Reminder: Most of my comments and advice are under the umbrella of British training. Caveat emptor!
When people ask what it takes to be an actor I have both a “retort” and a “no-nonsense reply. ” The “retort, ” a bit edgy, is this: “An actor needs a passion for acting, the skin of an alligator (for the slings and arrows of rejection) and the soul of an angel, in case you get to read for a wondrous role requiring the full palette of emotions. On the other hand, my no-nonsense “reply” contains what I as both an actor and a coach have been able to determine is the basic “born with” or “trained for” list of what it takes to be an actor: Ear, Energy, Intelligence, Imagination, Intuition.
It’s a toss up between which is more vital to an actor, “ear” or “energy. ” But today, let’s glance at “energy. ” Almost impossible to define in an actor but you sense it when you see it! Energy has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with arms flailing like windmills, heads bobbing or wagging in rhythm to the words being said, nothing to do with yelling or screaming, or elevator eyebrows, or mugging or any of the other myriad of twitches and gestures that do not contribute to the emotional effect of the words you are saying. Energy is often at its greatest when the actor’s body is still (like the stillness before a great storm). Energy is often the stillness of the face, the loathing or loving in the eyes, the calmness that covers fury in the voice. Think Clint Eastwood. Or hop the Atlantic and watch the stillness in the MI 5 actors, or Branagh’s Wallander. Figure out how Branagh’s world-weary detective simultaneously exudes enormous energy. Take another look at Daniel Craig’s Bond. Discover energy in stillness and stillness in energy and you are ready for the competition in auditioning.
A personal story to demonstrate stillness in energy: In a private session in a London drama school, I was given a passage from Shakespeare to cold read, chosen because I obviously would not have worked on it (and probably would never play it) – one of King Lear’s great emotional speeches. There I was–really into it, understanding every word and nuance (after all, a century earlier. , I had earned a Ph. D. in English Lit with Shakespeare as one of my areas. ) There I was, very Lear-ish. Or so I thought. Suddenly the little whirlwind who was supervising my cold reading came hurtling across the room and smacked my grand gesturing, outthrust arm. “You are allowed one gesture a year. Make it count. That did not. ” A priceless lesson about misplaced energy taught in three sentences, no, really three words: Make It Count! My out flung arm was not energy! It was indulgence. It distracted. Start watching the great dramatic scenes. Check out the use or misuse of energy.
Energy is one of the most difficult of all subjects to talk about and certainly one of the most difficult to teach or to learn. It is “something” internal. An actor with great inner energy will draw your eyes to him/her. No mugging, no upstaging, no scene stealing. Athletes speak of being in the zone. Drama teachers rhapsodize about focus. But energy is more than that. To me energy is always recognizable and never definable. It is sort of a fist-clenching defiance of every piece of junk that life can throw at you. It is not “I can” but “I will. ” It is “I am, ” not, “Boohoo, who am I?” Can it be developed? Of course. Can it be crushed? Yes. It does not have to be noisy or bragging or demanding. It is a state of BEING. The poet Dylan Thomas called it the “green force. ” It does not think in terms of “I. ” It is, for lack of better words, an IS-ness.
So wherein lies energy? First and greatest-energy lies in the voice which can be quiet and deadly but reflect a stillness like a coiled snake. List them-the great heroes who do not leap tall buildings but who scare the daylights out of you because of their potential deadliness, achieved with an inner coiled energy expressed in a soft soft soft vocal threat, containing the potential destruction of a tsunami.
Without energy–especially in the voice — the very foundation of all acting is missing. You can define every acting term, dissect every text like a Ph. D. in literature, know and embrace and embody every acting technique or school, but without energy the role is lifeless, boring, passive, soporific. zzzzzzzz (The opposite of applause! zzzzz = audience sleeping)
“I need energy” should be tattooed on every actors’ forehead. Make it your own personal credo. Every cell in your body must be engaged actively while keeping that body as still as possible, unless movement is called for. All those unconscious wiggly-wags are distracting. Eyes bugging or blinking because your contacts are dry. Windmilling-semaphore acting—arms or hands. One student recently discovered thumb twiddling. Fingers shaking in someone’s face. All these are distractions on stage, horrors on film. All are ways of dribbling energy. All are means of losing focus. And besides, they look awful!
Keep the audience riveted with your “still energy. ” Yes, yes, yes I know “still” is an odd adjective for “energy. ” Energy is an inner quality. It is a strength of the Being (soul? self?). It comes from a glorious dedication to being alive and aware of being alive every minute. Energy has to do with light. Haven’t you seen people whose face and Being just seem to glow? Some call it the glow of health. Maybe. But an actor with that inner glow, that light, — that actor is well on the way to being a star.
So now that I have proved you can’t define energy, even though you can see it and see its absence, let’s tackle the other huge question: How do you get energy?
Maybe by picking yourself up every time you are knocked down. Maybe by reading and listening to music and looking at paintings and nature. Maybe through quiet, down time. Discover people who have it. Watch them. How do you know they have energy? How do you recognize that life force when it steps on stage? In front of a camera? Walks into a room? What is the “thing” that makes people watch the possessor of energy, even if he/she is standing holding a spear? What inner quality makes people look at you–even standing silent, motionless. Why are the eyes drawn to that spot of energy? It is not charm. It is not beauty. It is not flamboyance. It is not chatter or noise. You can buy charm, beauty, flamboyance, chatter and noise all over the Internet. There are hundreds of schools or doctor’s offices all over America guaranteeing charm etc. But energy? Energy is internal life pouring out in light energy. It takes a poet to describe it. But we all can recognize it. See it in others. Seek it. Grab it. It is our heritage not merely as performing artists but also as human beings. Claim it. That energy combined with a tablespoon of talent will make a glowing star.
And, as if your life depended on it – because your life as a performer DOES depend on it – get away from people who drain your energy. Surround yourself with people who give, not merely take. Seek people who care, not merely want to be cared for. The performing energies are precious. Do not dribble them out trying to get people to love you, people who cannot or will not love you. We fritter away our lives in hopeless situations and surround ourselves with people who are so emotionally needy that they cannot possibly give love. I am not sure who coined the phrase, maybe Oscar Wilde, “The tyranny of the weak. ” Your energies as a performer cannot be spent caring for emotional tyrants who demand much and give little. Cherish your inner energy. Develop it. Take care of the physical self (sleep and eat properly) and the emotional self (give AND receive). Energy is the quality that is immediately evident. Immediately. Whatever it takes, get it.
To summarize: Energy IS.
Having waxed a bit metaphysical, let’s turn to the practical aspects of energy:
How, for instance, can you increase energy?
First, look to the body. “Mens sana in corpore sano. ” The ancients had it right: “A sound mind in a sound body. ” Check the body and then check the mind (emotions, attitude). If the lack of energy pervades the entire body, get to a doctor. Chronic fatigue is a symptom of dozens of ailments. In fact there is a medical term: “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. ” A thorough blood test, including blood sugar, is called for. Low blood sugar undiagnosed is one of the numerous causes for lack of energy. The list is long and many of the causes have relatively simple cures. For example, lack of sleep is high on the list of causes for lack of energy. And that’s not too hard to cure!
Once a physical cause for lack of energy has been eliminated, look to the emotions. I personally develop mind-boggling fatigue when I have to do something or go someplace I really really really don’t want to. We just want to take to the bed, pull the covers over our head and hide. So let’s do some exploration of the emotional background that leads to lack of inner performance energy.
Lack of energy is our physical response to numerous emotional situations. Try to discover if the lack of energy comes and goes, and if it does, try to discover if it has a pattern. If one of the patterns is lack of energy when auditioning or when performing, then delve into your mind to explore the real reasons you think you want to act. What is the body fatigue telling you?
Does the lack of energy melt away the minute you step on stage or in front of the camera? If the energy comes as soon as you start performing or auditioning, then forget about the lack of energy. It is just your internal response to fight or flight. Live with it until you decide you don’t need to respond with the drop in energy any more. As an aside: I believe that orange juice is the answer to almost every problem (well, almost every problem). The fructose helps balance the blood sugar. Give up coffee and adopt orange juice instead.
However, sometimes fatigue is hidden behind jitters. If this is the case, it is easy to overlook your lack of energy because you are so busy being frightened. You almost have to be ill to pick up a lack of pre-performance energy.
Even if you can hide your physical lack of energy, it is awfully hard to hide lack of vocal energy. One of the first telltale signs of lack of energy in acting is revealed in the voice. The voice is telling you something which you should try to pick up, try to listen to. If there is lack of energy, the voice is lifeless, monotonous, flat, lacks inflection, lacks variety in rhythm and pitch. Boring. There must be a school of acting that drills whispery lifeless monotonous delivery assisted by dead-face/eyes. It is becoming epidemic among actors. It is hard to imagine anything more destructive to a career than anemic vocal delivery.
Is your voice always mono-toned? If yes, and if a physical examination has revealed no medical cause for fatigue, then find out what is squashing the energy. The voice is often a Geiger counter to the emotions. What is inhibiting your natural life force? What feelings are being pushed down inside? Forcing a goody two shoes attitude can be as draining as the NYC marathon. Flip the goody-two-shoe coin and often on the other side you will find that you are sitting on anger, which is equally as exhausting as a constant smiley face. Pushing down fear is also exhausting. Dealing with tough life problems is exhausting. All this pushing and squashing and denying show up in the voice. So if your voice constantly sounds tired and dull, go look in the mirror to see what is going on inside you. Or go talk to someone older and wiser than you are.
If none of the above sounds or feels right to you, then here are some other ways to get energy into the voice. Vocal energy comes from first recognizing that you have a lifeless voice. If you do, then either changing your emotional attitude or find exercises to develop the voice. Listen to tapes or videos of the world’s great actors. To me, Richard Burton had the most stunning voice I ever heard. You will find passages by Burton all over the Internet. See what there is about his voice that made it so extraordinary. Listen carefully to his phrasing, his intonation, his pitch variety, his emphasis, the rhythm of his phrases. That is, really listen and hear. Don’t just let his stunning voice wash over you while you sit in awe. Study what he does to get the sound he gets. You might try reading his biography (autobiography?) and see what he says about the voice. He had enough vocal energy to bottle and give to the entire world of vocally lethargic actors.
Another thing about a boring, lethargic voice: Become aware that speech is very close to music. Both have rhythm (fast, slow, in between), Both have pitch (the voice goes up and down). Watch especially the ends of each sentence for pitch. Most American actors (who have a smidgeon of variety) start a sentence at the top of their range and rapidly fall (descend the scale) until they are six feet under by the last word. Not only is that pattern monotonous but ending a sentence on a down pitch is deadly. A line can be made to seem energetic–even if the speaker is a snail at heart–just by working on getting variety into the voice and speech patterns and by avoiding that dying fall at the end of sentences. The whole notion of pitch in energy and variety deserves (and will receive) a whole article. For now, just know that you can sound energetic by paying attention to your vocal pattern.
We have an article here on this site on shyness. Read it and substitute the words “lack of energy” every time you see the word “shy” in a sentence. I know three acting students who seem wedded to lack of energy when they act. They claim they are shy. Again it’s a great way to get attention and it’s also a great way to avoid wrestling with other acting problems. If you spend all your class/lesson trying to wind up the Energizer Bunny, then you don’t have to face the words, the text, the meaning, our body action, listening, learning lines, the list is endless.
Whatever the cause, whatever its outer manifestation, whatever prevents your inner light and life, face the problem. Get energy. It is the one vital thing every audience member, every audition committee, every casting director can sense immediately in an actor. It is often the difference between being or not being cast.
Energy is the beginning of magic.