Advice for Young Actors

February 14, 2010

I don’t often give advice to mature actors. I presume that they have been trained and have formulated their ideas about the craft, and so they receive a simple thumbs up or down at audition and specific character notes in rehearsal.

A young actor is often defining an approach to the process of character creation. It is possible that someone at this juncture may benefit from a gentle nudge in one direction or another.

A very long time ago I took a beginning acting course at Barnard College. I confess that I was inspired first by the boy/girl ratio, second by the convenient class time, while the opportunity to study dramatic art entered the equation late in my list of motivations.

Now, more than a quarter century later, I cannot remember a single face. Only two of my own performances still exist in my mind; the white stone scene from The Emperor Jones and a poetic pre-emancipation Paul Lawrence Dunbar preacher.  (The latter because I perform it currently in the touring show, Slave Narratives Revisited.)

Every comment on a full semester of scenes has evaporated except one:

“Just think the thought in your head and it will appear on your face.”

There is no advice in the intervening years that has proven as useful. I have encountered theories and character charts, psycho babble and biological analyses of primate use of gesture but everything at best further illuminates the anonymous mandate to “think the thought.”

An actor who does this one thing will truthfully convey the character’s present stage moment if he has done the analysis to know what thought to think.

It seems so simple. It is simple, and yet most youth and adults fail to apply themselves to the obvious task of learning what is happening in the mind of their character.

A Nite in the Life of Bessie Smith begins with the young blues singer in a nightclub dressing room moments before her first northern performance.


Well, Miss B, you’re here now. The one and only Horan’s of South Philadelphia…It ain’t much…

A performer thinks the thought of a singer in a rundown backroom of a bar. An actor looks at an account of the original South Street club, finds a picture or a description of Bessie’s dressing room and then decides if the place is truly dilapidated or if stage fright is inspiring the young singer to belittle her surroundings..

“Just think the thought…”

There is a mason jar of corn whiskey on her makeup table. I’ve watched nearly a dozen actresses drink from that mayonnaise jar. For some it was water, for some it was vinegar and for Odetta, Jean DuShon and Ebony Jo Ann it was the Taylor Street sour mash that my grandmother used to watch Bessie visit to buy back in the shadow of the depression.

“Just think the thought…”

A word of caution, though. Never use real liquor on stage. An actress did that in a Seattle production at Madrona Youth Theatre, then fell off the apron and knocked out her two front teeth. There is a reason why they call it “acting.”

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