10 unusual ways actors can improve their craft

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I’m no grizzled veteran of acting. Just some tips I’ve gleaned over the years, from others and self-trial:

  1. READ: Read aloud 15-30 minutes everyday. If it is a monologue or dialog, imagine somebody listening in next door thinks you are talking to somebody for real. If it is a magazine article, make it appear as though you are telling this stuff to somebody for real. Always make it so you are speaking to somebody. You can preface this with a light vocal warmup as well.
  2. WRITE: Writing is creating. Write everyday. Writing can be daunting if you have no structured way to approach it and if you really think you must write something GOOD each time. So limit the scope of your writing and don’t worry about perfection or even producing something good. I love James Altucher’s simple idea of creating a list of 10 everyday. It can be a list of anything. What I’m writing now is one such list. It could also be “10 roles that I’d perfectly suited for and why”, “10 movies I love and why”. Or just coming up with situations “10 sketch ideas”. Remember it can be totally crap. It doesn’t even have to be acting related “10 quick fix, healthy foods” or “10 gift ideas for my wife”. Writing is creating. As simple as that. By the process of writing you program your brain and therefore your reality into whatever it is you desire. So another way to use this writing is to also write what you visualize your future to be (“I’m living in penthouse in Santa Monica, or I’m walking down the red carpet, or James Camera and I are working on a scene”). And by not tying yourself to an outcome, you free your brain from the burden of expectations and instead make this a fun experience everyday. The quality will come naturally over time. Key is to make your brain sweat and really work to complete the list. Guaranteed, if you do this for 6 months straight, everyday, you will become AWESOME.
  3. IMPROVE YOUR MEMORY: Memorize a page of sides everyday. Or a monologue. Or even tongue twisters. This will work out your memory and give you an edge when given lots of lines for an audition. The tongue twisters will make you more confident in your ability to navigate mouthfuls of text esp in a jargon laced industrial or commercial.
  4. EXERCISE YOUR IMAGINATION: Work out your imagination everyday. Actors need to have very powerful imaginations, so that they can transport themselves right into whatever situation the script asks for. Esp useful in auditions and even on set, when you have the camera focused on you while you pretend to be looking at a ghost or UFO or whatever but it’s not really there. One of the best ways to work on this imagination is to work with a partner. You face away from the partner, in a dim, quiet, relaxed space and you let the partner ask you to visualize things and the partner guides you to feel those things. It can be anything – “Imagine you are in a beach” “Where is this beach?” “Is it white sands? How is the shoreline? Is the water blue? What’s the temperature”. After a few sessions of this, take any sides and just focus on being in the environment of that script, don’t worry about the lines. As you work through different situations, over time, you will build your imagination muscle and be able to transport yourself to different settings and circumstances on demand.
  5. CONTROL YOUR BODY: Sometimes the most powerful way to have screen presence is to be just still. Practice being still. Be still for 10 minutes a day. Just sit down in a comfortable position and be mindful of yourself and your surroundings. There is no focus on being relaxed or chanting anything. Just sit down and breathe in and out  slowly (3 seconds in, hold 3 seconds, and out for 6 seconds for example). After 10 such breaths you will naturally have begun to focus on the moment because you are doing conscious breathing. Then focus on the input from your 5 senses, one at a time – what do you smell, what do you hear. Pause and identify each sound. What do you taste. What do you see. Don’t look around wildly. Just what’s in your field of vision. For example, I see brown carpet, a table, the ceiling is 10 feet tall etc. What do you touch – the rough (or soft) feel of the carpet, the temperature, the soft fabric of your shirt. Then focus inward – how is my stomach, full or growling? Is my nose dry? Do I feel any aches? Doing this everyday for 10 minutes will help you be still and responsive. Very useful for any acting work – to just relax, listen and respond.
  6. TALK TO YOURSELF (aka the Art of Subliminal Programming) : Love yourself – whether in bed, while sitting or in front of a mirror (best), tell yourself that you LOVE yourself. “You are the best, there is nobody in the world like you. I love you dude (or girl). You have so much talent. Look at those beautiful eyes, that amazing body. People love you, Casting Directors love you. You bring every room alive” and so on…At first it might feel awkward, a bit bullshit. But do it everyday for 1 min-2 mins, and you will start to really feel it and believe it and internalize it. This is because, as James Altucher put it, “The outer world that you face every morning is always a reflection of the inner world that only you can create.” There are additional affirmations that you can use: My Success Creed, My Commitment to Change my Beliefs, Amazing Year
  7. BREATHE: Practice diaphragm control and sustaining notes. Overall an actor needs to have strong voice. I don’t mean you need to have a deep baritone (if male) but that your voice must be able to project if need be and have flexibility in intonation and timber. Also you need to have the stamina. So you need to do vocal warmups and exercises. For a great visual guide on how to do this, watch this video. Another simple vocal exercise you can do quickly in 5 minutes is to sit still (see how being still comes in handy everywhere?), breathe in deeply, then let out your breath while making a sound and see how long you can sustain. For example “Ooooo” or “Aaaaa” or “Mmmmm”. The key is to get your diaphragm stronger so that you can project. In addition this also makes you be in the moment. This is also a good exercise to get rid of anxiety or tension before heading into the casting room. The practice of letting out your breath slowly and to almost empty your lungs has a magical ability to make you relaxed, it’s like you are breathing out all your anxieties. Try it.
  8. DO NOT BLINK: Practice not blinking. Not blinking is similar to being still. It conveys power, connection and authenticity. Eyes are probably the most important physical aspect that CDs and directors see. Eyes will betray your emotions, your insecurities, your truth. By keeping them unblinking you let the power of your truth come out uninhibited. For a primer on this, watch Michael Caine talk about the power of Not Blinking here (if you haven’t seen the full video you should!). You can combine this with the diaphragm control exercise, ie, do not blink while at the same time exhaling and making a sound. You can also practice this when you are out and about by looking people directly in the eye while talking to them and hold their gaze. Initially it will be tough but over time it will become a habit. You will come across as strong and confident.
  9. TAPE YOURSELF: The tendency to “perform” when in front of a camera, when that red light is on, is pretty incredible. And you  must control it. You must become completely comfortable being vulnerable and honest in front of a camera. You probably are all these things when you Skype or Facetime with a friend or family member. But as soon as you have lines and you have a character, the tendency to perform kicks in. So practice being consciously in front of a recording camera ALL THE TIME until it just doesn’t matter to your performance but matters enough for you to be aware of your framing. One way to do this is to just tape yourself memorizing a monologue. Or improv – tape yourself giving an impromptu 3 min speech on a random topic. Try looking into the camera, a few inches to the left or right of the camera. But the camera must be ON and RECORDING. Best if you can do this in a simulated audition type setting. Worst case, do this with your cellphone set against the wall or the webcam in your iPad or computer.
  10. STRETCH: Your body also needs to be limber and flexible. So stretch everyday, throughout the day if possible. It releases tension and keeps you healthy. I personally mix it up between some martial arts warmups (JSB) or yoga (5 TIbetans) or at least hanging off a bar for 30 seconds. Anything. Just stretch.
  11. JOIN TOASTMASTERS: This is where you get to hone your public speaking skills, whether prepared or impromptu. Take part in your local Toast Masters chapters so that you get to practice giving a speech at least twice a week. If you can master impromptu speaking in a structured way, you will become super comfortable being able to get up in front of strangers and just speaking. It’s like improv but applicable to all aspects of your life.

The best part of all these is that many of these activities can be combined. For example:
1. Read / memorize: 30 mins. Sit still in a comfortable position. Be quiet for a minute. Then read for 15 minutes aloud to warmup your voice. Then memorize and delivery a monologue for another 15 mins.Practice not blinking and focusing attention on any inanimate object while saying your lines. Also try to breath slowly as you read aloud or deliver monologue. Do this with your computer webcam or your phone recording you.
2. When you head in to shower or while shaving (guys), stare into your own eyes and try not to blink. Breathe consciously. Speak to yourself for a 2 minutes (“You good looking son of a gun”) or just say your affirmation to yourself, aloud.

 

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If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy my book about how to become a film and TV actor in Atlanta: Acting in Atlanta.
And you can always follow me on Twitter: @rafiqactor.

 

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