The Secret Weapon Actors Don’t Know They Have

Have you ever had one of those moments that truly changed you at your core? I’m talking about one of those moments that makes you feel like an idiot when you think about how you used to see things? I mean the kind of awakening that makes you think that the government is behind some kind of conspiracy designed to keep you in the dark? Well, I had one of those moments, and it came from reading this one book…

 As actors, our skill set mainly consists of our ability to act; to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. So when it comes to training, we should be learning how to act, right? That’s what I thought until I read a book titled, “How to Stop Acting“, by Harold Guskin. In it, Guskin–a veteran playwright and acting coach to the stars–shuns standardized approaches like The Method or The Stanislavsky System in lieu of something a little more visceral: “Any theory or analysis puts the actor is his mind, not his instinct”. Guskin claims that an actor’s talent is their ability to rely on their instinct above all else. But for anybody seeking truth, instinct can be a scary thing: “For all of us, anything instinctive feels dangerous. We can’t control it. Therefore the mind, reacting to danger, will often reject instinct and opt for the safe, thought-out choice,” says Guskin.

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Come in here! It’s safe
Am I the only one guilty of this? Making those bold choices fueled by instinct is a difficult thing to do–especially when you are living inside your fear. I guess I have to learn to trust my natural inclination to the text. I mean, according to Guskin, often times that first gut reaction to the text is most likely the right one: “The actor has to start from his visceral response to the material. This is why he must reject intellectual choices at the beginning of his work.” He goes on to say, “He must allow himself to be in an exploratory state, unsure of what he is going to do; this forces him to trust his initial responses to the dialogue…”.  Following Guskin’s approach, we see that trying to develop a character through analysis is probably the worst thing an actor can do. If this holds to be true, why are we not taught to rely on our instinct in training?

In a strange twist of fate, I would say a lot of emphasis for an actor’s training is placed on at least one standardized approach that stresses analysis over action. Not only is this sentiment reinforced by educators, it is inherently embedded within the script says Guskin: “Reading the script is an intellectual process that inevitably leads the actor to approach both character and script as we have been taught in school–in an analytical way”. In a further point, he goes on to make his boldest claim, “Analysis weakens the actor”. Now I don’t think this means we shouldn’t try to understand our character’s thoughts. But I do think that we should also begin to take advantage of an actor’s greatest weapon–his instinct.

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