Why Study?

Who Needs to Study When You Can get Acting Jobs Anyway?
by William Esper

A few months ago a young man in his mid-twenties came to interview with me at my New York studio. He admitted that he knew almost nothing about acting; indeed he had only acted on one occasion and that was in a high school play.

He had been modeling and, to his credit, found it empty and boring. But he seemed sensitive and was handsome and, seemingly, he wanted to give acting a serious try. I put him on a wait list and a few weeks later, I had my assistant call him. He called back to say that his agent and his manager both felt that he did not have time to take an acting class, as he would be too busy auditioning!

The most depressing aspect of this episode was that this young man’s case was not unique. I am often told by actors who have done little, and whose training consists of random 2 or 3 week workshops in auditioning or soap opera acting, that it is impossible for them to commit themselves to even 8 months of training.

America is, after all, a ‘hurry up’ place. This is especially true today when we are inundated with youthful millionaires. Sadly, many neophyte actors share Willy Loman’s destructive version of the American Dream, and believe with him that what counts is not what you know, but who you know. Acting is after all an escapist profession and many young actors who come to it are lost in fantasy. Indeed, most young actors decide to become actors for all the wrong reasons. They want to be admired and be famous. They hope to make lots of money appearing in movies. And it is an attractive fantasy to get lost in. After all, it is much easier to declare that you are an actor than it is to become a brain surgeon or lawyer – or so they believe.

These actors are abetted in their delusions by the fact that virtuosity in acting is concealed. When one sees a wonderful actor like Robert Duvall, or Cherry Jones, one has no impression that they are acting. They seem to be the character. They create the illusion of a reality so well that they seem not to be acting at all. Stanislavsky speaks of seeing the Italian Tragedian, Thomaso Salvini, in Othello and asking himself: “But when does he begin to act?” Only when Salvini was in the midst of his address to the senators did Stanislavski realize that he was witnessing a great performance. It is for this reason that so many people believe that they too could be an actor – if, alas, they could just remember the lines!

On the opposite side, is the fact that when one sees a superb dancer, pianist or singer, one recognizes you cannot just leap from your seat, rush to the stage and do what Baryshnikov or Joan Sutherland or Yo Yo Ma does. It is unmistakably clear one would have to study intensively for a very long time to duplicate anything even resembling their performances. One of the reasons that audiences like British actors is that when they hear them speak, they are filled with admiration because their virtuosity is apparent.

Most of the time when you see a play, you will see 1 or 2 actors who are really trained, and are really good. Then there are several more who are talented and would be good if they only knew how to work with themselves. The rest are merely Equity members, who contribute nothing beyond their lines. The reality is that bad and poorly trained actors do get jobs. Even people who have no training at all may get work and achieve certain notoriety, if not respect, for their accomplishments.

Of course, there is such a thing as being self-taught. I am told that Franco Corelli never took a singing lesson from anyone but himself because he did not trust teachers. So, if one can get work without studying then why in heavens name should anyone bother?

There are several very good reasons. Many experienced actors, who have trained seriously in the past, return to the laboratory of a classroom in order to reawaken their instruments. There is much commercial work, which pays the bills but does not nurture the soul.

Some years ago, a very well known actor came to me after walking out of a show that was in rehearsal. He had won a Tony award and had received a good deal of acclaim. He complained that he felt his work had gone completely dead and he had come to a point where he either had to reinvigorate himself, or give up the business. Less than a year later, he was nominated for another Tony award, and subsequently has had a wonderful continuing career on stage and in film.

The second reason, of course, is to gain mastery of one’s craft. There is such a thing as a professional craft of acting and there are teachers who can teach it. One very important practical benefit is that a skillful teacher can, in 2 years, lead an actor to a place in his work that he might, if he is talented, achieve in 7 or 8 years of working on his own.

Good training opens possibilities in an actor that he might not even dream of. Actors are like icebergs. In other words, the best part of them (or any artist) is the 90% below the surface of the unconscious. Good training can teach an actor methods by which he can access the unconscious part of himself and bring it to his work, enabling the actor to bring his entire self into the service of his craft. This can be a thrilling journey, and one that can enrich the actor for the rest of his life. Another important reason to train is that it builds confidence. There is truly nothing like really knowing what you are doing, to lift your confidence. Conversely, it can be very frightening to be suddenly placed in an important project with enormous pressures on you to produce, and at the same time, knowing that you really don’t know what you are doing. It can be like a bad dream where suddenly someone says,”Here – you fly the plane.”

Of course, inspiration plays an important part in every artist’s work. There are those times when an actor picks up a script and there is an immediate flash of recognition. He knows exactly what to do. Every actor must thank the gods for these lightening flashes of inspiration. But what if the lightening flash doesn’t happen so quickly? Or, worse yet, what if it never strikes at all? Training of the right sort can put a floor under an actor’s work.

I have been privileged to teach many actors who went on to wonderful careers and, without exception, they were dedicated students who possessed a fanatical drive to learn everything that they possibly could about the practice of their art. Make no mistake; in the best of hands, acting is a creative art. It is the actors’ creative imagination that collaborates with the imagination of the author whom they serve, to produce a living work of art. But, like all art, true excellence in its practice only comes through true mastery of technical craft. It is this pursuit that may give to the actor a sense of dignity and self-respect. An actor’s self esteem is constantly bombarded by the daily incidents that occur in the pursuit of their work. At least when you have trained seriously, you can say, “I know my job. You can entrust me with a role under the most arduous and demanding professional circumstances. I will not just show up and learn my lines, but I will make a genuinely artistic contribution to the proceedings.”

A favorite quote of mine from Stanislavski is from a speech he gave near the end of his life: “I have lived a long life, was rich, got poor; seen a lot of the world, had a wonderful family, children, that life has scattered all over the world. I have longed for fame, found it – been honored young and now I am getting old. I know my time on earth is running out. Now ask me wherein we find happiness? It is in knowledge and understanding art and the labor of cognizing it. While learning about oneself, one can learn nature and the meaning of life – We can cognize the soul. There is no happiness above all this.”
 At some point, believe me, it is a lot better sooner than later, one must take the time to focus intently on the mastery of one’s craft. To achieve mastery of one’s craft is an honorable and richly rewarding undertaking, which can pay enormous dividend to the serious artist.

Reprinted from an article that originally appeared in The Soul Of The American Actor