We’ve all lied about who we are from time to time. Perhaps casually embellishing what we’ve done, or taken a risk by completely exaggerating the importance of a project we’re working on to impress a stranger. Or maybe you’ve taken it a step further by making up an elaborate backstory and fake name to someone next to you at the bar. But lying is exactly the opposite of what the actor does.
“A mistaken concept for people who have never tried acting before is you go in and you put on layers, you put on characters and you put on costumes. It’s a matter of covering and presenting,” says actress, CSN professor and director Mindy Woodhead, who is teaching acting classes at Cockroach Theatre. “The process of learning to act is actually stripping away layers to become more purely id.”
Also teaching the class is Chris Brown, a member of the Blue Man Group who is directing Cockroach’s next play Hir. The two have over 40 years of professional acting experience in the nation’s top theater cities, including New York, Washington D.C. and Chicago. They started offering courses after multiple requests from people in the community for them to teach. They say there is a desire in Vegas to elevate the theater scene to a national level. The first six-week course sold out within a couple days but the second installment starts January 24. They encourage all levels to join.
In the acting world, the term used to become more “id” is “true neutral”—you start without anything on, then add attributes that create the character. To get to this neutral requires a willingness to be vulnerable by stripping down natural defenses through oftentimes psychologically demanding exercises, such as staring into another student’s face and commenting on each other’s reaction, while trying to maintain an even-handed disposition.
Woodhead thinks anyone can learn to act if they are capable of putting themselves in this exposed state, but Brown disagrees. He says sometimes people’s mental blocks are too great.
“[Acting] requires a level of intimacy that people will get with one or two people in their lives, and we are asking people to access that level of intimacy with people they are hired to work with, with [an audience] watching,” Woodhead says.
It sounds like therapy, but Woodhead and Brown say that comparing acting training to therapy is the theater world is taboo. “There is so much crossover that there are really clear boundaries and really clear philosophies in acting training about how far you go, and how far you don’t go, because it’s not therapy,” Woodhead says.
“Theater at its best is cathartic for the group and cathartic for the audience. There is a really fine line to walk for the actor between lending to that catharsis and just being just self-indulgent,“ Brown says. Woodhead adds the more therapeutic the performance is for the actor, the less enjoyable it is for those watching.
But acting isn’t usually a solo task. Getting over one’s own insecurities and self-consciousness without being self-indulgent is only half the challenge. “When you think of an actor, a lot of the time a large ego comes to mind,” Woodhead says. Getting over the ego is the other half. Woodhead says you must be open and listen to other’s input in a qualitative manner and the best ideas rise to the top.
Acting is like weightlifting: You don’t ever stay at a level too long enough for it to be easy.
So we’ve gotten comfortable being uncomfortable and gotten over our own egos. What is the next step to becoming the next Daniel Day Lewis or Meryl Streep? Woodhead says acting is like weightlifting: You don’t ever stay at a level too long enough for it to be easy.
“A lot of actors become dogmatic devotees to a method or a system,” Brown says. As soon as an actor becomes comfortable with a certain method—and there are enough that would be impossible to learn them all in a lifetime—it’s time to move on to a different one.
“What the advanced system requires is the same as the introductory system requires,” Woodhead says. Although, the devil is in the details and the more advanced the actor is, the more detailed their work becomes. “But it’s always going to be the same things,” she says. “Vulnerability, objectivity, profound analysis [of the character] and using that in service of telling the story with your fellow actors.”
Want to learn how to act? The next six-week course starts Jan. 24 -March 21 every Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Drop-ins available. Weekend classes start in February. $150. Sign up at cockroachtheatre.com/classes.