The Art of Business

If you’ve come to this post thinking I’m going to give you advice on how to start up your own LLC, or Corporation, you’ve come to the wrong site! When it comes to the art of acting, there’s a gigantic secret that no one wants you to know. Yes, there’s one little thing that can take your acting from simple to incredible, from bland to fantastic, from boring to fascinating.

What is that little thing, that gigantic secret, that seems so mysterious? Could I be talking about pacing? Could I be talking about voice? What about motivations behind the lines? What about subtext, or sensory work, or accents, or dress? Well, all of these things are important, but what I’m talking about is even easier. It’s a choice.

The art of taking your acting to a whole new level is nothing more that one simple word. This word describes everything that acting entails, and the word is...BUSINESS!

When you start out as a young beginning actor, you probably got your first script, or play, and thought, “Heck, all I have to do is learn these lines, learn some blocking, like where I go on the stage, and say the lines in a believable way to my co-actor, and that’s pretty much it! I’ll let the director tell me if I need to be bigger or smaller, louder or softer, sadder, or happier, and heck, I’ve always been emotional, so that part’s easy, crying on cue and all that kind of thing!”

Well, that may have worked well for you for many years, but at some point, you’ll come to rehearsal one day and think, “Why in the world do I feel like everything I do is the same, every single time? And what makes that guy, or that girl over there, seem so much better than me? I’m doing everything they’re doing, but they just come alive in their scenes! While I seem to be staying the same. What am I doing wrong? Help!”

The difference between you and that other great actor may have something to do with the actual choices they are making, and guess what? These choices can be very easy. They can be as simple as deciding to pick your fingernails while saying your lines, or as easy as deciding to peel an apple with a pen knife while reciting a monologue. It’s called, once again... business, and it’s the entire basis of acting.

Acting isn’t called acting for nothing. The word acting is based on the idea of an act, or action, which means, that you need to be physically DOING something to be an actor.

It’s my opinion that the absolute worst kind of acting is the kind where people stand still and say their lines without moving a single muscle, and we’re supposed to find this realistic and interesting. “It’s all in my eyes” such an actor might reply. BULL HOOEY!

If you look around you, at every day life, you’ll see people doing all sorts of things while having the most emotional and meaningful conversations that seem so natural to us. For example, you might be having a fight with your lover -- whilst vacuuming the floor. You might be telling someone you love them -- while scrambling an egg. You might be on the phone telling someone you're breaking up with them -- while you’re also trying to type an email, and paint your toe nails, and curl your hair etc. etc. etc! Maybe you’re listening to someone reveal something terribly important to you, but while you’re listening, you’re putting on make-up, wrapping a gift, picking your ears, or rubbing a sour elbow muscle. You could be on your head and screaming for your wife to shut up, or crying in pain while walking the dog. The options are endless, and this my dear, is where the fun is for an actor.

Remember, people seldom just sit, or just stand there, when they talk (or fight or laugh or cry or whisper or scream or apologize etc.) to each other. They do things while communicating. They communicate with more than just words.

So, as a fun test for you to do -- make a list of all the things you might do in one single day, and keep adding to it -- to keep for future reference. And start practicing these things while saying your lines, any lines, they can even be made up. If you’re working on a monologue or scene that’s boring, just add an activity. It can be a small as taking off your watch and winding it, doodling, or washing your glasses -- or as large as doing jumping jacks, or painting a painting.

I realized the importance of coming up with business in my two years of intense improvisation classes which I took in my USC, Masters Acting program. I learned all about using activities from my teacher, Steven Book, an improv teacher in Los Angeles who trained extensively under the famous, Viola Spolin. Spolin is the internationally recognized originator of Theater Games - the basis of improvisational theater. Much of her technique was the foundation for Chicago's famous, Second City, LAs Groundlings Theater, and also the basis for improvisational sketch comedy such as Saturday Night Live, and Mad TV.

After realizing that having an activity in every scene could take my acting to a whole new level, I began to watch other actors in Films and TV, and realized that they too had realized this simple tool. It should have been so obvious, but no one had ever really pointed it out to me. Just have something that you do in every scene. Pick something, and experiment.

One actor in particular has always made me laugh, and his “business” has become something I always point out to friends and students. And that actor is Denzel Washington. If you watch Denzel, you’ll realize that in almost every movie, he’ll eat something slowly. And often times, he’ll cut into an apple, or peel an orange, and then he’ll suck on the piece of fruit slowly as he says his lines.

Denzel, I’m on to you! And Denzel, I think you’re brilliant! Picking a piece of food that you can perform some kind of action with is a fabulous choice of business, for two reasons. Firstly, it gives you something to do, that takes your focus off of your lines. Secondly, eating a sour type of food makes your choice sensorially related, not just for you, the actor, but also, for the viewer (and other actors). Cutting into an orange, an apple, or a lemon, makes us, the viewers, take notice. Immediately, we can feel our sticky fingers, and our taste buds perk up. As Denzel sucks on the orange rind, our noses smell the familiar smell, and our mouths water, and the scene comes alive for us, through our senses. This choice takes a boring scene to new levels and keeps the audience interested.

Picking the appropriate business, or activity, can also create conflict or drama; or it can also add humor and pathos if picked correctly. For example, if we pick an interesting activity, the whole scene can become heightened. If we’re in the middle of trying to explain something meaningful and important to a loved one, and we’re busy trying to scrub a pot that just can’t seem to get clean, that would create conflict, and could even make the other character angry or frustrated. If we were really sad, but eating a big powdered donut, the sad scene could become quite humorous, as the white powder gets all over our face. If we were telling someone that they’re beautiful, but we’re polishing a gun, the scene becomes terrifying. One great example of creating drama, humor, and irony with stage business, was when Julia Roberts picked her mascara apart, on her eye-lashes, in "Charlie Wilson's War", with a pin, while talking to Tom Hanks (as Wilson) about sending aid to the freedom fighters in Afghanistan. Enough said!

Picking activities that work well, either by being contrasting, or heightening, is the sign of a very skilled actor, and if you begin to watch movies with this in mind, you’ll notice those few actors who really know how to do this (another favorite is Meryl Streep, a master of business).

The converse is true. If you watch a movie and you’re not sure why it’s so bad, it may be simply that both the actor and the director are too inexperienced to realize how important business really is. It’s the job of the actor, first and foremost, to come up with the ideas of activities in each scene, since they won’t be listed in the script. And don’t worry if your director is intimidated by these original ideas. He or she may only be worried about continuity, so don’t pick an activity that’s hard to repeat, or which can’t be shot from every angle. Smoking cigarets and eating are usually frowned upon if it’s a low budget film, because both activities have to start at one point, and end at another, and it’s hard to keep re-shooting with the same amount of cigaret or food in each shot.

Picking business and doing it also ads a lot to your scene. It deepens each moment. When you do chose an activity, you forget about the words, and then, the activity takes on the subtext and deeper meaning of your words. You can use the activity to heighten your emotion -- for example, you can slam the pencil down on the table as you yell your lines, or you can pause while you’re finishing your activity, then stop and look meaningfully at your co-actor.

It also takes the focus off of you, and your feelings of acting out a scene, and puts your focus into your action. It allows the words to speak for themselves, and helps you get out of the way of your own brilliant, over thinking, brain. It will break old habits, and patterns, and bring new life to your script. I promise.

About Kirsten Tretbar

Kirsten Tretbar is an acting teacher, filmmaker, and former actress. She received her MFA in Acting from USC in Los Angeles, where she acted professionally for many years.

Los Angeles + Kansas City