Written by Graeme Petrie
I am often surprised by the kinds of questions parents will ask their child’s acting teacher after taking only a few acting lessons: Is he/she a natural? Do they have what it takes? When can she start auditioning? Can he be a Disney kid?
Acting instructors are not fortune tellers nor are they magicians. Acting takes continual dedication and training and whatever future your child has in acting will depend on many key factors, such as:
• How much do they truly enjoy acting and playing different characters?
• How much natural confidence do they have to perform?
• How observant and coachable are they?
• How willing are they to open up and be vulnerable in front of others they don’t know?
• How hard are they willing to work?
Just as with anything involving the arts, some natural talent and ability is required. Whether your child is an artist, singer, musician or dancer, at some point however, technical training will be needed to improve their ability. Even a gifted young dancer can impress with their moves, but at some point they will go up against well trained, professional dancers and any disparity in their training and technique will soon become apparent. The same holds true for actors.
Spending a few hours a week in class will definitely help your young, new actor establish a foundation of on-camera acting skills and techniques. However, in order to continually develop their craft enough to be able to carry out a role (especially over a longer term), practice outside of the class is imperative. Try doing some of the following activities at home with your actor.
Having a strong, still stance is a key pillar that teachers initially work on with those new to on camera acting. New actors tend to make unnecessary movement (slightly swaying back and forth, fidgeting, looking around, etc). yet even slightest amount of movement is picked up by the camera and can be distracting.
Tell your child to select a scene from a show they like, write down the lines, then try acting out the scene together with them. Use a cellphone to record it, then play it back together looking to see if you notice any unnecessary movement happening.
Silence is Golden
They say that a really good actor can tell a story without saying a word, that their facial expressions, body movements and gestures will communicate what is happening. Have your child develop more awareness of conscious decisions actors are making by selecting a show they enjoy, turning off the sound, and watching only their movement and expressions. Also, watch any supporting actors and how they are reacting to the person talking.
Being in the moment
Knowing your lines is important, but many young actors will focus SO MUCH on perfect memorization that they don’t remain “in the moment”, reacting realistically to their partner in the scene.
When your child says they like a show or something the actors did, encourage them to get up and act out the scene as best they can from memory. If they need to stop or pause because they can’t remember the words, encourage them to “just keep going” and ad lib the lines. Getting the words perfect is far less important than being in the moment. This will become a useful tool for them to manage mistakes made in auditions, especially in cold read auditions.
Building emotional register
Help your child develop their ability to identify and communicate feelings and emotions to draw upon when acting by listing different kinds of emotions on cards (e.g. joy, shock, sadness, excitement, jealousy, love, embarrassment, panic, etc). Take turns selecting one of the cards (without showing the other person), then act out that emotion for the other person to guess.
Alternatively, have your child hold up the emotion card for you to see (but not themselves). You must act out the emotion to be guessed by your child. As your child progresses, have them think of and talk about something that happened in their life that made them feel the emotion selected.
Know what you’re fighting for
Many new actors make the mistake of giving a “general performance” (i.e simply repeating lines with no real sense of attachment or investment in their character). The reason this occurs is that they don’t truly understand or care about what their character is trying to achieve. This makes for a boring performance and an audience won’t care about your child’s character if they don’t either.
Writers are very efficient with their wording so there are no “throw away” lines. Teach your child to breakdown a script by identifying key words and emotive language their character uses. Discuss any emotions their character might be feeling and why. Help your child realize what is at stake. “What do you need from the other person in the scene and what happens if you don’t get it?”.
By regularly reinforcing this with scenes they need to prepare, you can teach your child about the need to work hard to win what they are after from their scene partner. This will be integral in their development as an actor and their ability to give an honest and believable performance.