THERE IS ONLY ONE KIND OF ACTING
I’m about to save you a lot of money in classes.
I always see ads on bulletins boards offering classes in “Film Acting”, “Sitcom Acting”, “Commercial Acting”, etc…
Teachers always want to break up acting into many categories, which gives the illusion that there are many different kinds of "acting".
There may be a benefit to going to some of these types of workshops, but remember, these teachers make a lot of money by convincing people that they have something to teach. They need you to believe that there is some secret way that film actors act, that you don’t know anything about; or that commercial actors know something you don’t, unless you pay hundreds of dollars for a workshop.
Well, here’s some good news:
There is only one kind of acting, and that is “behaving as if it's really happening to you”.
…And that's easy!
What is the difference between theater acting and film acting?
Let's get the biggest question out of the way first.
Most actors begin their performing lives in theater. So it's understandable that they worry about how to adapt their performance for film and TV.
A casting director gave me the secret to film acting one day at an audition. I did the scene once, and she kindly allowed me to do it again, with this one simple direction:
“Do it just for this room.”
What she was saying was, don’t perform for 10 rows beyond this wall. Don’t perform for ONE row beyond this wall.
Be in THIS room, just talking to ME.
And THAT is how you do it. Simple.
(And if the scene takes place in a car, then you do it “just for this car”.)
Theater acting and film acting both require the same truthful approach to the circumstances. In both genres you are "behaving as if it's really happening", but with film acting you don’t “project” your performance outwards to an audience. Instead you are selfishly only involved in your own experience.
Film acting runs on "empathy". The audience's experience can only be your experience.
On film, the audience see and feels EVERYTHING you are experiencing, so there’s no need to project what you’re experiencing outwards to an unseen audience.
Many actors, when attempting to adjust their performance to film, make the mistake of giving themselves the direction to be “smaller”. That is a controlling direction, which stifles spontaneity. Suddenly you are watching yourself, controlling your performance. And besides, not all appropriate emotions for the screen are small.
The great thing about “just for this room” is that sometimes in a room someone shouts “GET OUT!”, while other times someone whispers, “I can’t go on.”
So you no longer need to monitor how big or small you are behaving. In real life, people have moments where they experience big choices AND tiny, almost imperceptible, choices. Film acting is simply a direct mirror to life.
I was speaking with a stage actress who was having a difficult time adjusting her performance to “just for this room”.
Because her only acting experience was in theater productions, she felt that learning how NOT to project out her performance would be difficult because she had grown accustomed to this style of performing.
She said to me, “It’s easy for you, because you’ve been doing film for awhile, but I’ve only ever done theater.”
So I asked her, “What percentage of your life have you been on stage? At the most, it’s 10%. Well then, the rest of your life you’ve been behaving appropriately for film. There’s nothing NEW to learn!”
Her whole life she’s been talking to people in rooms, and selfishly thinking her thoughts and feeling her feelings without projecting them outwards.
Film acting is an exact reflection of how you really behave, so don’t make it harder for yourself. You’ve been doing it all along!
How do I adjust my performance to the different genres of film and TV acting?
All acting is the same. It's behaving as if it's really happening to you.
However, depending on what genre of acting, sometimes you will be making choices and sometimes you will only be allowing choices to happen to you.
Sitcom---------------------------------------Filmed Half-hour---------------------------------------Hour-long Drama
(Choices) (1/2 Choices, 1/2 No Choices) (No Choices)
On one end of the acting spectrum is the hour long drama or drama feature film. This must be an exact mirror to life. Therefore you don't want to make any choices, but only allow choices to happen to you.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the sitcom, in which you can make all the choices you want. You can muscle the moments, do line-readings you've planned out ahead of time…anything goes. (Especially for the wacky guest star role!)
And in the middle, is the the half-hour filmed comedy or comedy feature, in which for half the scene throughout the scene you may make some choices and muscle some moments, but also for half the scene throughout the scene you should be making no choices but only allowing choices to happen to you.
(I should add that if you are auditioning for one of the leads in a sitcom, you should bring your performance a little more to the middle of the acting spectrum, because the audience needs to believe that you are a real person in order to become invested in you for many years. Why else would we spend a decade worrying whether or not Ross is going to kiss Rachel?!)
But in all these genres, you are always behaving "as if it's really happening to you."
What about commercial acting?
Each commercial you audition for falls somewhere into the acting spectrum above.
Sometimes, in the audition, they'll say "This director likes it very 'real'" or "Just play the honesty of the situation".
In this case you will approach that commercial audition as if it's a drama, and you won't make any choices, but only allow choices to happen to you.
Likewise, if they say, "This is a wacky spot, and we really want you to have fun with it" or "We're looking for some funny 'characters'", then you should probably approach it like a sitcom, and make all choices you want.
That's ALL you need to know about commercial acting!
What is the difference between dramatic and comedic acting?
Essentially there is no difference.
All acting is the same. It's "behaving as if it's really happening to you."
However, in a comedy, while you don't want to "try to make the audience laugh", you should be involved in tickling yourself!
You cannot set out to make an audience laugh. If you approach it that way, you will most likely fail.
Trying to make people laugh comes from a place of "need" and brings about desperation and fear. Acting runs on empathy. The audience’s experience is YOUR experience. Therefore, if you are tickled by something, then we will be too!
You should approach a comedic scene the same way you approach any scene. The acting in a comedy should be played with as much honesty and personal investment as the acting in a drama. It is the writing that will make the scene funny.
The humor comes from the writing, and the fact that you are tickling yourself.
Actors often ask me, "How do I tickle myself?"
My answer is…you know how to tickle yourself. If you've ever told a joke to a friend, or recounted a funny story at a party, then you were most likely tickling yourself. It's the energy you had at that party, as you stood in the kitchen with a group of friends, and shared that silly story about your day.
Actors also wonder, "WHAT am I tickling myself about?"
The easiest way to answer that is the following:
Human behavior is funny. ...It just is.
We are very funny creatures. Our honest behavior in most any situation is funny. It is funny in it's vulnerability, it's spontaneity, it's inappropriateness…it's just funny!
Therefore, in a comedy scene, you are tickling yourself with your own honest, genuine, spontaneous human behavior.
Here's another way to describe the process of tickling yourself in a comedy scene:
You simply ask yourself, “What tickles me about this scene?”
You don’t agonize over exactly how you will perform the scene. That will cause you to plan and control your performance, which will turn it into a dead gift you are offering the audience.
Instead you find the elements or “circumstances” of the scene that you find funny and then approach your performance as if it were an improv so that you are playing in a spontaneous way in front of the audience.
Let’s use a made-up scene about a woman in a pet store who can't stop sneezing as an example:
Imagine that inside your stomach is a small version of you. In your tiny hands you are holding the circumstances that you find funny about the scene (as if each circumstance was a brightly colored ball). For instance, in one hand you hold the fact that you love puppies and want to buy one, while in the other you hold the fact that you are allergic to puppies.
Now, you have no idea how these two “balls” will bounce against each other in the scene, but you have faith that they will in very amusing ways. You have no idea what the result of them bumping into each other will be, but you look forward to finding out in the performance of it.
In imagining the circumstances as a child’s ball in your hand, they become something you PLAY with. In a comedy scene, it’s important that you are playing and having fun.
And the scene needn’t be a silly scene about sneezing at a pet store to have fun in the playing of it. You can also have fun being angry. You can even enjoy crying your eyes out. (The human behavior of crying could be experienced as quite funny! What silly creatures we are!) As long as you are tickling yourself in the performance of it, the scene will be a “comedic” scene.
I’d like to add that there is something that happens when an actor approaches a comedy scene in a spontaneous and “tickle yourself" way-
You get a hint of mischief gleaming in your eyes, like a naughty little glint of excitement, as though you’re up to no good but you know you won't get caught. This means your inner child has really come out to play!
Actors are often quick to tell themselves they don’t know how to do something. The actor with only comedy experience feels he can’t do drama. The dramatic actor feels he can’t do comedy. These limitations are self-imposed. These walls were built by you.
If you hold a belief that you can’t do something, it will be your reality until you change your mind about it.
I think the best dramatic actors are the ones who understand the humor of people’s behavior, and strive to bring that out.
Likewise, I think the best comedic actors are the ones who play the honesty and true emotion in the comic beats.
Think about Robert Downey Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Holly Hunter, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine. These actors always find the humor and the drama in every role they play. For that is the truth about life.
Is there a “style” to acting in a sitcom?
The answer is “no”. At least that is the healthiest way to look at it.
However, there is a healthy way to achieve the result you see when you watch a sitcom.
Remember, human behavior is funny. So, in a sitcom, we need LOTS of human behavior!
In order to achieve this, all you have to understand is that in a sitcom the stakes are always very high. The characters in sitcoms feel very strongly about things. After all, a sitcom has only 22 minutes to tell an entire story. Therefore, there is no time for extraneous scenes. There is no time to show a moment in a character’s life that bears no weight. The scenes that the audience sees move the story along quickly because they are important moments in the character’s lives.
Therefore, you should put high stakes in your stomach.
Do NOT put high stakes in your head, or you will spend the scene showing the audience, "Look! See how much I CARE about this situation!"
Be careful not to get result oriented. Some actors make the mistake of laying a general quality of excitement or frenzy onto the scene; speaking faster and getting louder. While these are outer traits of people who are feeling intense emotions, you will not be able to behave as if it's really happening.
The reason why we put high stakes in our stomach is that it will make spontaneous human behavior pop out of you.
A lot of actors will try to mimic the result of their favorite sitcom actor’s performances. For instance, on an episode of “Friends”:
When Monica heads to the closet to get her jacket, Chandler does a double-take, his eyes bug out, he throws out his arms and shouts “STOP!”
Some actors watch that moment and think, “I have to learn how to do that.” But, the important thing to understand is that Mathew Perry didn’t plan that moment to look just like that.
The reason that moment came out like that was because Chandler didn’t “kind of” want Monica not to discover the ostrich he had hiding in the closet -- he “REALLY” wanted her not to discover the ostrich he had hiding in the closet!
Mathew had “high stakes”.
When an actor has STRONG circumstances or “stakes” in their stomach, it causes spontaneous behavior to “pop out” beyond their control.
And THIS is exactly what comprises sitcom behavior. Not because it is stylized, but because it is spontaneous and uncontrolled human behavior, and therefore highly amusing.
I want to quickly address those classes I've heard about where they teach "Sitcom Technique" in a highly result-oriented fashion.
I've never been to one of these classes but the stories I've heard shock me!
Apparently these teachers have broken down the way sitcom actors deliver their lines, and are teaching actors to mimic these line readings.
Let me just say this:
I highly doubt that Bea Arthur, Ellen DeGeneres, Carroll O'Conner, John Ritter or any of your favorite sitcom stars were doing these highly result-oriented techniques!
As a matter of fact, I assure you that they weren't.
I never learned these techniques and yet I have made dozens of sitcom guest star appearances. And during the filming of those shows, I have never once seen or heard any other actor talking about these techniques.
Doing these kind of fear based and result-oriented techniques and line readings make it virtually impossible to behave as if it's really happening to you (the very definition of acting!). They are just dead gifts, delivered out of fear.
I'm not saying that the lines don't sometimes sound like the way these teachers are teaching them. However, you'll never be able to achieve the classic line readings if you are approaching them from this result oriented way.
I recently asked a sitcom writer if he takes into consideration these "techniques" when he's writing. And he assured me that he simply writes what he finds funny, and expects the actor to say the lines in whatever way he finds funny as well.
And if you've ever been on a sitcom set you'll see that the actors deliver the lines many different ways. Then, later, the editor picks his favorite, funniest, and most spontaneous moments to put into the show.
Approach your craft with love, trust and faith! And if a technique makes you feel bad…don't do it.