As to my formal education as an actor, well, I haven’t been schooled in a single approach. I have at various times cluttered up the theater departments of four separate colleges or universities, yet I never came close to actually getting a degree. Basically, I approached my theatrical education by taking the advice of the late Marty Molson, who I worked with when he was a theater professor at Wayne State University. His advice to me went something like this: “I’ve watched you work, Chuck, and you’re like a sponge, absorbing everything around you. My advice to you is to not lock yourself away in college for four years, but to work with as many different kinds of directors as you can.”
My approach to acting, then, is less a coordinated approach and more a collection of tips & tricks and gut instincts that I try to integrate into a complete performance. Here’s an example: At the first read-through of a new production, the director will almost invariably say something like this: “Now I don’t want any acting tonight. Just read it nice and easy and listen to the show.” In my experience, that just doesn’t happen. The actors always end up trying to act. I think they do this because the director has tried to take acting away from them for the night but hasn’t replaced it with anything. Now when I did my first read-through with the aforementioned Mr. Molson, he told us something different: “Tonight, I just want you to make it sound like real people talking. Don’t worry about anything else; just make it sound like talk.”
That may sound like a minor point, but it’s a lesson that has stuck with me, both at first read-throughs and beyond. It’s a note that many an actor has needed to hear – try to sound like a real person.
I’ve worked with some really gifted and demanding directors, and such an experience is always enormously educational, but it can also be instructive to work with a lousy director. For example, there was a certain professional theater in the Detroit area where there was a weird pull toward mediocrity. I saw it happen time after time. Good directors would work there and direct in a mediocre manner. Good actors and designers would work there and their work would often be mediocre as well. Basically, it started at the top. The artistic director was a person who did not demand excellence, either in his own work or in the work of those around him. On top of that, the theatre had a large number of season ticket holders who came faithfully, year after year, to these mediocre productions and loved them. So there was no external force dissuading anyone from laziness. When I first worked there, I felt myself falling prey to those same forces, but something different happened in my case. I found that I was walking in the door with higher standards for myself than anyone else there would ask of me. Working there actually helped me to raise my own personal standards; I felt a strong sense of ownership and pride in my work there. Would I have preferred it if everyone’s standards there were that high? Sure, but I found a way to make working there a growth experience for myself.
I say all of this not to toot my own horn, not at all. I have many limitations as a performer, and I hope I know what most of them are. But I don’t mind saying that I have pride in what I do, and I have standards. I also think that there is a certain benefit to the jumble of styles that have comprised my theatrical education: I think they provide me with a flexibility for communicating with a wide variety of other actors. I’ve worked with people who only know the style and terminology of what they were taught in school, who are unable to communicate with people who speak a different theatrical language. Or worse, they look down their noses at anyone who doesn’t speak their language. I try to remember that theater is, or ought to be, a collaborative art form that takes place in the real world, and the real world is a messy place.
And should the world ever stop being a messy place, the arts will be deeply diminished.