Expectations for the Actor: 10 Basic Qualities
(Originally written for Drama Box's eNewsletter Dec 2012)
Written by Nelson Chia
Translated By Neo Haibin
When I first encountered theatre, I was an actor. Then I started to direct and teach, and in 2012, I set up "Nine Years Theatre" and became its artistic director. Over the years, I have always considered my primary role to be an actor, because I strongly believe that the actor is the most important bridge between the performance and the audience.
In the past 20 years, there has been a great change in the Mandarin theatre scene. There are more professional theatre companies, more acting opportunities, and more variety in performance styles. Recent productions emphasized more on the elements of playwrighting, directing, and scenography. Such developments often fail to move the actor to think about the basic nature of his/her role.
Hence, one of the philosophies of "Nine Years Theatre" is to bring the focus of the performance back to the actor, and at the same time giving more attention to the issues of actor development and training.
In this article, I would like to touch on the expectations of for the qualities of an actor. But I would also like to highlight that the below-mentioned qualities are not exhaustive of all aspects of a professional actor. They are instead a review of some of my thoughts over the years. I would like to thank Drama Box's e-Newsletter for giving me a chance to sort out my thoughts and also to provide a guiding principle for any actor's development in the future.
I believe that a good actor should be:
1. One who respects time and space
Performance is an art of time and space. An actor has to be sensitive to time and space on stage, and even more so in the preparations and rehearsals before any performance. Be punctual for rehearsals; be ready for rehearsal by doing warm-ups, be focused and get into the state of mind for rehearsal; pay attention to his/her progress, complete homework or preparations, designate time for practice, pay attention to the pace of his/her life in order to be in an optimal condition. To respect time is also to respect his/her art, as well as to respect the audience and all other parties.
The theatre is a space for the coexistence and the exchanges between the performance and the audience to happen. Hence, from paying attention to the sanctity of the theatre to abiding by the safety regulations of the theatre —these are all a form of respect as well. Of course, the respect for space begins in the rehearsal space. Upon seeing the space dirty and therefore taking the initiative to clean it up is never a "chore" to the actor, but a practice.
2. One who keeps challenging his own limits
The actor must recognise his/her own abilities and also be conscious of his/her own limitations. However, limitations do not necessary mean restrictions—the latter is passive by nature, whilst the former is, on the contrary, an indication for the actor to keep challenging and surpass himself/herself.
In actual fact, what we mean by "limitations" is often only the boundary of surface abilities—the greatest capability of the actor lies in the core potential that is usually concealed. Through appropriate practices, these potentials can be uncovered and put to use. The human survival instinct is the tendency to stay in the safest and most comfortable state, but such a state is not the element of dramatic actions. Hence, staying consciously aware that one needs to keep challenging one's limits will keep the actor in a dynamic state. This is also the start of an actor’s path to becoming an artist.
3. One who takes the initiative to create, while embracing the group
Taking the initiative in creation refers to the confidence of the actor. The actor has to believe that he/she is one who possesses the ability to create, for a very simple reason: if the actor does not believe in what he/she creates, how can he/she expect the audience to believe what is shown on stage? Therefore, while respecting the playwright and the director, the actor, when given the final, rehearsed play at the end, then needs to have the full confidence to take it up. This confidence does not require the praise of the director and the performance team to grow; neither will it shrivel when the audience is unresponsive; nor should it be led and steered by theatre critiques. Such confidence contains in itself a tinge of innocence and stubbornness, but it is the basic responsibility of an actor.
However, such confidence should not grow to become arrogance and self-centeredness. Theatre is a collective art, so an actor begins with self-confidence, but at the same time should always keep the group in mind—start with the individual, with the collective at the end.
4. One with firm beliefs in the social values of the art
To ask an actor to believe in the values of the art is not to ask him/her to develop an "artist's temper"; neither is it to advocate the notion of "doing arts for arts' sake". Instead, it is simply to ask the actor to always be conscious of the social effects that the arts have. Our appreciation of the arts is based on our own social experience. Therefore, the actor has to understand that the theatre has a very intrinsic relationship with the human society, and is not something that is incidental. In other words, an actor is also someone who builds the society, and hence a profession by nature. If this is apparent to the actor, he/she will be able to understand why he/she stands on the stage, and hence should have a clearer goal, and develop a strong sense of responsibility.
5. One who has a thirst for knowledge
Drama has its roots in life, and life is all-encompassing. Hence the actor needs to have a passion for knowledge. The actor needs to know something about humanity, society, history, literature, etc, to be curious about life, the unpredictability of nature, the mystery of the universe; to be able to perceive the emotions, desires, relationships between family and friends, love and hate, etc. Cultivating the thirst for knowledge is not only useful in cultivating the morality of the actor; it also reinforces the body and sensitivity of the actor. The more the actor takes in, process and internalize, the deeper the actor's creations will be.
6. One who undergoes training
I mentioned that the actor has to keep challenging his/her limitations. This is the kind of attitude the actor needs to have before taking up training. Training is different from taking lessons. To take part in short-term workshops or going abroad for studies is defined as learning. Training is what happens thereafter, referring to the repetitive discovering and practices in a certain skill set or knowledge. Most importantly, an actor's training needs to be consistent, long-termed, and systematic. If any of these three factors is lacking, there will not be accumulation and progress, and the training result would then be unsatisfactory.
7. One who has a strong and stable core, good control over breath, and inner sensibility
This is with regards to the quality of the performing skill.
The performing skill of an actor can be summarised as three basic qualities: firstly, the capacity for a strong core. The core of the body and the source of energy lie in the abdomen below the diaphragm. A strong and stable core allows the actor to be grounded during a performance.
Secondly, the ability to control his/her breath. Whether it is with regard to vocal ability, physicality, or even psychological activities, all of these require the changing of the breath as a basis. Dramatic rhythms such as tension, expansion, accumulation, outburst, infiltration, etc— all of these require the breath to direct. When the actor is able to control his/her breathing, he/she will be able to steer the drama on stage, too.
Thirdly, the possession of an inner sensibility —to have concrete and minute perceptions regarding the language of the script, the co-actors, the given circumstances of the scenes, the energy of the audience, etc. The actor should develop inner sensibility so that he/she can understand the play, appreciate the play, and live with the play.
8. One who is free in thought, broad in mind
Besides referring to an active imagination, being free in thought also refers to an actor unconstrained by his belief, background and habits, all of which may lead to narrow-mindedness. Keeping one's own opinions while being able to listen and accept others' views—when interacting with people, it is best to keep an open heart, avoid being overly scheming or pessimistic, avoid falling foul of each other, or gossiping behind others, or creating small factions or cliques. Instead, it is more beneficial to be magnanimous when dealing with matters and to be honest to others, simply so that you can utilise your energy on artistic creations instead.
9. One who is irresistible to the audience
When evaluating an actor's performance, I would often ask myself: as an audience, if I have a choice, would I rather be elsewhere at this moment? A good book would be gripping enough to keep one glued to one's seat; similarly, a good actor would be compelling enough for the audience to keep their attention on him/her. To be able to do so requires the combination of all that was mentioned above. However, the presence on stage must first of all require three basic capabilities: commitment, precision, and passion.
Commitment is not only about concentration, but is also the first and foremost criteria for an actor in creating a world on stage. Precision refers to detail, something that determines the success of a performance. Passion is the energy and faith, and most importantly the bridge to interact with the audience. Lacking any of these three capabilities, one would not be sufficiently competent to be on stage.
10. One who does not find excuses for oneself
Of all the qualities that were mentioned above, most would require long-term energy and patience to cultivate. Based on this fact, an actor is indeed a profession. However most people do not hold it in such regard, there are even actors who do not treat their work as a profession. This may be the biggest paradox in the actor's identity: the intrinsic qualities of the actor are often concealed or confused by the trend of cult worships, controversial talks and sensational topics, market interests, effects of fame and stereotypical concepts, etc. An actor has become one who is not required to have any basic acting skills or the right attitude. And because of this, some actors come to believe that they have a reason not to develop any of these qualities since acting is no longer of importance. Of course, whether one has enough reasons to disregard these qualities is up to the individual's judgments. It is also difficult to differentiate between reason and excuse. Hence, an actor is reminded to examine himself/herself closely at all times, and to avoid letting excuses become a habit, and an impediment to becoming a good actor.
Initially, I intended to talk about my personal acting experiences. But I felt that it is too narrow to talk only of myself, and more meaningful instead to talk about the overall condition of the actor, hence the reason why I wrote down these 10 qualities. I am very clear that if I were to ask these qualities from the actors, I should first of all be able to fulfill them, since I am also an actor. Am I able to fulfill these expectations? Basically, I can say that I have achieved them to my best, though not to perfection. An actor is after all human. I have my temperament, bad habits, laziness, etc. I may be able to fulfill them today, but unable to persevere tomorrow. To list down these qualities is to provide a reminder to myself, as well as to other actors. These qualities are not rules but ideals, and very important ideals as such.
It is not a matter of abilities that determines if one can persevere in fulfilling these ideals, but a question of attitude. We all know that with the exception of celebrities, stage actors can hardly achieve great fame and fortune. Since the actor is not after fame or money, he/she is of course doing it for the arts. Since it is for the arts, then one has to constantly upgrade and set demands for oneself. If not, why become a stage actor? So once the actor has thought through this, he/she would naturally have the right attitude, and instinctively go about developing these qualities. Judging by this, if there are any problems encountered during the process, it is also a matter of attitude. In the tenth quality, I mentioned that a good actor would not find excuses for failures, and by that I am referring to the common characteristic in people, including myself. To overcome challenges, one has to be convinced enough to do it in the first place.
In fact, as the environment changes for the actor, expectations of for the actors should change as well. But I believe that there are certain basic qualities that are worth nurturing. I would not expect everyone to agree with what I said, but as an actor, we need to constantly consider these questions. Art is the continuous act of discovery; only when one is active in thought would one then be able to deliver a sound piece of work.