What Are Some of the Telltale Signs of a Bad Actor?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

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By Marcus Geduld, Artistic Director, Folding Chair Classical Theatre, NYC

I’m a theatre director, and I’ll list the traits I think of as bad, though “bad acting” is subjective. I was reminded of that today, when my wife, Lisa, and I finished watching a show. Lisa has as much experience in the theatre as I do; she’s very smart and has excellent taste. But, after the show, when I was done railing about how bad the lead actor was, she said, “I thought he was really good.” So take my opinion (or anyone’s) with the grain of salt it deserves. (Though, of course, I was right and Lisa was wrong.)

1. Emotional armor. When I watch actors, I want to see vulnerability. One skill great actors have is allowing themselves to be (emotionally) naked in front of a lot of strangers. This is extremely hard, as we spend our lives learning how to not do that. I am not necessarily talking about wailing and crying. Watch Anthony Hopkins in “Remains of the Day” and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

When I work with actors, the biggest hurdles come when they try to protect themselves. Different actors do that in different ways: some flinch from the uglier sides of human nature*; others have certain feelings they’d rather not explore; some simply don’t want to look unattractive. One of the many reasons Bryan Cranston is so great (see “Breaking Bad”) is because he’ll do scenes in his underpants — literally and figuratively.

* I once worked with a good actor who had a serious emotional wall. In real life, he was a true gentleman: the kind of guy who would run into a burning building to save a child. But in the play we were doing, his character had to watch while another man molested his girlfriend.

The actor had immense trouble with the scene (and I don’t blame him). He was supposed to stand there and do nothing. He kept coming to me and saying things like, “What if I try to fight, but some of the bad guy’s henchmen hold me down?” I couldn’t let him do that. The point of the scene was that his character was totally cowed by the bad guy. His character simply loses his nerve — becomes unmanned. The actor didn’t want to explore being unmanned, and he didn’t want the audience to see him that way. It was a problem!

2. Pushing. Stanislavsky, the great Russian acting theorist, helped us understand that acting works better when actors pursue goals rather than try to emote.

Bad actors think their job is to emote. And when they’re “not feeling it,” they force it. See Mel (“Give me back my son!”) Gibson and Nicholas Cage.

3. Lack of confidence. It simply takes time to feel comfortable on stage or in front of a camera. There are many actors who will be wonderful some day, if they stick with the craft, but they simply don’t have confidence yet. The stage makes them nervous, which causes them to hold back. It cases them to protect themselves. (See point #1.)

I’ve lived with an actress for almost 20 years now. We met in grad school, so I saw her act when she was first starting. She was obviously talented then, as she is now, but it’s been fascinating to watch her confidence grow. There was a time when she couldn’t have carried a show — she couldn’t have played Lady Macbeth or Kate (the Shrew in “Taming of the Shrew”) because, even though she was talented, she would have thought, “Who am I kidding?” Now, she commands roles like Beatrice and Clytemnestra, and the stage is her home. (When actors start out, the stage is someone else’s home and they’re visiting.)

Of course, even seasoned actors have moments of doubt, but they get to a point, as most people do in most professions, when they feel like “I actually know what I’m doing, I enjoy doing it, and I can do it any time, anywhere, under any conditions, and I can recover from mistakes.” A young actor — even a very talented one — will fall apart if her costume gets torn or she forgets a line. A seasoned one will take it in her stride, and the audience can feel that confidence, even when nothing goes wrong.

Putting this together with my first point, an actor must be confidently vulnerable. That is a tough thing to be!

4. Discomfort with language. This is easy for me to spot, because I mostly direct Shakespeare, but it’s an issue no matter who wrote the script, because words are the actor’s main tools. Some people are comfortable with words: they know how to use them as weapons and aphrodisiacs. Some people love feeling words in their mouths, rolling off their tongues, broadcasting outward. Others trip over them.

5. Discomfort with their bodies. Actors can be of any physical type. There are great skinny actors, great fat actors, great tall actors, great short actors, great beautiful actors and great ugly actors. But however they look, they need to own it and know how to work it. (See John Goodman.)

6. Untrained voices. Humans have a huge vocal range, but most people don’t use theirs. Since an actor’s main tool is speech, he must know how to, in Shakespeare’s words, “Speak the speech … trippingly on the tongue.” (Please get some vocal training, Keanu!)

7. Over-trained voices. On the other hand, you can go too far, training your voice into something that sounds unnatural and actorly, as William Shatner did when he was younger. And thank goodness Vincent Price mostly worked on schlocky horror films. If you want to hear two beautiful (for normal-sounding) voices, see Henry Fonda and Tony Curtis in “The Boston Strangler” or Kenneth Branagh in anything.

8. Pre-planning. Good actors spend a lot of time thinking about motivation, movement, ways to say lines … and then they let it all go and just see what happens. The point of preparation is to make your mind as ready as possible to be unleashed. But if you don’t unleash it, nothing surprising or dangerous can happen. Bad actors don’t understand that planning is the groundwork for inspiration. They stick to the plan, no matter what happens. This is yet another way to escape from vulnerability.

9. Bad actors don’t listen. They deliver a line, pause for the other actor to speak, and then deliver their next line. When they’re not “on,” they’re off. Good actors know that speaking is just 50% of the job. Listening is equally important. Notice how often, in a film, the shot is the listener, not the speaker. Notice how often, when you see live theatre, your eye is drawn to the actor receiving information. You can’t easily fake listening. You have to really do it. It’s dangerous, because if you listen, and the actor you’re listening to speaks in a way he’s never spoken before, you may have to stray from your plan when you respond. See point #8.

10. Bad actors don’t warm up. This only applies to the stage, but it’s crucial. When actors don’t spend ten minutes (or however long they need) vocally and physically warming up, they are not ready to start when the show starts. And then what happens is that the first ten minutes become the warmup. Have you ever seen a play that was good — but it didn’t really click until ten or twenty minutes in? That’s often because the cast didn’t warm up before. Instead, they did it on your time (and on your dime).

In acting school, actors learn to warm up. Too many of them quit doing it once they graduate, hubristically saying, “I don’t need to warm up.” They think of warmups as schoolish and childish. They think they can get away with hanging out in their dressing rooms, chatting and eating pizza — and then strolling onto the stage. They can’t.

Contrast them with Derek Jacobi, who used to speak the entire text of “King Lear” — well, his part in it, anyway (he was playing Lear) — before the show started. By the time the audience arrived, he was “in the zone.”

11. Finally, good actors are smart, have great taste, love collaborating, are extremely hard-working, are humble (not divas), are generous, are inventive, are playful, are adventurous, have sense of timing, and a sense of humor. Bad actors are lacking one or more of those traits.

A 1945 Code of Ethics for Theatre Workers

 

  1. I shall never miss a performance.
  2. I shall play every performance with energy, enthusiasm and to the best of my ability regardless of size of audience, personal illness, bad weather, accident, or even death in my family.
  3. I shall forego all social activities which interfere with rehearsals or any other scheduled work at the theatre, and I shall always be on time.
  4. I shall never make a curtain late by my failure to be ready on time.
  5. I shall never miss an entrance.
  6. I shall never leave the theatre building or the stage area until I have completed my performance, unless I am specifically excused by the stage manager; curtain calls are a part of the show.
  7. I shall not let the comments of friends, relatives or critics change any phase of my work without proper consultation; I shall not change lines, business, lights, properties, settings or costumes or any phase of the production without consultation with and permission of my director or producer or their agents, and I shall inform all people concerned.
  8. I shall forego the gratification of my ego for the demands of the play.
  9. I shall remember my business is to create illusion; therefore, I shall not break the illusion by appearing in costume and makeup off-stage or outside the theatre.
  10. I shall accept my director’s and producer’s advice and counsel in the spirit in which it is given, for they can see the production as a whole and my work from the front.
  11. I shall never “put on an act” while viewing other artists’ work as a member of an audience, nor shall I make caustic criticism from jealousy or for the sake of being smart.
  12. I shall respect the play and the playwright and, remembering that “a work of art is not a work of art until it is finished,” I shall not condemn a play while it is in rehearsal.
  13. I shall not spread rumor or gossip which is malicious and tends to reflect discredit on my show, the theatre, or any personnel connected with them-either to people inside or outside the group.
  14. Since I respect the theatre in which I work, I shall do my best to keep it looking clean, orderly and attractive regardless of whether I am specifically assigned to such work or not.
  15. I shall handle stage properties and costumes with care for I know they are part of the tools of my trade and are a vital part of the physical production.
  16. I shall follow rules of courtesy, deportment and common decency applicable in all walks of life (and especially in a business in close contact with the public) when I am in the theatre, and I shall observe the rules and regulations of any specific theatre where I work.
  17. I shall never lose my enthusiasm for theatre because of disappointments.

Dressing Up

glenda-jackson-c1968-8“Acting is not about dressing up. Acting is about stripping bare. The whole essence of learning lines is to forget them so you can make them sound like you just thought of them that instant.”

– Glenda Jackson

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“Alice in Wonderland” Workshop

We will have the fall play workshop August 19-22 in the HHS Auditorium.

Tuesday August 19th – Friday August 22nd 12pm-4pm

As with every year, if you attend the whole workshop you will automatically be cast in the show!

The workshop is a week long this year because we will be creating “Alice in Wonderland” from scratch!  We will need to make a script and create everything!  This summer I’ve started my Masters of Fine Arts in Dance/Choreography and will bring so many amazing ways to start creating and devising theatre.  Be prepared to move and have your world turned upside down!

I am so excited!

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Alice Quote

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33 Ways to Stay Creative

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Something new every day

Today… today I started my MFA program… 6 intense weeks of classes and rehearsals seven days a week.  I’ve been told it’ll challenge me and we will all cry, but today on my first day I was awed and exhilarated.  Why?

I learned something that changed my whole being.  Call me naive, or uncultured, but today I learned that a book didn’t have to have any words.  Heck, a book didn’t even need to have pages!

In my directing for choreographers class today we met in the Special Collections section of the UWM library.  “Can you read a book without text?”  we were asked.  “No.”  “Why not?  It still has a story to tell, the blank pages, the binding, the smell.”  The list went on.  Then the fun came.  We were introduced to Artist Books.

I’m not going to say anything about Artist Books, just look at some of the collection UWM has.  Maybe you already know what an Artist Book is, maybe you are like me and will learn today.  But I hope you enjoy these amazing books!

An Artist Book and Container. It folded out into a pop-up book

An Artist Book and Container. It folded out into a pop-up book

One of the Pop-up book pages

One of the Pop-up book pages

An old Barbie Coloring book, "Colored in" with contrasting magazine clippings.

An old Barbie Coloring book, “Colored in” with contrasting magazine clippings.

One of my favorite!  A pill bottle Book!

One of my favorite! A pill bottle Book!

These were the pills inside

These were the pills inside

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Favorite!  Using the chop sticks you took out a cloth wonton and pulled out the scroll inside.  It had text or drawings on it.

Another Favorite! Using the chop sticks, you took out a cloth wonton and pulled out the scroll inside. It had text or drawings on it.

“But that’s not a book!” you are all saying.  And my professor would ask you, “Why not?”

Here are some things from the Inter-web that describes Artist Books.

WARNING: Artist’s books should come with a warning label. Once you know what they are, be warned, you have the burden of trying to explain them to others.

Essentially, artist’s books are contemporary art. If they are art, then they must be made by artists. If they resemble books at times, then they might be defined as books, or publications, made by artists. But what if they are made by philosophers or writers?

Another way to explain artist’s books is by elimination, that is, by stating what they are not:

They are not children’s books
They are not sketch books.
They are not diaries.
They are not blank books.
They are not exhibition catalogs.
They are not reproductions of a body of an artist’s work.
They are not art books(a common misnomer).
However, they may parody or play with any of the above, as well as all other standard categories such as novels, self-help books, non-fiction, cookbooks, operating manuals, manifestos, travel guides, essays, etc. Artist’s books function in the same way as contemporary art: as an expression of someone’s creativity, often with social commentary, but sometimes in a purely abstract way, in absence of words or recognizable imagery.

Artists’ books have employed a wide range of forms, including scrolls, fold-outs, concertinas or loose items contained in a box as well as bound printed sheet. Artists have been active in printing and book production for centuries, but the artist’s book is primarily a late 20th-century form.

“Artists’ books are books or book-like objects over the final appearance of which an artist has had a high degree of control; where the book is intended as a work of art in itself.” Stephen Bury

Thanks to today I have a new outlook on books, art, and everything in between.  I know I’ll make an artist book of my own!  Maybe that can be a summer project for all of you!  What would your Artist Book be?

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