Types of Acting - Naturalism, Honesty & Heightened Reality

Naturalism, Honesty & Heightened Reality

Had an interesting chat with an actor in class the other week, who was questioning whether my taste and his taste were compatible for further training. At issue was the topic of “naturalism,” for which my from-the-hip definition would be, “that style of acting where the unadorned presence of the actor, delivering the lines of the script in a ‘real’ way, is all that is required to tell the story.”

I perhaps too often decry naturalism, not because it isn’t useful or in demand, but because it’s boring. I find the acting in most network television to be boring, and the style these days is marked by excessive naturalism. That being said, I’ve written plenty about how actors need to know what project they’re reading for, and if the show is marked by a naturalistic style, they’d better serve it up and give themselves a real shot for a paycheck.

Prior to our conversation, I’d seen this actor do a scene from Guirgis’ “Motherfucker with the Hat” and Mamet’s recent play, “Race.” I don’t believe either of those writers deals in naturalism as a style, and in both, I felt this actor’s naturalistic tendency was inhibiting the full expression of the writing.  So I redirected both scenes as part of the critique, complete with line-readings, because I’m that guy – the jerk who’ll give line-readings from here to Timbuktu if that’s what it takes. The actor was not pleased – hence our conversation.

He felt “naturalism” was more closely related to “honesty.” To be natural was to be honest, to be real, and that was the start point of all good acting. So he hears “natural” and thinks “honest,” and I say “natural” and mean “boring.” So…. You can see why he’s wondering whether to continue!

I enjoy conversations like this, actually, because I figure there are others who think just as this guy does, but he happened to be forthright enough to come and speak to me about it. So to be clear:  We both want the work to be honest, to represent real people in real situations, so the audience believes what is happening in the story. To me that’s a good expression of the ultimate simplicity of acting’s purpose: “To make the audience believe the story.” That is a very agreeable startpoint for me in judging acting – do I believe what’s going on here? And yeah, simple naturalistic acting, if that’s what the writing and the story require, is often good enough to make me believe. Job done.

I just happen also to think we go to the movies and to the theatre for something a touch beyond that which we see every day at Starbucks. And it’s not just the stories that will take us there, but some vivid acting – this is particularly true in theatre, which as a form is auditory, versus tv/film, which is a visual medium. So in theatre I believe we really have to hear the play, and each has its own music, its own rhythm. Playwrights are often much freer to express themselves at length, and in order to bring the music to life, something beyond simple reality is necessary. And, further, I believe that actors who can use good writing to expand their expression will be better suited and more valuable even to those naturalistic styles and shows, because every so often you need a little ka-pow, and a little rhythm, and some more expressive style….

So in class when I decry ‘naturalism,’ it’s only that for most advanced level actors, to sit there and be ‘real’ is not so much a chore, and I don’t want to be the guy who collects tuition to validate what they can already do. I think a class should also serve to expand those boundaries, and encourage actors to look at writing that allows, even demands, that expansion. For actors starting out, getting them to be natural on stage, and able to bring to life a simple conversation without artifice – this is very important. So this essay is somewhat directed toward the more advanced actor in class. For many of these actors, the job of getting work on a naturalistic network show is more a matter of administrative discipline and getting out there than it is one of acting ability. Terrific careers can happen on the usage of 30% of your talent, but I think actors need to be in the gym, working out 100% of the talent in order for even that 30% to shine the way they want.

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3 thoughts on “Naturalism, Honesty & Heightened Reality

  1. Jennifer Gelfer

    Amazing. I literally had this same conversation with a student in my class. You put it so well. I plan to send it to everyone in my class

  2. Alex

    Wow, this is so true. As a playwright I write dialogue where I need actors to be aware of exactly this.
    This is a great article, and if you write comedic plays you need actors to get the comedy which is often not naturalistic.


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