Saturday, 4 January 2014

Unit 1 Part D - form and communicate a view on issues of concern that effect your art form

Do actors need to be clever?

The assumption that professional actors are not clever is a very common one. Perhaps this has come about because the profession requires grown adults to play all day. While other adults are earning their livings in smart clothes, sitting at desks, making executive decisions, or generally behaving like responsible grown ups, professional actors are pretending to be someone else, not to mention getting stuck in to the dressing up box. I have never understood how what someone chooses as a career marks a measure of their intellect and I certainly do not think that any professional in the performing arts business is stupid. Actors and performers may not need to be academically smart but I think that we have to be smart in many other ways.

People may consider actors to be stupid because performing is not an academic subject. Despite this actors need to be able to interpret roles, research their character and need to create emotions that they have not necessarily experienced. It may be true that the more experience an actor has in life the better their performance but just because a young actor has not experienced a particular emotion yet does not mean that they cannot project themselves and try to imagine what it would be like to be in that situation.

Maxine Peake was interviewed about her part as a mother who's older son goes to fight in the First World War and is eventually court marshalled and killed as a deserter in BBC's 2013 production of The Village. The interviewer asked her if she was confident of being able to play the part of a mother suffering this kind of loss to which she simply replied “It's acting!” Miss Peake is completely right. A good actor should be able to understand and empathise with her character.

Many acting parts require the actor to do a great deal of research. Historical parts may require an understanding of life in a different time, geographically or ethnically different settings may require a feel for a different culture and an understanding of its rituals, customs, habits and beliefs and a completely objective understanding by the actor without any criticism or rejection. A lot of actors spend months reading and researching their character's occupation, for example, or their domestic situation.

Actors need to observe people. I like to watch people as I travel on the train to college especially as they are unaware that they are being observed. I can learn a lot about emotions by watching them talking on the phone or chatting to friends sitting next to them. People watching is a great way to learn how to perform, how to be in a certain situation. I watch the different ways people laugh, how they shrug their shoulders.

As well as watching people I enjoy studying human psychology which I believe is useful for an acting career. It gives me some insight into people's behaviour, reactions, differences and attitudes towards themselves and other people.

Having an understanding of human nature is very important but that is not to say that many well known and successful actors are not academic. On the contrary, many studied and met at university. Cambridge Footlights dramatics society at Cambridge University has been a wonderful breeding ground for many household names. The society was founded and is run by the students and includes people such as Stephen Fry who studied English Literature and Hugh Laurie who studied Archaeology and Anthropology. The list of alumni is filled with well known names. Most of the Monty Python team and all of The Goodies met through the Footlights. Emma Thompson, Trevor Nunn (director of the National Theatre), Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis who are still a double act. These people started their drama careers at one of the best universities in the world, forming lasting friendships with people who often became life-long work mates. These people were academically gifted and became successful people in the performing arts world.

Do actors need to be clever? I believe they do. Acting is not simply a matter of learning lines and dressing up. Actors need to be observant, understanding, empathetic, critical, have analytical brains and the ability to put themselves in the situation of their character and make it their own for a while by using all these processes. They need to project themselves into a character who more often than not is completely different from their own personality and may even be a despicable person altogether. Acting is not an easy job. It can be heart wrenching and emotionally draining, take hours of research, a life time of observing, and a lot of hard work but it could quite possibly be one of the most rewarding careers in the world.


  1. This is a really interesting point for discussion Demi, I would imagine that quite often in certain roles actors are perceived as playing the fool, but like you this is never an opinion that I would uphold.
    I think that any creative profession, acting included is not always taken as seriously as other professions, and when I go to the theatre I always think what a great time the actors must be having it looks like so much fun and I really admire them. There is no way I could do what they do. Like you said it takes a huge amount of talent, time, commitment and skill to be able to play a character and create theatre.
    You often hear people say comments like "well anyone could do that", when they talk about modern artor theatre, " I could have put my dirty bed in the gallery" I heard once when someone was talking about Tracy Emin. The only thing stopping people from doing these proffesions is having the creativity in the first place, which can't be taught in any university.
    Maybe the reason that people don't give artists and actors enough credit, is because we all look like we are having too much fun! compared to more serious professions and they're gealous :)

  2. You have made some interesting observations about acting and life in general.

    I have always thought that acting was quite hard because the amount of empathy needed means that you have to subdue your own feelings and emotions. I suspect that it could be quite hard to get back to yourself sometimes.


  3. I think anyone who thinks actors are unintelligent must be fools - I hugely admire anyone who can successfully portray someone hugely different from themselves and do it really convincingly as good actors do.

  4. Really interesting. I think it takes a great deal of emotional insight, empathy and a great memory to be an actor. I'm not sure I could do it.

  5. This is a really good discussion and you discussed it well, i enjoyed reading it.
    I think acting takes a lot of skill, both academically and mentally, i think it must be hard to 'enter' a characters mind, if you get what i mean :)