‘Don’t Think’, ‘Think Hard’, ‘Are you Thinking’ – What the ****?!

Thinking about thinking…I keep getting emails from confused actors about thinking – or not thinking… It is confusing…

‘Stop thinking. You’re too much in your head.’

It is advice that many directors give. I believe what they mean by not being ‘in your head’ is that the actor needs to turn off any decisions about ‘how’ to play – simply believe in the circumstances – listen, see and respond organically in the moment – like life…

Turn off ‘the decider’ – do what you would do, and think what you would think – in the moment – in the role. Don’t work out ‘how’ you will play it – or stick to a prepared path. (Except, of course for continuity in film – but that should have sprung in the first place from organic work – when you needed to drink – stand up etc.)
Obey your instincts – our bodies react before our heads do.

Simply think of life. You stand outside a door: you know (to some extent) who you are – the world you are in – and what you want. (You may even have prepared how to get it) – you open the door and go in. Then the situation, the other people take over. You forget quickly what you prepared. Sometimes you keep on pushing your needs – sometimes you get deflected – sometimes circumstances change the ‘want’ – sometimes (e.g a police officer who needs the truth) you can never let it go.

‘Think! I can’t see you thinking!’

I guess, here, the director means ‘thinking as the character’. I don’t think you can prepare this in any exact way. If you’ve prepped really well (the life you’ve led, the situation you are in, what you need) this happens automatically – and on screen, gives you those lovely shiny eyes full of thought. So this is the automatic thinking during the scene – as the role. As Judi Dench says, ‘when the camera turns, I’m all eyes and I’m all ears.’ In other words, she is alive in the moment, thinking, watching, listening within the world of the play or the film.

‘What – should I never think as ME? I’m an intelligent actor…?’

While you are in preparation you will – of course – think intelligently about the role. Part of that thinking must be in order to find what drives you-in-the-role.

The trouble with jargon is that we all use different jargon. And that jargon can mean different things to different people! I just asked you to find what ‘drives you’ – some people call it the ‘want’, the ‘need’, the ‘intention’, the ‘objective’ , the ‘motivation’- and it absolutely ties in with the simple question: ‘why are you saying it/ doing it?’ Sometimes the need is very obvious – sometimes the words may be covering the need up. Sometimes the words arise to deflect what the other person says or does (the ‘obstacle’), or to explain. Sometimes – like life – we get distracted from what we want in the scene, or the situation changes, and so the needs or drives can change. And the way we get what we need also changes (and changes because of what your partner does, says, how they react – so can’t be prepared.) Stanislavsly called these changes ‘beats’ – though sometimes people say it was his accent and he simply meant ‘bits’:)

I don’t like jargon…though it’s hard not to re-invent your own.  Prepare well.  Be what I call a ‘text-detective’ (my jargon again!) – know what you want – and when you are in the ‘game’ believe it – do what you-in-the-role would do – and stay alive. Stay alive by forgetting that you know the scene: anything might happen – you’ve never said it before; you’ve never heard it before; you’ve never done it before. Like life. If you ARE the role (with all the ‘as if’ built in) you do what you would in life. Sometimes we can consciously pursue a need – sometimes we can’t.

If you just happen to have my first book to hand: ‘Acting for film: Truth 24 Times a Second’ – turn to page 76. Near the bottom of the page is a section called ‘Thoughts on Thinking’ which was my way of unpicking this use of the word ‘thinking’, which can be applied in different ways to actor and role. I often say ‘Don’t think’, but I mean the actor’s conscious ‘decisions’ – not the role’s inner life. The natural thoughts that happen in the moment are what make and keep us alive on screen and stage.

If you go to the DVD in my second book ‘A Screen Acting Workshop’, and watch people telling real stories, they are alive with thoughts as the pictures come up in their heads. On text, eyes often look dead. But if you prepare physically (and mentally) by making the imaginary world as specific as real life, then thoughts, and pictures, will arrive – just like life. Because we are so full of thoughts in life – we are not afraid of silence or stillness (you see that in the real life stories too.) But in our role – in the unnatural act of using learned text (that we have to forget that we know) – our internal life may not be so full – silences can feel enormous – so we, as actors, want to fill them in a way that is not organic.

Be sure to separate preparation from doing. Do all your prep with pictures, thoughts, physical metaphors, hidden animals etc. Then trust it. On set or stage you have to BE there, believe like a kid, and do what you do. Sometimes we are aware of thinking as we say something, but usually we are not. We simply respond or try to get what we need. Sometimes words come slowly – sometimes in a rush.

There are thoughts behind the lines…

Speaking thoughts out loud can help if you want to uncover the unspoken stuff under the words – if you are searching for what lies beneath – and is a useful prep tool. You say aloud what you are thinking and then say the words – if they are the same – there’s no subtext – if not – then you learn more about what your role wants, feels etc. (Mind you, subtext has to go deeper than the top layer – see my blog post. ‘Digging for Subtext is Not Enough…) Remember this mustn’t get fixed – it’s just an early rehearsal tool.  Then you need to trust it and let it go completely. Some depth will stick without you trying. I  wouldn’t practise saying thoughts out loud in response to other people’s lines during any later preparation. If other actors react a little differently each night/or take (which I hope they will) – how could you think the same thing or respond the same way?  No – your thoughts as the role must arise in the moment. And therefore words will too. Never decide ‘how’ to say lines.

Thoughts drive words, or words cover up thoughts. Don’t think about lines – think about the life you lead, the situation you find yourself in, what you want to happen – and the thoughts will drive the words of their own accord. We don’t play scenes; we play lives.

The only kind of thinking that really can get in your way is if you decide ‘how’ to play something or ‘say’ something – or prepare the way the scene will happen and try to stick to it. (So deciding what you would think as the character, or writing down, exactly, how you will achieve want you want, would fall into that category – we never know what we will think in life – and if we try to prepare how to get what we want, it never works out that way because other people and situations are not under our control.)

Trust your excellent preparation – believe – and be there in the imaginary world/situation/relationships, dealing as you go. Never knowing what will happen. And then you will be thinking, listening and seeing – as the role.



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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.