary track. You even put up with that insufferable turd, James Lipton, to get your fix of Inside the Actors’ Studio.

I know, because I used to be you.

Why learning about acting will, and won’t, make you a great actor.

One of the finest acting teachers I’ve ever met, Cameron Thor , said something so baffling to me once, it took me years to figure it out. This isn’t so strange in and of itself, I was kind of slow on the uptake with lots of stuff he said, since I was too stubborn to see things any way but mine.

But this one, particular thing I thought about over and over, because it was so intriguing, and because it seemed to lie just the other side of making sense.

“If you want to become a better actor, don’t read a book about acting, read a book about  kayaking.”

Okay, was I really supposed to go to the library and check out a book on kayaking? By reading said book on kayaking, would my mind magically relax enough to have some kind of breakthrough about my acting? Or was kayaking some kind of magic parallel to acting, and by gaining an understanding of it, I would also gain insight into acting?

He didn’t mean this literally—or did he?

(Almost) everything is like (almost) everything else, or, It’s All in the Stepping Away.

Today, when I work with my clients, I use a lot of analogies. Why? Because while I’ve played with a lot of these concepts long enough to articulate them clearly, my clients are usually either too new to them or too close to themselves to see them clearly. It’s like the blind guys feeling up various parts of an elephant: each describes a totally different thing depending on where he’s stationed.   They can’t see, they’re too close to it. (Well, and they’re blind, too, but that’s a different story.)

Sometimes, it takes distance from things to see them clearly. Not just distance in terms of a vacation (although that’s also a great idea, and one I should avail myself of a little more often), but a change of perspective, angle and focus. Once you’ve lived enough life, you start to see how similar things are, rather than how different they are. And you also get a better sense of your own blind spots, the things that make learning difficult for you.

Seeing something from the audience

To bring it back to acting, have you ever sat in class watching someone tripping himself up in the same damned way for the bajillionth time when it is SO OBVIOUS what he needs to do?

Even better, halfway through the rehearsal process for your scene, have you ever noticed that you totally, completely get what the other character in that scene is doing and why, while your own powers of genius script analysis seem to fail you completely when applied to the study of your own character?

That’s the perspective thing. And, in the same way that it takes you longer to figure out certain things you need to do than what others do, it can take you longer to “get” acting by reading about acting than it can by reading about kayaking.

Big hint: It doesn’t have to be kayaking

Okay, so you hate kayaking. Maybe your parallel path is long-distance running or blacksmithing or sailing. You can start with any section of the library with depth and scope, cooking, yoga, mountain climbing. Preferably, you should immerse yourself in learning about a practice that engages the body as much as it engages the mind, the way acting does.

But once you get into you’ll start finding parallels and “aha!” moments with all kinds of things, shifting between worlds seamlessly and learning fantastic lessons in the oddest places.

How do I know all this? Because it took becoming an actor for me to learn how to write.

Colleen Wainwright is an L.A.-based writer-speaker-consultant who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent 10 years making ads and another 10 acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good, not evil, by helping creative types tap into their unique awesomeness to better share it with the world.