When Acting Techniques Breakdown


"Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon's location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?" ― Hui-Neng

Fingers Pointing to the Moon

Zen and Chan Buddhists often have a saying that the could roughly be paraphrased as 'teachings are like fingers pointing to the moon, they are not the moon.' This is to say that the concepts and discursive language we use to discuss, illustrate and compartmentalise our experiences are not actually the experiences themselves. They are extrapolations and abstractions that help us to understand from an intellectual and logical point of view. They are like mind maps that we can follow in order to find and identify the experiences themselves. Reading the menu is not the same as eating the food. The word 'rock' is not a rock, it is a series of sounds ordered in a certain way that is recognised by others to indicate the idea or concept of 'rock'.

Acting Vocabulary

Similarly, breaking down human behaviour into the various traditional acting vocabularies such as 'objective, obstacles, actions/intentions and tactics' is not ultimately true in the grandest sense. It is not an all-encompassing clone of the thing itself in linguistic form. These are just words and concepts, useful ones, but concepts nonetheless. They are the map, not the journey itself. The journey itself must be walked, must be experienced. These are fingers pointing the moon, they are not the moon.

Order and Chaos

Language by its very nature is reductionist. It attempts to impose useful yet arbitrary boundaries around boundless information. It is an attempt to recognise and understand what was previously mysterious to us; ‘to order chaos’. This is largely done for the sake of brevity so that we can further the process of ordering yet more chaos. The English language is especially reductionist. It attempts to capture things with higher and higher degrees of precision. It seeks to refine labels more and more accurately until eventually, we forget that the label is not the thing itself.

I don't say this pejoratively. Language is not only helpful it is essential to passing on knowledge and stories of our own subjective experiences, so that we may develop empathy with others. It's just that it's also inherently flawed and we need to remember this. This doesn't mean we should stop using these models of language altogether. In fact, we should be trying to make these models as accurate as possible. But we must also accept with humility that it will never truly capture the experience itself.

The Actor's Trap

One of the most common traps I see actors fall into is the idea that techniques are useless simply because they don't map perfectly onto reality. Like any new skill, acting techniques take time to learn. The process will often seem abstract or counterintuitive. This does not mean acting techniques should be ignored, it simply part of the learning process. To bring it back to the analogy above, any map you read will take time to understand. To learn the key and what each symbol represents and how it maps onto the actual landscape takes time. This doesn't mean the map isn't useful or not worth investing time in understanding it.

I know there is a lot of nonsense out there in the world of acting techniques and a lot of false guides along the way. But we can't let this turn us into cynics. Sceptics yes. Indulge in your inquisitive mind and honour the healthy urge to question and doubt. But thinking we can just figure it out on our own, intentionally ignoring anything and anyone that might ease our journey is the height of hubris.

You may be lucky enough to find your way through the wilderness of the profession on your own, but why not rely on the wisdom of those who have come before.

Letting Go

So take the time to invest in techniques that might lead to more freedom in performance. Taste a few, as many as you like, but then get down to really understanding the depth of whichever techniques you think will bear fruit. No one technique will be perfect. But if you’re trying to hit water, you’re better off digging a deep well, than a bunch of shallow ditches.

And when the day comes, when the framework starts to breakdown, don't worry, don't stress! It was always going to breakdown. The point is to ask, 'how useful the model was before it did?' If you can refine the model further, do. If not, be content that you must now let the experience speak for itself.

Remember, at the end of the day:

“The finger can point to the moon's location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?"