Being the most public, the actor is its best-known theatre artist to audiences, and acting is the art of the theatre that most people believe they know most about. Yet, it is not as simple as it may appear. Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, theatre artists have recognized two different and seemingly contradictory notions of acting. In one, the actor “presents” a role to the audience through physical and vocal skill, abilities to imitate characters, and related talents, such as dancing, singing, fencing, improvisation, etc. Such a “presentational” approach is developed through a program of training that originates from an external instructional process.
The second notion of acting maintains that it originates from inside the actor. From this perspective, through study of the play’s text, role, and social context, the actor attempts to enter, through the imagination, the world of the play and live the life of the character. Because such an approach seeks to represent, not just present, all aspects of the character portrayed, it is known as representational. The debate over the respective value of these two notions has been debated for centuries but, somewhat paradoxically, fine acting contains elements of each. The development of virtuosic vocal, physical, and mental skills has been a traditional attraction of actors throughout history, and while the rise of realism created a temporary eclipse of such virtuosity in the middle of the twentieth century, traditional skills of the theatre have made a comeback in recent decades.
Unlike most artists, the actor’s instrument is the self. Training the actor’s instrument, therefore, requires development of the physiological and psychological instruments. Training of the voice includes improving basics such as breathing, phonation, and resonance, as well as elements of speech, such as articulation, pronunciation, and phrasing, to create clear projection. Movement is trained through dance, mime, fencing, acrobatics, and other disciplines to develop relaxation, muscular control, and economy of action. Psychologically the actor develops discipline and three areas of imagination. In creating a role, three elements of an integrated acting technique are shared by nearly all approaches. The first is pursuing the solution to the character’s problem. Second is identifying the tactics necessary to reach the goal, and last is researching the style of the play and mode of performance that will govern the production.
The actor’s professional routine contains three stages, which cover the attainment, preparation, and performance of a role. For nearly all actors, auditioning for roles is necessary, and is done through “cold readings” from the script of the planned production or prepared audition pieces, which are usually one- or two-minute monologues from plays or other works of literature. During the rehearsal period of a play the actor learns the role, investigates the character’s biography, subtext, thoughts, goals, and the world of the play itself. In addition, lines and movements are memorized and the actor experiments and discovers the possibilities of the role. Performance brings with it a fundamental shift in the actor’s awareness, since the addition of the audience requires adjustments in the general sense and specifics, such as timing, of performance. Performance also carries potential problems, such as stage fright and keeping the performance fresh after multiple performances. The excitement of acting lures many people who wish to become actors, but, statistically, the chances of developing a longstanding acting career are slim. To do so requires great talent, skill, perseverance, and personal fortitude.
(This is an excerpt from the book Theatre: Brief version by Robert Cohen)