“Acting Means Pretending, Right?”

CI rehearsal photo by Dewin Anguas Barnette

CI rehearsal photo by Dewin Anguas Barnette

Last year, a brave middle school student in a magnet arts program asked us this question. It was a self-observation during one of our intention exercises, developed to help the actor strive for life or death stakes. It requires a lot of running, which we’ve found helps a student drop in to natural physical cues: deeper breathing, stronger focus, bent joints like elbows and knees, better balance and shorter action-reaction delay. The student put up her hand and said: “Isn’t acting basically pretending?  So, why do we have to run for real?

It was perfect. This is exactly what is missing in the lessons most are teaching about acting. Yes, it is pretending. Hopefully, I will never have to personally experience avenging my father’s “foul and most unnatural murder” in order to play Hamlet well. There is an amazing amount of pretending going on.

That being said, why not lessen the load of all that pretending and commit to what you can do safely and effectively on stage, like running for real?

The first definition of acting, according to Merriam-Webster, is “to represent or perform by action especially on the stage.” Another more concise definition is simply “to take action”.  And that is what I’ve been teaching through my company. I’ve actually always been teaching this without really knowing it was my main purpose.  As a director/choreographer/teacher, I just wanted commitment where I could get it, honesty where I could find it and effort always. For the past two years, Chris and I began developing unique exercises to tap directly into this action inside of acting. Maybe that’s what it is… not physical theatre but action theatre where the doing is of highest import.

This was the common thread for the past seven weeks:

How do I get my actors to connect below their necks? They’re smart but have no sense of their bodies, their surroundings or each other.

Those are the calls I get. This is what we hear in every preparation meeting with teachers, department heads and directors. And each time, I have to listen as if it is the first time I’ve heard it.

How do these educators not see the commonality of their problem? Many blame “this generation” of student and actor, which seems like an easy (and ridiculous) out. One theatre department head of a high-ranking art magnet high school did the opposite. She stated matter-of-factly that the staff didn’t know how to grade that kind of work. The analytical and dramaturgical focus was easier to assess and test. I was proud of her bravery.  To correct the problem, she was requiring her students to take dance classes but the bridge was still not in place. Our company is often that bridge.

We’ve become the bridge that students can cross over:

  • from strangers to ensemble members.
  • from “getting it right” to “failing gloriously”.
  • from “Is this what the teacher means?” to “This is what I mean.
  • from  “pretending” and “acting.”


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