7 Life Habits I Learned in Acting Class

I look back fondly, and with a spoonful of laughter at one of my first required classes I took for my acting degree. My school called it “Voice and Movement,” but every acting program has a similar class. Before they’ll allow you to tackle text (or scripts), you have to learn how to effectively use your instrument (your body) and how to be kind to yourself. As a “kid” in her early 20s, I’ll admit I scoffed at some of the things we did. I called the class “kindergarten for actors” which I still do. And I still chuckle to myself at people lying on the floor doing “Dying Cockroach.” (Lay on your back. Put your arms and legs in the air and “tremor” or shake your arms and legs, while vocalizing (moaning out loud). It’s very silly looking, but it does help you relax your body and help yourself get a good deep breath.)

While we did many silly things, walked around the room with different parts of our body leading, said poems or tongue twisters while on all fours pretending to be animals, and other things that seemed silly then and now, but I’m sure helped embed technique into my soul. But the basics of acting, and life, really, were retaught to me in that class. I try to do these things daily, but sometimes they don’t happen–and honestly, my “bad days” are the ones I didn’t prep for. I’m not saying: do all of these things daily and everyday will be perfect. I’m just saying that if you go into every day “warmed up” you’ll have a much better chance at dealing with any crisis that arises.
1. Breathe— if you regularly read my posts, you’ll see a theme. I probably honed breathing in college, because it is the best way to conquer nerves, but my mother has been preaching deep breaths to me from day one. A good deep breath relaxes and centers you. It’s great to support your speaking voice. When I’m nervous, I think of my breath as those little scrubbing bubble dudes for my stomach butterflies and nerves; breath goes in and scrubs the stomach releasing the butterflies, who get caught in the bubbles and are released with an out breath. Laying flat on the floor and taking a deep breath in is also magical. It allows anything that you’re holding, to just release out. I should write a whole blog on breath and breathing…stay tuned!

2. Stretching–warm up that body. If you’ve been following my goals blog, I’ve been doing at least 4 Sun Salutations every morning. We did lots of yoga and Pilates when I was in Voice and Movement. Stretching was highly encouraged: every morning, before shows, and always at the start of class. Even if you’re just reaching high up to the sky and then down to your toes a few times and then twisting at the waist a little back and forth. Do your stretching after you’ve moved around a little. As in, pee, wash your face, put the kettle or coffee on and then stretch. I have truly gotten to the point where I miss stretching. I have a couple of jobs that require me to be very physical, and I make sure that I do some extra stretching on those days. I really can tell the difference.

3. Vocalizing–Everyone should make a little bit of noise upon waking up. Your vocal chords are a muscle, too! They need stretching. Do a gentle hum while making coffee or in the shower–the best place!! Just five minutes of gentle vocalization first thing in the morning–more if you want–will help. You’ll find you’ll clear your throat much less, you’ll be able to talk for longer and louder, and not be so vocally tired at the end of the day. Stretching your lips and face are good too. It’s ok. Make the funny noises and faces–no one is watching. (And if they are, charge admission!)

4. Use different tactics–one of my favorite exercises in class was using a technique created by Michael Chekhov–who has several technique books if you’re interested. One day my teacher walked in and while we were stretching and warming up, she wrote the following words on the board:

  • push
  • pull
  • lift
  • drag
  • penetrate
  • throw
  • cut
  • collect

The activity was to say our prepared monologue for the class that sat in a circle around us and during the monologue the teacher would shout out one of these words. We were to physically or vocally engage in the action without stopping our monologue. At first this was hard, but I now do it with any text I work on. This activity requires you to stop your already focused mind into doing something different.  It makes you change the idea that you’re working with and head in a different direction.  Switching up a tactic will do two things: give you a different perspective, and get you out of your rut.

When you are doing the same thing over and over, you get the same or similar results. When you do the same thing with a different tactic, even if it’s only inside you, there will be a shift or change. As I’m not one for drudgery or repeating the same things over and over and over the same way, I love using different tactics in life. Right now, I’m unhappy with my weight. On any given day I can push myself to eat more veggies, pull myself to work out more, and lift my spirits by telling myself that is only temporary. If I was only pushing myself, I’d give up.

5. Leave it outside–theater people are dramatic. Very dramatic. We were told that any time we had any emotional pull in our lives that it was to be left outside the door so for the 90 minutes we were in class, we had to focus on class, and not the emotional pull of our lives. This one was surprisingly easy–and I had a lot of drama back then, or what seemed like a lot of drama. We were to come in with open minds and hearts so we could do good work. This might not necessarily work for those of you who are at a desk for 8 hours, but giving yourself time limits for emotions is a good way to control them. Allow yourself to only be emotional on bathroom breaks. Or lunch time. Or only with specific people at designated times.  A coffee run can be a great kvetch session.  Again, it’s not for all people, but taking control of your emotions by allowing them at specific times is something I found very helpful to focus on other things. #savethedramaforyomama

6. Show up–first rule of my class was, sick or not, sad or happy, tired or awake, we were to show up for acting class.   This was required for two reasons, other than the “you should attend class” rule.  First–we all have a partner or someone we depend on.  If I couldn’t work, my partner would suffer my absence as well as me.  Sometimes if I wasn’t physically able to do my scene, just sitting and reading the script with my partner would make all the difference.

Second–most of the time showing up makes you feel better.  We were told that if we just showed up to class that we would get credit. If we were feeling too crummy to participate, we could just watch. If we were feeling death-warmed-up, we were dismissed. Most of the time, I felt better for just going. And twice I was allowed to leave without being counted absent. Maybe it’s only me, but perfect attendance feels pretty darn awesome.

7. Judge kindly–yourself or the work and creativity of others. We were told we should critique others work. It helps us see what we liked and didn’t like, and what works and doesn’t work.  Although you shouldn’t judge, critically looking at the work of others will help you understand the work.

Inversely, it also taught us how to take a critique or compliment. HOWEVER, when we were critiquing, if it was a negative–we were to use “I wish…” So instead of saying “you should have known your lines better” we were to say “I wish you would have been more familiar with the text.” Instead of “wow, you were over dramatic at one point” we would say “I wish you would have taken it down a notch in the middle, because everything on one note was grating.” Anything negatively can be said constructively. I find I get more results with everyone in my life if I ask or reply in a positive way.

It’s amazing that a class I took when I was 19-20 years old has rippled it’s way through my life. Little changes, little adjustments in your life and attitude make so much difference. Try some of these for a week or two. They really don’t take a lot of effort. Make a new habit and see how you feel!

–Clare

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