(an excerpt from the end of the game’s first stage)

“Fiction is not a dream. Nor is it guesswork. It is imagining based on facts, and the facts must be accurate or the imagining will not stand up.” – Margaret Culkin Banning

What do you have to gain by learning to act? Can learning to act well improve other parts of your life?


Here are some of the responses from a few screens go when you were asked what you thought about acting:

a communion



it’s dangerous

it’s a license to be ‘crazy,’

‘being emotional,’




When I started acting in theater my early adolescence, it was a safe place to have big feelings. On stage, I could take my place in life. “Being other people” enabled me to be visible when other circumstances in my life made that difficult elsewhere.

But as I grew up and trained, I learned that acting was an investigative craft – that my emotional life served the character’s, not the other way around. I set about learning the techniques to investigate – which questions to ask that would unlock the most information from the character, be it physical, psychological or emotional. I learned how to best unearth the facts in the script – the facts, as Ms. Banning writes, on which to build the imaginings that produce the most effective fiction.

Children are wonderful actors. They dive right into whatever circumstances their imaginations present, never stopping the game because a “polka dot fairy would never want to live in a mushroom castle!”

As we get older, the socialization that keeps us together inhibits our ability (and desire) to imagine ourselves outside of our comfort zones. But being an actor is to make a habit of peeling away the layers of what feels possible.


The definition of acting that sits best with me, that’s become my North Star is: “to behave truthfully under the given circumstances.”

The given circumstances – or facts of a role – include everything from a character’s gender to the location of a scene to what the author writes that the character overheard on the subway.

My most effective performances have begun with me reading the play or film script several times straight through and then sitting at my kitchen table with a paper and pencil and making a list of each of my character’s given circumstances. If I’m playing Blanche in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the beginnings of my list might look like this:

I have made my living as a school teacher

I recently lost my job because I had an affair with a student

I have a younger sister named Stella

I was born and raised in Mississippi

I was born in 1915

Even as I write this list, for a part I’m not now playing, I can feel my mind start to whir with images: stories of a friend’s Mississippi childhood; the inside of classrooms from my own experiences as a school teacher; the faces of two Stellas I know; what my life would be like without all the social movements from the last half of the century – the Civil Rights Movement, the ERA…My mind is taking the given circumstances and starting to craft a life – a Claire/Blanche, as it were, based on the characters’ given circumstances and my own experience of them.

Your associations, or what you know about the given circumstances, are what will make your Blanche different from mine, even though they’re built on the same structure of irrefutable facts (the given circumstances). But if you are careless or neglectful with your attention to the given circumstances, if you are content to peruse photos of Georgia instead of Mississippi because, “hey, it’s stll the south” or , as the baby of the family you fail to read about or talk to eldest siblings and learn what that birth order would feel like, your imagining – and thus your character – will be based on assumptions and half-truths. The work will not add up, it will not be effective, and the fiction won’t be true.

While to “behave truthfully” might sound like a more ethereal endeavor, there are likewise concrete tasks to learn this as well. They include exercises that expand your emotional life by exploring your past and imagination, and we’ll look at some of those later. They’ll enable you to find pockets of your experience – memories of places and people, dreams [IMAGE – dreams, memories]– you have forgotten about and they’ll inform your instinctual ability to ‘behave truthfully.’ Luckily, you’re already an expert on this, having lived on the earth for however many years. One of my best acting teachers always said, “Life is the best acting teacher (and it’s free!).”

To act well feels like…nothing. But you can see things change and move around you, you effect change without the feeling of effort. To not act well feels like….the burden of everything, and all your efforts can seem to do nothing about it.

What do I mean by this?

Let’s say you are rehearsing a play. You are playing Catherine in A View from The Bridge and it is week two of rehearsals – deep into the process for a professional production. You have learned your lines. You are off-book, as they say, but learning lines is only the very tip of the ice berg of creating a role. At night you practice walking around in clothes similar to Catherine’s so that you’re not sitting like a 24-year-old from 2010, on breaks you fill your imagination with the sepia pictures of Bensonhurst that the dramaturg has brought in, and before rehearsals even started you met with a dialect coach to learn the period-specific Brooklyn accent.

And yet, during the afternoon’s run-through, you feel like an antiquated robot. Your inner life is a beat behind the words you speak. You are sitting the ‘right’ way, imagining the ‘right’ image before your second act entrance, pursuing the ‘right’ objective from your scene partner. But you are an acting automaton. You can see that you are separate from your colleagues, you’re not affecting them in a deep way, nor are you letting yourself be affected by them. You rack your brain, you empty your bag of tricks. You have done all that you know how to do (unless, of course, you haven’t – that’s a whole other story), but nothing can help you escape this invisible cage.

Now, let’s say you are rehearsing the same play, you are still playing Catherine, but it’s two weeks and one day into rehearsal and perhaps something went  – your boyfriend walked out the night before, you read the most inspirational quote in the world on the subway that speaks only to you, or you knew you were going to get fired anyway so what the hell….your anger or your enthusiasm blasts through your self-consciousness. Your technique is still there but now so is your courage and your humanity. You are better. Because you are braver, everyone around you is more alive, and you are all telling the story better. New choices are better than the old ones and more ‘right,’ more in the ‘container’ of the play…You are an acting animal.

The feelings of the two scenarios are closer than you can ever imagine. They can live in you on the same day – some insight from a colleague can catapult you towards the second, the director voicing doubts can help keep you locked in the first.

There are those for whom the first scenario comes comfortably – the technicians – and those who gravitate towards the second – the showmen. And to be fair, most actors vacillate between the two on a continuum. But the ones who consistently and with increasing courage do both at the same time – well, let’s just say we know their names. They are not just celebrities or artists – they are thought leaders. They show us who we are, who we have been and can help us decide who we want to be.

Do your work, be thorough with yourself, admit when you know that you are missing something. Be gentle with yourself. Lovingly coax yourself back to the structure of your facts and what you know. True, you can sometimes scare and berate yourself into a good result, but the effect will be short-lived. It will erode your health and, subsequently, your mastery, over time.


When I was growing up and studying acting, I thought being an actor would give me attention and a living. And it does do that for some and sometimes for me. But it became clear as I navigated adulthood that, if those were the main things I needed, there were many other paths I could take that might be more efficient.

So why continue? As opposed to helping me ‘lie,’ the investigation of acting keeps me honest. It keeps me interdependent with others in a non-hierarchical way, it let’s me know that there’s a lot I don’t know about others, it keeps me connected to the limitations and growth of my mind, heart and body. In other words, it keeps me humble and at the same time firing on all cylinders.

Whether or not you are a professional actor, what might acting a role do for your inner landscape?

What are your fears about the process?

Your wishes?