It’s the question that every actor wants a straight answer for. How much "potential" is there for me to book professional work? The full answer goes something like this. Being "marketable" in film and television requires four things:
- look — a visual type that tells a story people want to see (read more)
- skills — the tools to tell a good story on camera
- connections — access to opportunities to tell your stories to the right people
- confidence — the personal resources to stay positive, passionate and motivated
Part 2: Marketable Skills
An actor is first and foremost a storyteller, and the tools they use are dictated by where, when and how the story is being told, and what kind of story the audience is used to. To understand the skills that make an actor "marketable" we first have to look at the way stories are told in film and television. And that's going to require a quick history lesson…
The idea that acting should imitate reality is only a little over a hundred years old. When the movement called naturalism hit the theatre community in the late 1800's with the work of playwrights like Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekov, it was pretty revolutionary stuff. These ideas would be carried by Russian theatre director and innovator Contstantin Stanislavski to New York, where they would find the Group Theatre and profoundly impact the development of an acting style called psychological realism.
The Group Theatre included soon-to-be powerhouse acting teachers Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Robert "Bobby" Lewis, Sanford Meisner, Harold Clurman. Lewis would found the Actors Studio, and later Strasberg as director of the Studio would popularize some of the techniques of psychological realism under the name "Method" acting. Clurman's work as a director would inspire acting teacher Uta Hagen. Adler's and Meisner's New York studios would spawn a whole generation of acting teachers, including LA/NY acting guru Larry Moss.
If you look at current film and television, it's almost all psychological realism. The audience expects that each character has a rich inner emotional life, complex motivations, and unspoken thoughts that are only partially shown in their behaviour. This is true of both of drama and comedy. Although you can still see the influence of old pantomime and vaudeville traditions in comedy, particularly shows where the target audience is under the age of twelve (Disney, Family Channel, ABC Family, Nickelodeon), even in the "heightened" world of modern comedy the characters are still "real" people.
All acting uses empathy to affect the audience's emotions: whatever the actor is feeling, the audience feels some small part of it. This is doubly true for screen acting, where the audience is "watching" the actor from a distance of only two or three feet away—the head-and-shoulders "medium close-up" used for all auditions and most film and television. From this distance, the camera sees (or gives the illusion of seeing) everything that an actor is feeling, and much of what they're thinking. So the first thing that an actor needs to appear real on camera is a voice and body that are completely free of the artificial and mechanical attempts to show feeling. An actor literally has to do almost nothing except say their lines directly to another person with absolute honesty and certainty, and enjoy themselves in the process. Honesty is the basis for psychological realism, and it's a lot harder than it seems.
Acting is built upwards from a foundation of honesty, with the script as the primary resource. This takes a range of skills, including:
- script analysis: finding within a script the most clear and compelling story possible
- imagination: imagining the circumstances of the script so vividly that the result is genuine feeling and behaviour
- awareness: moment-to-moment awareness of the physical, vocal and emotional state of all the actors in a scene
- emotional availability: allowing a free flow of emotion as required by the script
- camera technique: knowing how present a clear performance to the camera
Ultimately, each actor's path to acquiring these skills is unique and individual. Acting teachers are the only ones deeply concerned with theory; professional actors will use any technique that will help them give a successful performance. Experience is the best teacher, and the first priority should be to get on stage or in front of a camera as much as possible: professional film & tv work, student and independent films, professional theatre, community theatre, singing, dancing, clowning, improvisation, playing music… any performance opportunity can be fuel for the actor.
||Acting is all about honesty. If you can fake that, you've got it made. -George Burns, Comedian & Actor|
For reading material, I'd suggest starting with the Confidence on Camera Handbook on the Biz Studio website, then branch out into some of the many excellent acting books by master teachers, including Larry Moss' The Intent to Live, Uta Hagen's A Challenge for the Actor, Stella Adler's The Art of Acting, Ivana Chubbuck's The Power of the Actor, even Stanislavski's books that inspired the whole psychological realism revolution. Hone your instincts for script analysis by reading plays and screenplays, work on monologues and scenes. Set up a camera at home to practice with. Find a voice teacher and a good dance, yoga, or martial arts class. Do whatever you can to connect with other actors—I'll cover this more extensively in Parts 3 & 4, but building a network of other actors who are at or above your level is key to developing and maintaining a professional career.
In the meantime, take good classes and audition for independent and student films. Keep acting, keep practicing, and keep doing whatever it takes for you to stay positive, passionate and motivated. I'm right there with you.
Michael Bean, Owner+Head Coach, Biz Studio