Acting: How Many Rules Are There Really?

Ed Ramsey

As actors, we are taught important rules about acting. But how many of those rules really stand up to scrutiny? And in truth, should these rules have such a hold over the way we behave on the stage as adults in comparison to when we were younger? 

Some of these examples will be easily interpreted as me simply picking awkward holes in usually normal and sensible acting rules. But I do think that the ease with which these holes can be found, is a testimony perhaps to how much these 'rules' bear less and less importance, the more you learn more about your theatrical field and grow as an actor. One example might be the one we've probably all heard as young actors: always stay in character on stage. 

A valiant rule, but one that in many cases should be broken. Even when we place aside the obvious instances of Brechtian or other abstract theatre, where the actor in question might have a neutral state to return to, there are still cases where this rule might not be all that necessary. Contemporary styles of all different inspirations have shown the increasing popularity of multi-rolling, chorus, and even farce, course, or expressionistic acting. And I sometimes find within my own stylistic inspiration some ambiguity even with the extent to which I as a writer want the actors remaining constantly in character.  

Another rule we might contest could be the infamous 'never turn your back to the audience'. I can think of several theatrical moments a director might want to achieve which might well involve (and maybe might benefit from) the actor turning his or her back to the audience. Say you wanted to manufacture a fourth wall, or you wished to distance the character from either the audience or other characters on stage, say it was for a comical moment such as turning to watch another actor, or maybe you have a nice deep stage and want to have the character walk upstage where a light might be in order to symbolise death, or passing over or heaven. You might want to have the actor call out his or her line to the backstage or upstage area, perhaps elevating a loneliness or simply creating an echo effect. Needless to say, this one too can be picked at. 

Projection and articulation are probably more of a good and solid rules than a flawed ones. However, by whispering onstage you might want to create a stark quietness, or isolation of character, fear, hope; an audience not being able to fully hear or understand a character may help to generate a certain unknowing, or it may open up the possibility or challenge of achieving pity and sympathy some other way, which may indeed be the point or message of the play. Accents might also run contrary to both projection and articulation. Always react is another, which is often given the amendment 'as your character', there are various comic or farce exceptions to this rule, as well as the paradox that your character might not react- might not be able to, or might not want to. Really, the more acting you do the more you realise this is just common sense. 

Smaller rules like 'never exit in front of another actor' and 'never stand in front of another actor' both pose some problems, mainly once again in the farce or comedy division, but also if one has depth in the stage the latter could be used proxemically, perhaps being combined with lighting effects, to once again deliver a message or idea to an audience. 

It is of course true, and I do not deny this, that these sorts of acting rules come sometimes rather in the form of 'tips'. And it is also true that some of these are more often than not there for younger actors. But of the experiences I have had with acting workshops for children, their eagerness, energy, maturity and want for learning, clearly warrants the truth. And that truth is, at least in this case: rules are made to be broken.