I wish I knew when I started out how important certain things were going to be to my growth as an actor but also just life in general. Long before I fell in love with the theater I wanted to be an actor and never realized how much of acting really just is theater.
When I was fifteen my acting teacher in high school would send me to auditions. I knew nothing of the theater or plays and only what I saw on film and tv. I was a kid and just having fun but knew I loved to act. Layer on, when I started to get into serious acting classes and work on plays my entire life changed. It opened up a whole new world that involved going to the theater instead of the movies. I saw art live an up close. Performances moved me and taught me that acting was so much more than I knew. I felt stupid to be honest, that all those years I really didn’t know anything. Going to the theater was like class and an incredible experience all in one. It was knowledge by experiencing rather than being taught. There wasn’t a teacher there coaching me through a scene but me watching professionals navigate through this world that they so beautiful brought to life right in front of my face. I have always felt more whole as an artist after I have experienced beautiful work on stage. It got to the point that I would go to the Lincoln Center library every week just to watch plays that I had missed on broadway. I got obsessed, I watched all the classics and all the legendary performances people would always talk about. A few years back I was working on Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Days Journey Into Night” and decided to watch the Philip Seymour Hoffman version at the library. As I was standing at the front desk waiting to get a spot there was an older gentlemen standing right next to me. He noticed I was holding a version of the play in my hands. He leaned over and asked, “are you watching Long Days?”. I said yes and then he asked me what version. I said, “the Phil Hoffman version”, he said “cool, I directed that”. At that moment I just bought fell over. Robert Falls the director of the play was standing right beside me. I was elated and we started chatting a bit. I asked him a few questions regarding the play and he was kind of enough to answer. He was a very nice and kind man and also checked in on me while I was watching the play. It was a great experience, one that brought me even closer to the theater and my love for the craft.
Knowledge is key, take in as much artistic knowledge as humanly possible. If you are working on a play in class or have just read a play that you love try to see if there is a production of it somewhere. I know this may not be as easy for people who don’t live in cities where there is a lot of theater, but many cities have a great local theater scene that you can explore. Watching actors perform can sometimes be even more educational than working on a scene yourself. Seeing an actor tell a story and following along can open up levels to your work you did not have before. Watching how they block scenes and play to the audience, or how they use props efficiently. Being in a room where an actor with no microphone fills up an entire theater with their voice without yelling. All of these things will make you respect the art much more and make you realize its much more than we think. Also, its much more difficult than we think. When the play is over and you realize the amount of work that went into the production you will have such a greater respect for the art for than ever before. As you are on your way home after a wonderful show it will suddenly hit you, then have to do all of that eight times a week. Holy crap, that is a ton of work. Eight times a week for four months. Great acting teachers will tell you how important it is to always be in shape, not for your looks but to have the stamina to do a run of a play. Its a wonderful but very difficult task and you must be able to give a great performance every single night. If you aren’t in good shape that will be impossible.
The live experience is something special that you can’t get from movies. Seeing actors perform difficult material will also make you want to push yourself to work on parts that challenge you. Experiencing greatness will make you also want to be great. I credit the theater for always making me want to push myself and go the extra mile. When I see actors do things I can not do, it inspires me to work harder and get to the next level in my work. As an artist you are forever a student. There is no graduation for artists, only elevation. Only growth and experience. Training alone won’t help you grow as fast as if you also study the theater. Go as much as you can, watch what works and what doesn’t. Se what moves you and what doesn’t. If an actor blew you away go see them again and see if they were able to give the same performance two days in a row. My acting teacher told me he once went and saw a play eight times because he wanted to see if the actor could do it day in and day out, and to his amazement he could. Needing to know that sort of thing comes from the love of the craft. The more you go to the theater the more you will want to know.
The theater has been most important for me because it made me realize what kind of actor I want to be. I have seen incredible performances by actors from all walks of life and I realized that the ones I never forgot were the ones that made me FEEL SOMETHING. I would go see plays and see incredibly technical actors on stage. They were on point and the kind of actor that would deliver day in and day out, but many times they wouldn’t move me. I would leave the theater and go well that was a great play and the actors were solid but I didn’t feel anything. Then I would go see a production and one actors performance would just fracture me. I mean they would take me places and make me feel things I had never felt before. After those experiences I knew that was the kind of work I wanted to do. I wanted to be the kind of actor you never forgot. I told myself, I want to give performances people will never forget. Thus, the basis for my work was born.
I have two objectives as an actor.
First, always honor the play, you are a vessel of the playwright. It’s not about you, it is about brining the story and the world the playwright has given you to life. Being truthful under the given circumstances and making sure the message of the playwright has been delivered. If you are working on Tennessee Williams we must get Tennessee. If you are working on O’Neill then O’Neill must come to life. So above everything in your work you must always honor the play.
Second, make them feel something. When people come and see me work I must make them feel something. It is what I have always taken away from great performance at the theater and so it has become part of my ideology. However, you must never sacrifice step one for step two. ALWAYS make people feel something within the context of the play. Do not go off on a solo mission to show people what you can do. It is not about you, it is about the story. Also going on solo missions will not honor the play and therefore will not allow you to make people feel something. They both go together and do not work individually. I have always done my best work when both objectives have been married.
Go to theater, watch, feel, learn. It will open up parts of your brain and heart that are necessary to be a great actor. All your senses are all play at the theater and you need them all for complete work.
Written by Mershad Torabi