Here’s a question I think actors should ask themselves more often:
What is required of me by this story?
Asking this question can lead to a much faster understanding of “what to play” than will hours of mental gymnastics regarding “what is my internal truth regarding the character/situation”? I’m not trying to knock that traditional question, but I find there to be a major pitfall with singular “what is my personal truth?” analysis:
Sometimes your own truth about a given situation is simply not appropriate to the story before you. Take your standard relationship fight: You might have a personal truth about this that leads you to play contempt and anger and vitriol – after all, it’s what happened to you in a similar situation in your life. Last month you had a breakup and it was nasty. Or it’s what you observed in your parents’ marriage. Problem: The scene is from Barefoot in the Park, if you play it with contempt and bile, the scene dies a horrible death – there’s no fun in it, there’s no comedy. But on the other hand, if the scene before you is Revolutionary Road, then all that contempt is exactly what it needed. If you’re funny with Revolutionary Road then we’re in as much trouble as we are when you are contemptuous with Barefoot in the Park. And yet both stories deal with a marriage in trouble.
This goes to the item on Milton’s famed checklist: Who’s the Author? When he and I rewrote his book Acting Class in 2008, we spent a week contemplating whether to put Who’s the Author? first on the checklist, because the writer’s sensibility is so important to understanding the Event (“What’s going on?”), which had always been #1. In the end, we decide to leave Event as #1, but the fact remains: the Event is informed hugely by who is writing about it.
So in addition to asking yourself, “Here’s this marital fight. What do I know about marital fights? What fights have I had with lovers? What is my truth about this?”… ask this: “What does Barefoot in the Park require of me?” Because I think immediately you would go to answers like, “Well, it’s a comedy. Okay – I know that comedies generally require highly evaluated points of view in conflict with each other. Simon has a line in here – ‘What are you so angry about, Paul?’ I guess Paul should clearly be angry before that. And then his line, ‘We’re just yelling a bit’ – I guess we’d better be yelling to earn that line. And here Simon writes, ‘you belong in a nursery school’ – so Corie needs to reveal the emotional life of a four-year-old… At the end of the scene Corie says she’s going to have the biggest cry of her whole life – so I’d better be building through the scene to that over-the-top fit of emotion.” And those are the answers you need. Your personal truth is frankly much less important than servicing the script in front of you, and its very specific needs.
None of this means you’re suddenly going to act in a phony, artificial manner. It’s still required that you investigate honestly and believably the premise of the play, but you must do so in the correct style. What I’m saying is that if we accept that there is your truth about a situation and how it goes, there is also an equal (or greater) truth: how to pull off this particular script. I offer humbly that the latter is of equal (or more) importance. And it may save you a lot of needless roaming around your own psychology and its myriad traumas. Not that actors would ever do that. Hah!
For those who have sat on the other side of the casting table from the actor, I’m sure we all have those moments of quiet joy when an actor comes in and “gets it.” For myself, I rarely am concerned about whether the acting is good or not good – bad acting will never win you a job. But amongst the good actors, the ones who get called back are the ones whose choices were not only honestly portrayed, but right for this story.