Yesterday I was on the phone with my old roommate Tyler. He’s an actor that graduated from DePaul’s Theater School, worked in Chicago’s film and theater scene for five years, and last summer moved back to his hometown to ride out the pandemic.
Tyler and I have enjoyed a weekly conversation over the last few months and we pretty much always end up talking about acting. Yesterday Tyler threw out the question, “What makes a ‘good’ performance?” He’s taking a Zoom scene study class and in class this past week, his instructor praised him for his work. Tyler admitted to me that he didn’t really understand what was so special about his performance. He was confused about what his teacher meant by telling him he did a “good” job. How was his instructor measuring his performance? He wondered, “Did it seem like I was telling the truth? Or were they emotionally affected by the story I communicated? Did I take on the persona of the character? Would my performance over Zoom have translated the same way in-person? Would it have been even ‘better’ in-person?”
At Green Shirt we teach the Meisner Technique and when we do scene work, we’re looking at it through that technical lens to evaluate the effectiveness of the work and not so much based on whether it was “good” or entertaining because, for our purposes, that’s almost irrelevant. It’s more about how fully our students are able to dive into the technique.
Tyler, like me and many actors I’ve worked with in Chicago, take acting really seriously. We care about the side of the work that’s focus on carving out our niche as professional, working actors but the intention behind sharpening our skills as actors is just as strong. The desire to get better and better at the craft motivates the Chicago actor to take classes on top of going to rehearsals on top of working a day job.
A part of me thinks Tyler should just take his instructor’s compliment but his question also got me thinking. Should we judge a live digital performance with the same barometer as we do an in-person live performance? Can we even compare them? Zoom and other live-streamed performance mediums require a whole different set of skills that actors, directors, and writers must employ to engage their audience. So if live-streamed and Zoom performances continue even after live performance resumes, do we need to create a different set of quality measurements for that medium?
Taking it a step further, I started thinking about all the content I’ve streamed over the last year from Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, and Disney +. In a year of watching A LOT of so many different styles of stories on screen, how can I start to rank performances? How can I compare performances in Bridgerton to WandaVision? Or the acting work in Pieces of A Woman to Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom?
Yes there are skills all actors need to sharpen and sometimes it’s clear when one actors skill isn’t as developed as another but different mediums of performance, like over Zoom, call for different skills and then there’s different styles of performance within those mediums. The answer to “what makes a performance good,” offers a kaleidoscope of possibilities, however, so many actors (and I’m including myself in this) get caught in a self-conscious trap believing there’s this one idea of “good acting”. That somewhere out there there’s a set of rules that puts some actors/their work into a bucket of “good” and the other into the bucket of “bad.” With this rule book in our actor brains we walk around terrified from stage, to audition, to Zoom room, to rehearsal, to class, worrying about what bucket we fall into desperately hoping our community will accept us as one of the “good” ones.
After almost a solid year of watching and very little performing, I feel much more confident with the fact that one idea of “good acting” doesn’t exist. If someone thinks my performance is “good” or “bad,” that’s just their opinion and who knows what metrics they’re even using to put me in either bucket. Are they more used to consuming their content over a little screen or a big one? The stage or the Zoom room?
When the world opens up a bit more, I’m so excited to do more creating and much less ranking.