Hopefully, you’ve had the opportunity to be enthralled by an actor’s performance at some point. They’re on the stage or they’re on camera and you can’t take your eyes away because they’re mesmerizing. What they’re doing captures something that is so true, so powerful, or so simple, that you wonder why you didn’t notice it before. As a layman, you wonder how they can do that take after take or day after day or week after week. Do it each and every time, and we all believe it because it’s so real, it’s so natural, it’s so pure.

What’s more, we watch because it’s exciting. It’s bigger than life. Why would we watch someone who does the same thing we do, day in and day out? Bo-o-o-r-ring!

While there are numerous approaches to acting, Konstantin Stanislavski developed what is arguably the best known “system” in the modern era. Adapted in the US by Lee Strasberg, it became known as “The Method”, or Method acting. My own teacher, Terry Schreiber, is a product of the Meisner Technique taught at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre.

While acting may look simple, there is not only an art, but an approach, that requires study, preparation and constant practice of all the skills that actors need to have at their fingertips in order to play the instrument that is their body and spirit well and on demand. And isn’t that like a successful life?

Consider this: what you see on stage or screen is an actor playing their body as an instrument. Every movement of the hand, the arm, the walk, a wink is simply the actor interpreting a role to elicit a particular emotion or thought from the audience that is completely in line with the goals of the script. Every silence, every pause, every sigh has been predetermined through study, collaborative discussion and rehearsal to further the cause of the entire production team in order that the audience is enlightened, entertained, amused, instructed and/or even forced to consider things that it never would have considered before.

At least that’s how it’s supposed to go. As with everything else, some actors are lazy. Some directors are lazy. Some people are lazy. Ah, yes. That’s another way life is like acting.

But take a look at the more well-known ways that professional actors approach their craft. Stanislavski had refined his “system” of acting over the years by the time he wrote An Actor Prepares. Strasberg broke with Stanislavski and Meisner took those techniques another step further. You’ve probably heard at some point the joke about an actor in rehearsal as (s)he asks, “What’s my objective?”. The mocking reply is usually, “To get a paycheck.”

To the actor who is a craftsman, the question is serious. The purpose of rehearsal is to identify the many elements that help the actor discover things that form the character’s history, goals, conditions, relationships with others and objectives for the entire piece as well as individual objectives for each scene.

In order for the actor to perform realistically, (s)he must know:

The Objective, or find the answer by asking the question: what do I want?

Once the answer is found, they can proceed to the next step, but the answer (probably) may not come easily. The objective needs to be the strongest possible objective and frequently the first thing that comes to mind, is either not the strongest objective or is too boring. Perhaps that question should really be: what do I need? Needs are stronger than wants (I may want water now, but I will need it later if I don’t get it now.) and makes the objective more urgent or important, therefore making the actor’s action to attain the objective that much more interesting or exciting to observe.

Without turning this into a full-blown study of the craft (because actors can spend years doing that), let it suffice to say:

Choosing great objectives in rehearsal is paramount if the actor then plays their instrument by using their body and personality to achieve the objective just the way (s)he would actually do it. No false moves, false tears, just inspired reality.

Once we have the objective(s) for the scene, we must choose the right “actions” to attain the objective. Sometimes the script can lead us astray if we choose our objective based on the actions that the script seems to imply.

For example, in one scene that I worked on, the words definitely indicated a verbal fight between a man and his girlfriend’s father. Who hasn’t seen that somewhere? But when the director reframed my objective to one of “I need the old bastard’s permission to marry his daughter,” that adjustment just made the scene crackle with tension, not only between the two actors but between the man and himself.

Acting? Not so simple is it?

As we’ve seen, actions are secondary to objectives. If you don’t have the right objective, whatever actions you take could be counterproductive. Using the scene above as an example, what is more interesting: watching a fight or the anticipation of whether between two iron-willed men will really lead to a fight?

Sometimes several actions are required to attain the objective. Objectives and actions could be used completely as subtext (unknown to the audience) as long as they are the strongest and most interesting choices to make for the actor, the scene and the audience.

All righty then, let’s say we’ve got the strongest objective for our little scene and we’ve chosen the strongest or most interesting actions to get what we want. What’s next?

Oh, I don’t know. Maybe we should pad the scene with filler and boring distractions so that the audience drifts off to sleep? Seriously? 

Hell no! Go for it! Why wait? You know what you want; you’ve got a plan. Don’t be boring. Don’t wait for the Fates to intervene. Execute your plan and go get what you’ve said you want!

While doing your part, numerous actors with differing objectives have to be taken into account by the director. Fine! That just makes it more interesting. Stick to your objectives and modify your actions if required. If the scene calls for you not to get what you’ve said you want (in your head), modify your actions, but continue to go for your objectives.

You go for your objectives, playing you as your instrument, using the best objectives and actions that thought, collaboration and rehearsal can devise.

Now that we’ve got that settled, how is Life like Acting, only different?

Successful people do things in a particular ways that help them to become successful. Maybe they’re just gifted or maybe they just work harder and longer and smarter than the rest of us.

Some years ago I attended a Tony Robbins Unleash the Power Within weekend.

As part of that weekend, he said that he was about to tell us, all 1,300 of us, how to get anything we wanted.

Pretty sure he had our attention at that point.

“First,” he said, “I want you to take out your notebooks and open to a brand new clean page. Ready? Write this down.”

We were so ready, you could hear a pin drop.

“Ask,” he said.

“Huh? That’s it?” came the muttering response.

“That’s it. Oh, and you have to know what to ask for and then ask someone who can get it for you. Write that down.” he added.

Writing, writing.

“And you have to offer to give them something of value in return.”

Writing, writing.

“And decide what steps you’ll take to find that person, …

Writing, writing.

… what value you can give them, …

Writing, writing.

… and the steps that will convince them.”

Writing, writing.

“And if those steps don’t work, modify those steps until you reach your objective.”

Writing, writing.

“Then execute your plan until you get what you want.”

Writing, writing.

Hmm? Wait a minute. That’s just like acting –

  1. Figure out what you want. (The Objective)
  2. Plan/Modify the steps to get what you want. (What actions will you take?)
  3. Go for it! (Don’t dilly-dally. You’ve got your objective and actions well-thought out; do what needs to be done!)

Coincidentally, these are all what I call my Three Rules of Life.

  1. Know what you want.
  2. Make an action plan to achieve that.
  3. Go. Get. It.

If it’s not working, check and revise #2.

So Life really is like Acting. Or is Acting like Life? Whichever choice you make, they both require hard work, thought and the practice of those skills to succeed.

What are you waiting for? I’ve given you the steps. If successful guys like Stanislavski and Tony Robbins agree with each other so clearly, maybe we should listen?