You might be surprised to learn that I’m a fan of Master Po from the 1970s TV series Kung Fu. He doesn’t just teach his students martial arts; he’s also produced some brilliant pearls of wisdom in his time.
Master Po often puts emphasis on the importance of truth and self-acceptance in all walks of life. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the art of acting.
“Grasshopper, be yourself and never fear thus to be naked to the eyes of others.”
This advice can be applied in hundreds of situations – “be yourself” is one of the most oft-repeated mantras of any motivational poster. In acting, however, “being yourself” is not just self-empowerment; it empowers you to be other people, too.
The final, most extreme stage of embracing yourself and your truth is wearing it on your sleeve – on a stage, no less! This is what the best actors are doing whenever they perform.
Being able to portray all the depths of human experience – pain, anger, fear, joy, surprise, and all the other millions of stages in between – is easier done when you are comfortable feeling them in front of others.
In this way, “being yourself” means being unafraid of your innermost feelings. Only then can you be unafraid of inhabiting your character’s truth.
Using the Method, we encourage actors to find and reveal their true selves; to tap their own emotional resources in order to uncover the depths of their role.
My Personal Experience
Your truth can be momentary, a week long, or last your entire life; a person has many feelings and thus many truths. I had an interesting experience years ago, when I let my feelings shine through during an audition.
I was auditioning for the part of a police inspector. The actor playing my suspect noticed that I missed a line, and she stopped the scene to inform the director. This is not common practice, so I was angry.
I took a moment before we began again and asked myself: “where am I right now?” I was genuinely angry, and so I expressed that in the scene.
All agreed it really felt like I was interrogating the suspect!
“Yet, know that man so often masks himself. That what is simple is rarely understood.”
People often mask their feelings in order to function in the “normal” world. Actors must not do this. The job of an actor is to uncover emotion in a scene or a character, and this is impossible is they’re wearing a mask. An actor must be comfortable in their skin – able to reveal their true self – in order to comfortably portray another person’s truth
There is an improvisation technique particular to method acting that we call “speaking out“. In this technique, actors feeling interference in the scene are encouraged to speak their problem into it. The aim of “speaking out” is to help an actor move past a lapse in concentration.
For example, if there is an underlying problem between scene partners, or if the actor has anxiety about the scene, they would turn that problem into a small divergence from the script: “why do you make things so difficult?” Their partner would “speak out” back – “I’m sorry, it’s not personal” – and then both partners would return to the set script, taking their new and improved truth with them.
So we see the actor taking a moment and taking off their mask. The actor is now grounded: they can own their emotions and carry them with purpose into the scene. This improves relationships and the performance as a whole.
Master Po’s second observation – “what is simple is rarely understood” – is also solved by the use of speaking out. Verbalising problems makes you, your partner, and everyone else aware that there is an issue, and enables everyone to understand and deal with it. Speaking out, then, helps others to appreciate your truth as well as you.
Of course, in a real performance this technique is not encouraged! However, you can turn your “speaking out” into an inner monologue that fuels your understanding of the scene and yourself.
“What you read in the book is only the merest education of what you do when you enact the part”.
All good acting teachers will tell you that scripts are useful but preparation is much more important. Coming into the scene with your emotional reserves tapped, and your characterisation complete is more important than simply remembering lines. Knowing your truth is vital to these kinds of preparation.
One of the most important things for an actor is to come into a scene emotionally prepared. If you don’t, you’re doing what’s called going into a scene “empty”. Emotionally preparing doesn’t have to be so hard; it’s as simple as drawing on your truth.
Strasberg believes that your truth should be real life memories, and Meisner says the imagination can be just as – if not more – powerful. All that matters is you draw on the emotions that are most present in your mind. Everyone is different, and truth is often subjective; but in acting it’s always relevant. Take your “moment of truth,” so to speak, and go into the scene owning it.
“The dust of truth swirls and seeks its own cracks of entry.”
As Master Po says, truth finds a way in. Honesty with oneself and expressing your truth to others – in public, no less! – can be the most frightening thing in the world. You might feel vulnerable.
In many professions, “vulnerability” is considered a weakness. Not so in acting. In performance, a character must be able to reveal their most personal, intimate sides: their motivations, fears, secrets, and habits. This is the true art of acting.
Being vulnerable, then, is a sign of strength in an actor. If you’re vulnerable and open about your truth, then you are free to share in a scene’s emotions and relate to the inner struggles of a character.
You can try to squash your truth, and sew your mask on tighter than ever, or you can take control of your truth and wield it as an acting tool.
To get the most out of your actor’s toolbox, we offer short-term courses in refining new techniques as well as our famous Ultimate Acting Programme. Is your truth ready for the stage?