Sunday, December 07, 2008

ON ACTING: External and Internal Acting Techniques

When I was a young actor, we were often trained in what is called ‘external to internal’ technique: we started mastering the expressive form of the dialogue, and through that technique worked back to emotional substance, searching for emotional substance through form. I remember working on a play by George Bernard Shaw. Shaw was a great music critic before he became an accomplished dramatist. He wrote characters and their dialogue according to their ‘voices’, as if he were writing a musical score: tenor, bass, soprano.

In rehearsing Shaw we were instructed to vocally ride the flow of Shaw’s character’s dialogue; allow the rhythm and cadence of the prose to dictate our speaking style; as one would do with a song. The point of that formal approach was that the spoken dialogue--the rhythm, accent, pitch, pace, etc. would lead you to ‘finding the emotional essence of the character’. Inner emotion would be activated by the verbal, grammatical and syntactical shape and configuration of the dialogue. Speak like the character, feel like the character; Speak like a Frenchman, feel like a Frenchman. Speak like a gentleman, feel like a gentleman. Speak like a Fascist, feel like a Fascist. Form follows function.

Working ‘backwards’ in this way, from form to substance, from the external characteristics of dialogue to inner emotional life of the character, continues to be one of the major traditions of acting training for the British stage.

It creates their exquisite of expressive technique: for once they have reached substance in that way, the well-honed form encasing that substance remains.

American acting training on the other hand generally follows the opposite tradition: function (emotion) proceeds outward to form (physical expressiveness). When properly executed both approaches wed form to function into good acting. As always, good acting is circular; it matters little at what point one enters or exits it (form to substance; substance to form), as long as the circle is complete in final performance.


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