How do I improve my acting skills?

Tom O Brien Acting and Performance Coach
Date: 4 August 2021
Author: Tom O'Brien

How do I improve my acting skills?

Slow down!

This question is one of the most common with actors that approach me for a coaching session.

It is a HUGE question & completely depends on the actor, their acting experience, process etc (As a coach I like to work specifically with each actor to play to their strengths and unlock their unique potential)!

However, one tool that is applicable to all actors is…

SLOWING DOWN

Most humans understand why this is beneficial & essential, especially during this period of time, but how can slowing down & meditation be used to help actors & creatives specifically?

When I work with actors, whether it is for an audition or scene study, whether I am directing in a rehearsal room or in an acting class, I follow the 3 step mantra/guide for my process given to me by incredible directing mentor Elen Bowman:

SLOW is SMOOTH

SMOOTH is FAST

As well as being catchy, it is the most effective way for our muscle memory to learn. (This process is actually used by the Navy seals in a mission!).

Naturally, I am a FAST person, always have been! My energy since a young age has been very high & I have always spoken, moved & even breathed mostly at the speed of light!

When I finally got to Arts Ed to train as a performer (my drama school in London), did I slow down? Not really.

The pressurised timetable, the amount of information thrown at us, the intensity of wanting to do my best, be as good as my peers & the lovely curse of ‘imposter syndrome’ meant SLOWING DOWN wasn’t on the cards.

Whenever I did have opportunities in class to slow down, lying on my back a semi-supine or a relaxation exercise, I would end up snoring, unconscious through exhaustion!

Did my acting improve whilst I was there? Not really.

It wasn’t until after transitioning into becoming a director that I understand the benefits of meditation and being SLOW.

However, life got FASTER!

Moving into directing was assisting experienced Directors for free in the daytime, setting up a theatre company, fundraising to produce on the London Fringe, all whilst waiting tables at night (no family wealth here!) meant finding moments for down time really tough.

I realised quite quickly in a rehearsal room with some brilliant actors that no matter how creative I was, until I found a way to allow space & be slow for my actors, I would never be able to create an environment where they could feel safe & trust me to guide them.

It was at that point whilst training with Elen that I found meditation. This gave me the AHA moment, I discovered how essential the SLOW part of my process was as a director!

If I allowed a REALLY SLOW start to a rehearsal process, by opening night the performances were more connected, truthful & alive!

As a director I am responsible for the tempo of the room and if I took the time (when starting out I was only given short rehearsal periods) and allowed the room to be slow, the results were so much more powerful!

“When are we going to start rehearsals?”

“Are we going to be ready by week 4?”

“Yes, I am sure that this ridiculously slow way feels very creative, but can we just get on with rehearsing the play!”

The resistance & fear from actors at first were all understandable. However, by being SLOW at the start the actor’s imagination muscles were able to meet the character, imbed the important details, beliefs, objectives, images & fully embody them.

Habits started to be removed & the actors began to feel free, connected & able to really play.

It is after all a PLAY not a THINK!

Dancers take time to work choreography into their body, musicians and singers learn music slowly, precisely and carefully. So why shouldn’t actors give themselves that time, right?

10 years experience working with actors in the West End, Off-West End, Off-Broadway & in many leading drama schools has confirmed to me that actors fly during the SMOOTH (end of rehearsal/previews) and FAST (opening night) part of the process. The results are exciting, specific & unique.

Actors, performers, creators find a way to be SLOW, it is not a luxury it is essential! Even if your acting agent is sending you lots of commercial castings or a casting director is swamping you with numerous sides for TV, film or theatre to prepare in a short space of time.

As the world starts to open up again & we feel the momentum & pressure to catch up & make up for lost time, remember life isn’t linear nothing is lost.

If you have a self-tape for an acting audition, CARVE OUT THAT TIME! Important clues about the character will reveal themselves in this precious SLOW time, clues that may be the trigger or a doorway into a truthful & committed performance

A strong character choice will more times than not result in a call back, recall or even booking the job! But you have to invest in that time.

I find that meditating before approaching a role helps you be conscious & importantly ensures you check in with where you are on that day, start with yourself, know how you are feeling right there & then.

If you don’t have a meditation practice, try this… (you can record your voice reading it then listen back)

Close your eyes, notice your breathing, don’t judge it, just be aware (this is where you are today!)

Imagine you are in a field and you are connected to the soil. Imagine you have roots growing from your feet, into the ground connecting you to the earth running deep into the soil.

Feel a warm golden light shining down from the sky, radiating down through your body. A creative energy source!

Stay there in the light, feeling connected to the ground, the roots going deeper.

When you feel strong, still, relaxed and grounded, open your eyes.

Enter the SLOW part of your process.

Maybe you are a writer? A business leader or a teacher?

Try a meditation practice and more importantly be brave enough to SLOW yourself down in a chaotic, turbulent & ever-changing world. You will see more powerful, connected, confident & interesting results from your teams, students, or collaborators.

Let me know how you get on, I am pretty confident that if myself, the literal personification of a Duracell bunny can do this, you can!

We got this!

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