A few good books

Do You Act Your Part?

After the excitement, gaiety or tragedy of a fine play or movie, haven’t you felt that the experience was more real than the actual events of your own existence? If acting is much more real then routine living, and so much more exciting, why shouldn’t all of us cultivate the art on a larger stage, our world? I don’t for a moment mean that you should cultivate affectations. On the contrary, I suggest acting as a means of genuine self-expression and release. Learning how to control and direct emotions.

Superficial play acting – pretending to be something you are not – is an easily detected in life as on the stage. Real acting is a matter of making outwardly apparent the thing you feel true within. It is a matter of projecting yourself imaginatively into a situation and then letting action and speech luminously interpret what you feel.

Few of us are conscious of the satisfaction we could get if we accepted and played heartily the varied roles that life gives us. Usually we go from one situation to another with no change of pace or manner. Or we typecast ourselves as does the actor who plays butler so well he is always cast for a butler role.

The actor enters a scene with purpose and directness, eliminating all that does not relate to the immediate problem. If you try this, you are not content with aimless geniality or vague irritability, but you set yourself to show specifically the friendliness or indignation that fits your part. You may be worried about home situations while attending to business, but if you use the actor’s methods of concentration you will rule out concerns that do not affect the job of the moment.

Obviously this practice means that we enter every situation with all our forces marshaled, not unused or scattered over a lot of lingering worries. It means too that by integrating our personalities around the role of the moment we can avoid incongruities and ineffectualities – things that are out of character, as when a man putting up an aggressive argument uses a whining or pleading voice.

Dame Sybil Thorndike, the great English actress, once explained to a group of young actresses that the reason the stage was so splendid was that ordinary incidents of everyday living become a symbol on the stage. Pouring tea is no longer just pouring tea; it becomes the spirit of sociability, the symbol of hospitality. If you can translate this sense of symbols into life, the rewards will be immense.

You will be surprised to find how the inner embodiment of a role actually creates a new outward appearance. I remember once being asked to a party when I realized that I had no dress suited to the occasion. I considered not going at all. Then I decided to use the actor’s art and dress my mind as best I could, to go and put my whole being into acting the role of guest. I let appreciation of the party, the hostess, the other guests take possession of me. The odd part of it is that the compliments I got that evening were on the dress I wore.

To feel and behave in a manner appropriate to the scene is far more important than to dress appropriately. Often I have seen girls applying for jobs who are handicapped by concern about their looks and what are they going to say. I want to tell them, “Dress the part as best you can, but the chief thing is to fill your clothes with the person you intend to fill the position you are applying for. Practice telling what you have to offer – skill, experience, knowledge and above all, interest. State each with its own quality, not cloaked with either apology or conceit.

Were there no other advantage to be gained, acting in daily life would be worthwhile for the detachment it affords. Good acting is always dispassionate. It calls for poise, balance and control, and hence helps you to draw apart from a situation and view it as a participant and spectator. Only the dispassionate person has full mastery, whether in social conversation, family discussion or business conference.

This impersonal quality in good acting has the value of making you more acutely aware of other person in the scene. The best acting is done with a full awareness of your partner’s role. Every contact we have throughout the day – from good morning to the elevator man to the last good night – may be pleasanter by skillful use of this principal. Our lives can be drab if we allow them to become habitual – zestful if we act up to our role and our partners.

To those who protest that such histrionic displays are affected and unnatural, it can only be replied that all of our behavior is, in the broad sense, unnatural. Talking itself does not come natural with us; why not go on and talk in a way that expresses the role we feel best suited to the occasion? Such acting is not a matter of imitating another person. We may think that the charm, grace and vivacity of some actress dwell in her mannerism. But to copy these externals is only to become an affected imitator. The true technique is to make the most out of every good trait you yourself possess. Technique is not a putting-on, it is a drawing-out process. It is making your everyday speech and movement, gesture and manner, habits of thoughts and feeling, good instruments and tools to use in expressing yourself in your many relationships. Not just to “get by” but to be wholly effective.

This idea of acting your part in life adequately, with truth and assurance, gives you an incentive to improve your voice and speech, carriage and posture, manner and habits of facial expression. In Shaw’s Pygmalion, we have an insight into the transforming power of technique. It requires a kind of self-discipline that is cultural and thus draws out the individual’s potentialities you can’t improve the speech without improving the person. And there are more ways of speech than words.

Posture can say: I am tired. I am discouraged. I am careless. I am timid. I am a great guy.

Walk can say: I pound the pavement. The earth is my springboard. It’s a long, hard road. I must not miss the surprises of the way.

Facial expression may say: I am disappointed. I am interested in you. I have a sense of humor.

Voice quality may tell that you are a nagger, a whiner, a comfort, a mouse or a lion.

It’s your own choice whether you slump into the less prepossessing of these alternatives, or create for yourself the role – the personality – that springs from others. A certain pose may gain the effect we desire, and if its does, it is as legitimate to use it as it is to seek the apt word – and equally effective. The crowning principle of good acting is simplicity – economy of action and movement, restrained emotion, controlled thinking. Simplicity in acting is using just enough of all your powers to convey your intent and elicit the right response from the listener.

Simplicity is not to be confused with easiness. Simplicity is a certain fine clarity, even austerity. The person of great learning speaks simply, a person of great wealth dresses simply, a person of fine eloquence talks simply, an actor of rich technique is simple in his acting. But this great quality is hard-earned and represents the deepest honesty. It cannot be put on, it cannot be pretense; it is the expression, the making actual of the truest within us.

Everyday, as we play the series of roles that life demands of us, we can employ these principles of acting. The wise father needs a correct sense of his various roles in daily affairs. When as an executive he has a problem to solve, he must have the actor’s dispassion and detachment. At a business luncheon with clients, awareness of the scene and his partners in it are of first importance. Back home in the evening he must understand that the role calls for good humor and simplicity and perception, for the attentiveness that marks him as the wise father.

Whether we like it or not, all of us must act: we must express outwardly what we feel within. The question is whether we do it poorly or well, whether we are content to be puppets operated by the strings of habits, or whether we shall consciously and skillfully portray our full role in each new scene or relationship. The thing to aim for is a cultivated technique or self-expressiveness by means of which your feelings, reactions, thoughts or wishes can be effectively conveyed.

Written by Maud Scheerer, How to Live with Life.


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