Honesty in Performance

Honesty is a hot topic in the acting world. Actors, directors, and critics alike love to talk about it: how to attain it, whether it existed in various performances (and in what measure), and whether or not it can be taught. But, like many concepts in an actor’s repertoire, honesty is a nebulous and subjective concept. It can make or break a performance, but it can be difficult to identify and harness. So let’s take a sec to track down that unicorn and nail it to a wall. (Note: Neither the writer nor producers of this article advocate violence to actual unicorns in any manner. A literal interpretation of the previous sentiment would be a profound waste of a unicorn, and probably also of a nail).

Recognizing Vocabulary

One of the tricky things about trying to produce honesty in performance is that it can be hard to know what people are talking about. While certain buzz words go in and out of vogue, every director has his or her own preferences and trends of expression. It’s our job as actors to listen and interpret as best we can. Terms like “organic,” “connected,” “grounded,” and “genuine” all relate to honesty, but can also be expanded on in diverse ways. However, chances are, if your director is trying to elicit any of those things from you, or urging you to get in touch with your breath or body, then honesty is at the heart of the goal.

What Does It Even Mean??

The notion of pursuing honesty when you are being paid to pretend to be someone you aren’t might seem counterintuitive. But in fact, intuition is going to be your greatest ally in identifying honesty within your performance, and the performances of others. Most professional actors are skilled enough at mimicry and inflection to deliver a performance that may seem nuanced on the surface without being connected at a gut level. We all know those actors—the ones who rely exclusively on tricks that have played well with previous audiences, plan out each gesture and breath, regardless of what is happening on stage. We have all been guilty of this form of audience manipulation at one time or another. Which is kind of the point. An honest performance does not try to control the audience’s reaction. The actor instead focuses simply on meaning what he is saying. That is basically it. If the emotion beneath your words is coming from a natural and genuine place inside you, if the reason you are connecting to the text and your scene partner is because you are drawing on human empathy to relate a common truth, then you will intuitively feel the difference between that honesty and a forced performance.

Why Is It Valuable?

Honesty is vital to everyone. An honest connection to the text and the actors around you will give your scene partners more to work with, so that everyone is energetically supporting and inspiring one another. It will create a natural rhythm and chemistry that will unite the cast. And, at a certain level, the audience will know. While they might appreciate a well-crafted technical performance, honesty will reach them on an emotional and intuitive level. That extra commitment on the actor’s part is what makes a character truly relatable. It taps into common human experience. Those are the performances that will stick with people, make them think, make them question, encourage them and comfort them. It facilitates the reflection and communication that has always been at the heart of all forms of storytelling. It is the ultimate service to the text, your fellow actors, and your audience. So yeah, it’s kind of important.

How Do You Do It?

If you can recognize honesty, you will probably be able to figure this one out naturally. But for practical purposes, let’s break it down.

a)     Find a way to connect to the root emotion. There is always some common ground to be found with your character. Simplify until you reach it. Strip away circumstance and action until you find the human need that forms the backbone of your superobjective. Then find a way to reconcile that in yourself. Once you make that connection to your character, the rest is just about remembering what you want and meaning what you say.

b)    Let the audience in. This goes along with refraining from trying to manipulate them. Trust them to recognize the same connection you feel.

c)     Don’t be afraid. Or rather, don’t let your fear get in your way. An honest performance is a big ask. It requires a sacrifice of security, and the risk of vulnerability. But it is worth it in the end.

In what is arguably the speech in Macbeth, the title character reflects on life, death and futility: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more.” Life imitates art imitates life. The metaphor of that poor player describes an actor lacking honesty, and by implication, a life lacking impact. Don’t be “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Honesty unites, influences and immortalizes. It’s a worthy goal.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com