What's The Best Acting Technique?


What even is an ‘Acting Technique’?

Let me start by saying that all of the different techniques, concepts and paradigms we use in order to conceptualise and approach acting (or any activity for that matter) are not ultimately true. They are mere representations and conceptualisations of the ‘thing’ itself. They are as we say, ‘fingers pointing to the moon, they are not the moon’. Meaning no technique can ever fully encompass the entirety of the actual experience of acting. They are abstractions, useful though they may be. The idea is to choose the most useful ones for you and to keep upgrading your set of tools as you progress throughout your life and career. By continuing to occupy a 'beginner's mind' you will be humble enough to gently discard old concepts in favour of new, more subtle and useful ones. Eventually you’ll be able to let go of them completely, however, only once you have truly mastered them. Here's a couple ways we can think of it.

Acting and Human Behaviour

Acting techniques in their best forms, are abstractions of human behaviour. They are ways of breaking down and codifying the behaviour we already do as humans. Its a kind of reverse engineering. We see the end result and we work backwards from there to figure out what led there in the first place. We can then use this new blueprint to lead us there again. It's a kind of psychology but with a specific purpose, different to that of the traditionally therapeutic setting. Its goal is slightly different, though one could still argue both are attempting to 'hold the mirror up to our own nature'.

Essentially the process is about making the unconscious conscious and then letting that new understanding or approach become unconscious again. See ‘Four Stages of Competance’ in Glossary

The Fundamentals of Acting

Larry Moss* breaks down the formation of human behaviour and therefore acting into three main areas:

  1. Objective/goal - What a person wants

  2. Obstacle - What is in the way of what they want

  3. Intention/action - What they do in order to overcome the obstacle and get what they want

To me, this is really as simple as it gets when breaking down not just human but any animal behaviour, even bacteria!

The idea is that if you reflect upon your own behaviour and that of others, you will see that this paradigm is simply a breakdown of how humans behave moment-to-moment. It's not meant to be some lofty confusing system of magic that bears no resemblance to reality. Nor does it promise, that somehow, if one learns these complicated spells and incarnations, one will become a great actor.

Acting Techniques as Tools

The idea is that we begin to view the world through the lens of the paradigm we employ, we see how it fits quite well to some extent and gives us a foundation to work from. Now the danger of this is becoming too attached to any one paradigm or abstraction and treating it AS reality, or trying to make reality fit IT. It is at the end of the day, as all words and concepts are, merely a tool to help us along the way towards our goal. An example from clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson goes something like this:

‘If you are attempting to chop down a tree, a knife is better than your hand. But if you come across an axe, discard the knife in favour of the axe. If you then come across a chain-saw, discard the axe’ and so on.

It does not mean that the knife and axe, weren’t useful for cutting down the tree at all, it just means you found something more suited to the task, more subtle and specific to the challenge. There is no need to scorn or deride the previous tool, nor yourself for not having either found or had proficiency in the new one. You simply and humbly accept the new tool with grace and continue on with you task, remembering now from experience that, although this new tool may be the best tool for the moment, one never knows what might come along next. The extent of what we know today, is not the extent to what we will know later.

Acting with Humility

Another way of thinking about this is from the quote from the great Zen Master Dogen who is attributed to have said "The life of a Zen master is one continuous mistake". Which is to say that every word or concept we pick up and use will eventually be wrong (i.e. not fully encompassing of the thing itself). For nothing but reality itself can be or represent reality. Ultimately, anything else is simply an abstraction; a word, a concept, a raft used to get to the other side of the river, a finger pointing to the moon. Each model of thinking we use is simply that, a model. It can be very useful but ultimately we need to cultivate the humility to let go of our models and concepts and allow for true unadulterated experience to take hold. At the end of the day, all concepts will need to be let go in order to let the fullness of reality and experience in and define itself on its own terms.

This does not mean we should simply deride all attempts at conceptualisation or technique. Concepts and techniques are very useful. It's all very well to say “Well it's okay, I don't need the technique or teaching because ultimately and technically speaking, it's all wrong anyway.” But if your goal is still to reach and experience the moon, you won't get there any easier by ignoring people's directions completely, even if they are all slightly off centre. Remember, the skill to cultivate here is humility, not arrogance.

Comparing Acting Techniques

Here's an alternative process of breaking down of how a character might behave in a scene, that’s primarily rooted in the Practical Aesthetics acting technique:

  1. Literal (What is literally said and done by the character in the scene according the writer?)

  2. Objective (Why are these characters doing and saying those things that the writer has written? i.e. What do they want?)

    • Primary Obstacle (What is in the way of one character giving the other character what he/she wants?)

  3. Action (How does each character go about overcoming that primary obstacle in order to achieve his/her objective?)

    • Tactics (What you do in each moment in response to those behaviours in the other person that help or hinder your character getting what he/she wants, by encouraging or discouraging said behaviour.

  4. As If - A kind of daydream based on mental assumptions or imaginary circumstances that personally and abstractly mirrors the stakes and ‘action’ you have chosen for the scene. In other words, helps you embody and imagine what it might actually feel like to pursue that action in real life.

As you can see, the above breakdown was more complex than the previous description of human behaviour that Larry Moss has astutely observed, for in some sense, in order to make the abstraction accessible one might need more detail or steps. Or one might need less. Many acting textbooks are full of 12-25 step processes and the only thing that should matter in the end is if it works and you can learn to do it efficiently.

I have made my way through many different teachers and approaches and for me I find the middle way for script breakdown to be much less than 12 steps but a bit more than 3. That being said, it is undeniable that over the years many of the steps or concepts from other techniques have become habitually embedded in me to the point of where I do not rely on the concept itself anymore as it would seem unnecessarily cumbersome (i.e. developed unconscious competence) To do otherwise would be like still reminding myself every minute to keep my hands at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel, when I instinctually already do it nowadays after many years of driving. I can become aware of the fact and can use the concept when attempting to teach someone else how to drive, but for me it is not something I need to constantly conjure up unless I start getting lazy and it impedes my ability to safely and effectively do the task.

Testing Out Acting Techniques

You can take this understanding to any technique that has been codified and passed down, and see for yourself which ones make the most sense to your mind at that moment. And by testing, I do mean actually trying them out fully and skeptically, not just cynically deriding them without experiencing or not engaging 100%. Only from here you can decide, which ones are most useful.

You'll see many different acting teachers and gurus promote their method and it will depend on your sensibility and ability to conceive what they are saying that will determine what you find most useful. There is no need to angrily scorn other approaches simply because they do not work for us or we see things from a different perspective. We may believe some approaches to be more useful than others and to be sure, in my mind, some are, but ultimately the rule should be ‘if it works and it doesn’t hurt you or others, then nothing else matters’. It’s said that some people have become enlightened by simply seeing a lotus flower, others by years of diligent investigation into texts and methods. In the end, if the goal has been reached and it serves ourselves, others and society earnestly, who are we to judge?

So, what’s the best acting technique?

Whatever works.

* (Note this is not the extent to Larry's approach, it is much more thorough and one should definitely look into it - Here’s a link to his book ‘Intent to Live’)