Updated: Jan 6, 2021
We all start out as beginners. For actors especially, those stumbling, bumbling first steps can be somewhat cringe-worthy. There are some common features that are sure signs of a beginner. But with a devotion to the craft and enough experience, actors can get a surer footing. Hopefully this post can get you there a little faster.
Here are a few acting mistakes beginning actors often make:
1. Not breathing.
Whether because of nerves or a lack of awareness, beginning actors often forget to breathe. No, I don't mean they're actually asphyxiating themselves. I mean that the breathing is often shallow or misaligned with the acting. This results in a stiff and stifled performance. The breath is fundamental to a character. For a great performance, the breath should be aligned with the character's intentions and actions. Every inhalation is the intake of a thought. Behind every inhalation there is the intention to speak and achieve something with that speech. Figure out what that intention is.
Practicing yoga is a great way to become more aware of your breath and allow it to become more integrated with your body's movements. Also just stretching your rib cage regularly or before you rehearse or perform is a great way to open yourself up to your breath.
Try this exercise I created, explained in this post. It is designed to incorporate your breathing into your acting, as well as help you remember scenes more easily.
2. Trying too hard to elicit emotion.
When we say someone was "overacting" we usually mean they were trying too hard to elicit emotion. Or they were playing emotions rather than playing actions. You cannot just act "anger," "sadness," etc. in a generic way disconnected from other considerations. The performance will come off as fake and forced. The audience won't feel empathy. They'll be annoyed that you're trying to manipulate them.
So what should you do instead? Don't play emotions, play actions. Figure out what your character wants and what they're doing to try to get it. What are the obstacles in their way? What is preventing them from achieving their goal? How the character feels is a byproduct of what they are doing, the relationships they have with the other characters, and what is happening within the circumstances of the play.
Let's say you're playing a wife confronting her husband about their unhappy marriage. Instead of playing "anger" towards him, you could play "cut him down to size." See how much more specific that is?
3. Not paying enough attention to the partner's lines.
Acting is really reacting, and listening is fundamental to the process. Many beginning actors only pay attention to their own lines, which makes their performance weirdly disconnected. They basically go blank when their partner is speaking. In a scene, you and your partner's lines are interwoven; they don't exist in isolation. What your character does and says is dependent on what your partner's character does and says. One line triggers the next line. They're all linked in a chain. Give ample attention and analysis to your partner's lines, and you will understand your own lines even better. Look closely at the text of the scene. Figure out what impact your partner's words and actions have on your character. What does that prompt your character to do in return?