In any training, or in any career, most of us go through the “is this right for me?” phase. We think things like, “This is harder than I thought it would be!” “This is way more personal and more physically taxing than I expected.” A good conservatory should help you move through that. It’s not unheard of to go home and think, “Oh my God, I hate acting.” At the end of the day, it’s a job just like any other. Everybody hates their job sometimes. It doesn’t mean you’re not passionate about it. In fact, passion runs both ways. Sometimes love. Sometimes hate. Indifference is worse.
This career requires a lot of emotional resilience. Actors must learn to accept self-doubt, to tolerate rejection, and to acknowledge that it’s not possible or desirable to be perfect. When you do a great take on set, the director might say, “moving on.” Not “great work.” Nobody claps. No congratulations. You do hear stories, occasionally, that the crew burst into applause, but imagine how much time would be lost if they had to validate the actors after every take. No one expects them to tell the whole crew “great work” after every take. Everyone on set was hired to do the thing that they do for a living, so it’s not a surprise to anyone that people are good at their jobs. Most of the time they set up for the next shot and you’re the only one thinking, “But I could do it better.” The truth is you don’t get to decide if your take was good or not. You can feel like you really tanked, but if the director is satisfied, accept that and don’t go sulking back to your dressing room.
You don’t have any context in which to say, “I won the race!” or even “I crossed the finish line!” The direction is “run” and the director will decide where we’re going to put the finish line and how we want to see you cross it. We might decide literally that you’re going to lose the race in the final edit. It’s challenging because you must think, OK I’m just going to run. Lots of teachers talk about living moment to moment and this is where it counts.
At the New York Conservatory, we strive for a direct and honest approach to feedback. We fight the urge to say, “good work” when the work isn’t good. Notes should be as specific and objective as possible. We’re working on each student’s process and on each student’s potential product. Teachers must be clear when acknowledging effort and not confuse it with rewarding achievement. An actor may be on the right track and may be working their butt off, but if the ball doesn’t make it into the net, they don’t make the point. Training with working professionals helps students come to terms with the subjectivity of evaluating acting. The director and teacher always get to decide where the net is and the players have to adjust to the changing rule book.
We put a tremendous amount of pressure on our students to resist explaining or defending their work. Actors should let their work speak for itself. If you have to explain your choices, they’re not working. Let them go. One of my mentors once told me, “Never miss an opportunity to shut up.” That’s great teaching.
We teach actors to listen to instructions and follow them. It can feel like your artistic impulses are undervalued, but we’re strengthening many areas of your technique in a short time. Most of us don’t realize what a huge amount of structure we need in order to release our creativity. We spend as much time building the container that will protect and reveal your art as we do working on that art itself.
Surrendering control underpins the entire process of film and TV work. It’s much more product-driven. After all, we’re talking about motion pictures! They need to take pictures of something. In a shooting script or on a storyboard, your character might be discovered crying at the kitchen table. That’s the information you have. It doesn’t matter how you cry. The director doesn’t care why you cry, if you’re using events from your own past, imagining the character’s circumstances, or even if you’re sticking your hand in your pocket and pinching yourself. Everyone has a responsibility on set. The gaffer makes sure the lighting is making the appropriate contribution, and people rarely ask them how they’re working or how they’re feeling, and the actor does the same.
Good training and experience will teach you to work on the things within your control. Work on your script, learn your lines, and figure out what’s going on with the character. Let go of the rest and let go of your need for approval. Remember the old days when you had a school portrait taken? They would set up the background and the lights, tell you to smile, and take the picture. You could do a real smile or a real-looking fake smile and no one cared. You still ended up with lots of choices and your mom or dad picked the one they liked. They were paying after all! Good practice for acting.
Deliver the component for which you are responsible. Consistently. Efficiently. Graciously.
Richard Omar president and artistic director at The New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.