– The Reality of Doing

Written and Narrated by Joseph Dean Coburn



“People say they can’t make bread or biscuits, or anything really, but you just have to learn the feel,” Maggard says. “That comes by doing.”

To Act is to do, to take action, to respond, to react.  Literally, therefore, one is made to act, in any given moment, by some external influence.  Acting is not something you do but rather something you are made to do.  Acting is something that happens to you, not something you make happen.

Sanford Meisner, possibly the best teacher of acting who the U.S. has produced, defined acting this way, “Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances”.  Mr. Meisner invented that definition to aid beginning students’ understanding, to help them wrap their heads around his approach to training for the actor.  Later, he would refine his definition as, “The reality of doing”.

When you really do something, even though your circumstances are imaginary, you behave real.  When you fake doing something, your behavior is unmistakably fake.

One cannot fake sincerity.  Neither can you indicate, pose, nor represent: anger, sorrow, disgust, or elation.  The actor cannot model emotion the way one models clothing, dressing the human experience to the moment the way one selects wardrobe for an event.  Polite society asks that we routinely pretend, but theater and film demand that we behave more truthfully than polite society permits.

Each of us employs a lifetime of experience at pretending.  Life teaches us to do that and how to do that.  No one is fooled by our pretending; this is especially true in theater and critical on film.  The camera acts like a microscope on the human experience.  It is impossible to fake emotion when your close-up is 40 feet high and 90 feet across.

Living truthfully in the imaginary circumstances of theater and film requires new training.  There are no transferable skills from life to the stage or screen.  You practice the fundamentals until you “learn the feel”, as Maggard says.

You start by introducing yourself to the other actor.  Call it “Getting Connected”.  If acting is the stuff that takes place between the lines of the script the scene takes place between the actors.  The first time you see that connection between two students you are struck with two things, the ease with which learning takes place and the level of humanity that is engaged, right from the start.  Humanity is just another word for the talent of the actor.

This level of organic understanding is possible because one’s humanity is there from birth.  We don’t have to relive some memory to get into contact with ourselves or anyone else.  It’s starts simply by really listening to one’s working partner.  Students immediately begin to take things personally and react instinctively and emotionally when they really do a thing, in this case, listening.

We begin with the end in mind, then every measure, every class, every exercise is designed to build and support that end.  The end is to turn your acting into a real thing happening.

Formal training for the actor should bring the actor and the audience to the same conclusion, that the events depicted were really happening.  Not predictable but sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat unpredictable.

The ability to permit one’s own instinctive responses, behavior and emotions, in an imaginary circumstance, is uniquely human. Acting is an expression of humanity; it investigates human constructs, philosophy, art, language. Acting is integrated with the natural processes of physics and chemistry and certainly in social relations.

Engage your humanity, engage your talent. The talent of the actor is his or her humanity. Your willingness to be touched, effected, moved, inspired, or emotionalized by something, some behavior or emotion, that is taking place outside of you, that is your humanity. It is from your humanity and your empathy, that you will get all your instinctual responsiveness.

Instinctual responsiveness is the single most highly regarded quality of great actors.

When the audience sees a real reaction on screen or stage it is galvanizing. From that moment forward the audience is connected to the story and the actor.

In order to train as an artist of any description, and an actor in particular, one must begin with the end in mind. To do that one must define great acting, since it is great acting toward which we aspire.

In an interview with Connie Chung in the 1970’s Marlon Brando was asked to define the difference between the great actor and the good actor. Brando’s answer was, “For the great actor, it’s really happening to them.”

In a print interview in the 1980’s, Robert Duvall was asked to define the difference between good and great acting. Duvall’s answer was that for the great actor it’s a real experience.

In the 1990’s, Charlie Rose asked Rod Steiger what the difference was between good acting and great acting. Steiger’s response was that for the great actor the experience is a real one.

When you really do something it makes you behave real.  It starts with training, building your entire approach on the principle that Art Expresses Human Experience.  Living out the circumstances of the scene so completely that audience and actor, script and screen are integrated and become galvanized.

That’s the Reality of Doing.


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How we talk about acting ...

Born in a trunk on West 76th in 1952, I grew up on stage. My gods were Paul Osborne, Herb Gardner, John Steinbeck, and Tennessee Williams. They created me. My parents were teachers, directors, and actors.

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