Where does Acting Come from?

by Thalia R. Goldstein, and cross posted on her blog: The Mind OnStage


Acting is ancient, cross cultural, and richly rewarded (if you’re lucky). It is also only done by humans. With few exceptions. While Lassie, Flipper, and The Famous Mr. Ed may all be examples of animals trained to act and react for the camera (although none have been good enough to win awards, see Why Animals don’t win Oscars), acting as we know it — the thoughtful and considered portrayal of a character through a variety of situations —  is unique to our species alone. There’s no evolutionary predecessor of acting, as there are with many other adult human behaviors such as sociality, language, or parenting. Performance of characters seems to be universally cross cultural. But it is environmentally and culturally created, not “natural.” Therefore, it must develop from other available skills. And rarely do actors simply decide to become actors as adults—drama schools are filled with people who have been involved in theatre since they were very young.

The question I am going to tackle is in this blog is—what are the skills needed for acting (a question I’ve partially covered here and here and here), and how do those skills develop? Are those skills present in other species? And how do all of those skills fit together, both for actors, and for children as they may develop into actors?

In a recent chapter in the Routledge Companion to Theatre, Performance, and Cognitive Science (link), I outlined the Cognitive, Social, and Self-regulation skills I believe underlie acting skills.  The skills needed to act have never been fully analyzed and delineated from a psychological viewpoint. In fact, even acting theorists and textbooks are not completely sure the skills needed to act. This chapter provides one perspective on where researchers could begin looking.

There is a huge variety of skills that encompass “acting” — no one particular cognitive, social or emotional ability is “acting.” Even skills that may look similar in development, such as “pretending,” encompass a range of behaviors (e.g. childhood pretending can mean anything from using one object to mean another, to anthropomorphizing a baby doll, embodying a superhero, or discussing a pretend story).

Children may be occasionally thought of as good actors, for being young, but rarely in comparison to adults. The youngest person to ever receive an acting nomination for an Oscar was 10 years old. The youngest Tony nominee was 9 years old (and it was a special Tony). Very young children, like animals, are rarely considered to be expert actors. Perhaps this is because of the number and complexity of the skills needed to act.

Cognitive Skills

Cognitive skills needed to act include (among others) separation of fiction and reality, pretend play, task switching, attention deployment, metacognition, and memory.

The ability to tell fiction from reality is fundamental to portraying a character realistically. If you think your character is actually you, you’re not acting.  As a note: While there are a lot of media think pieces about how much actors are influenced by their characters and how it’s dangerous to play characters realistically, there is no systematic evidence of truth behind this fascination.

The ability to tell true behavior from fictional behavior is apparent in many mammals, not just humans. For example, kittens and puppies will play fight with each other and with adult cats and dogs. Yet unlike real fighting, none of the animals are physically harmed during these behaviors. The more social a creature is, the more likely it is to engage in extended play behavior in childhood. In humans, children begin to understand and play with fiction and reality at 12 months old, beginning with simple actions such as holding a toy phone up to their ear and saying “Hello!.” This type of pretend play does not need to be taught to children, and even in cultures where it is discouraged or banned, children still engage in pretense. Yet pretend is not the same as acting. Pretend does not always have a narrative or particular perspective. It is often thought of as a way to learn and practice various skills without consequences rather than a means unto itself. And most importantly, pretense is often cued in development, either verbally or behaviorally. When pretending, children use over exaggerated movements and verbal cues to begin and end the pretense.

Pretense may be related to acting (research necessary here!), but it does not necessarily involve an additional basic cognitive task which actors must engage in constantly: meta cognition. Actors must be able to reflect on the needs of their character (convince their lover not to leave them), their audience (make sure I’m in the light so everyone can see), and themselves as actors (save some breath for the next big scene) in order balance a performance adequately. This metacognition, sometimes called task emotions (in the critical work by Konijn) allows an actor to perform, not just feel. Metacognition is slow to develop in children (try asking a 4 year old to reflect on her actions at length), and the self consciousness that comes along with it requires practice.

Children’s metacognitive understanding, particularly their ability to lie, comes in slowly, and is not fully developed until children are almost eight years old. Acting involves the same metacognitive understanding of truth and fiction as lying, and the same behavioral mechanisms to portray realistic behaviors to an audience. The difference between lying and acting, of course, is that everyone in the audience knows they are watching acting (while someone being lied to may not know). Theatre sets up for the audience that the behaviors of the actors are happening in a separated space (although whether people think that actors are actually experiencing the characteristics they are portraying is another matter). And while many other animals in the animal kingdom engage in deception as a way of protecting their food or their young (only in competitive situations), humans are the only group that lie using language and for fun.

Lying, pretending, and metacognitive understanding of acting are all reliant on a variety of executive functions, used to give attention to multiple inputs simultaneously. Actors must be able to direct attention to lights, sound cues, their fellow actors, as well as their lines, their behavior, and their ability to understand whether the audience is appropriately reacting in the way desired. Children’s executive function develops continuously from infancy through adolescence and even into adulthood. While there are individual differences in executive function, apparent relatively early, there are not particular stages that children pass through. However, the more children gain in understanding complexity, ability to keep multiple goals in mind simultaneously, purposeful deployment of attention, and behavioral control, the better they may become at acting. (Not that this has been measured, but it should be!)

Finally for cognitive skills, the first question most audience members have for actors is how they remember all of their lines. Language development is actually one of the areas where we have strong evidence that it is helped by engaging in drama and acting classes. This is likely because of the verbal nature of drama. Much work by Helga and Tony Noice has found that the verbal and memory abilities of actors are a result of their social engagement with the material, rather than any formal memorization technique on the material. A large scale meta analysis (a study of studies) by Pozdlony in 2000 showed that engaging in drama, theatre, or integrated creative dramatics in a language classroom helps children gain narrative, vocabulary, and other verbal skills. However, when acting, learning the lines and words is often so difficult for children (and new adult actors) that they cannot do any other acting tasks- emoting any feelings, making eye contact with others, speaking loudly, or moving around the stage. Instead, early actors often are focused entirely on reciting their lines, in order, correctly. Learning the lines and then not having to think about them consciously- knowing them so well they come automatically- is one of the marks of becoming an actor.

Social Skills

I’ve written elsewhere on children’s developing social skills and their engagement in acting—children who want to learn acting must do so via their understanding and emotional engagement with characters. Actors as performers must understand the social context of their characters in society, the smaller contexts of their characters’ relationships with the other individuals in the play, as well as anyone who may be named in the work but not appearing on stage. All of this involves theory of mind (sometimes also thought of as cognitive empathy or perspective taking)—the ability to understand what someone else knows, what they believe, what they are thinking, and what they are feeling. This enables actors to understand their character, and his or her reactions to others. Acting in a full play, television show, or movie requires more than momentary understanding of the character’s emotions, much like interacting with others socially requires a developing awareness of personality, culture, and contextual effects on behavior. All of this may lead to developing theory of mind, empathy, and perspective taking (and we have some empirical evidence that it does – link). It may also be that as children develop theory of mind, empathy, and perspective taking, those skills allow them to become better actors.

In addition to understanding others, actors must understand themselves as a self, before they can portray another person—they must understand the interaction of their body and mind, and be able to think about what kinds of actions they need to take on to be able to portray the character as needed, to be appropriately read by an audience. This ability – to recognize the self as a self, a coherent whole – is apparent early in development (children come to this ability between the ages of 18 months and 2 years old). But it is also apparent in other species. Elephants (Plotnik, De Waal, & Reiss, 2006), chimpanzees (Gallup Jr, 1982), dolphins (Reiss & Marino, 2001) and even some magpies (Prior, Schwarz, & Güntürkün, 2008) can all recognize themselves in a mirror and therefore have a conception of themselves as an individual. Being able to recognize yourself in a mirror is only a first step to recognizing how the movement of your body and face and can be read by others.

Beyond mere recognition though, humans create full identities through their understanding of themselves in their culture. Research hasn’t shown whether animals have a sense of self as a distinct personality or identity. Outside of the world of acting, all individuals learn to inhabit and present different roles in different areas of their lives. For example, children learn through middle childhood and into adolescence that they can present one side of themselves with their friends, but may want to present a different side of themselves to new people in their lives, to parents, or in a more formal context. And a more explicit identity (e.g. I am extraverted, I have a particular religion) develops through the mid-adolescent years. How does self understanding then combine with cognitive skills and social skills into performance? Through self regulation of the body, face, voice, and mind.

Self- Regulation

Once an actor understands the role they are to play, and the demands of that role in context, they must engage in the self-regulation of behavior, body, and emotions, in order to create the portrayal itself. This is the difference between acting and reading, literary analysis, or criticism. Acting requires movement, requires the body, and requires the regulation of the self in order to achieve performance. Much like an athlete, actors must train their bodies to do what their minds tell them to- and they must do so under extraordinary circumstances. Actors rarely, if ever, portray a character having an ordinary day. Dramatic circumstances, physical comedy, heightened language is the norm, not the exception, for an actor. Most people (hopefully) experience major tragedy in their lives only rarely. Actors in a drama must portray to an audience, body and vocal expression that shows they experience a trauma up to 8 times per week. As I mentioned above, while there are many theories that this negatively affects actors’ psychological health, we don’t actually have much (if any) empirical evidence to this idea.

Actors must also think about this self-regulation in two ways (metacognitive skills coming in again). First, they must think about their own body, emotions, and behaviors.  Actors in rehearsal and in class often spend time getting themselves to a “blank slate” state—where their everyday lives will not impede their ability to act. Then, actors must think about the body, emotions, and behaviors of their characters. Acting theories have different perspectives on what this takes, but psychologically, this involves emotion regulation of various types- replacement of one (self) emotion with another (either blank, or character’s emotion, depending on acting technique). While other animals of course engage in self regulation across a variety of situations (depending on your definition of self-regulation), none do so in order to create a performance.

Developmentally, when children are in charge of their own pretend play and imaginative worlds, they are fully able to define and determine the emotional and mental states of their characters as they play. No outside force (director or script) is telling them what they need to do, so self regulation needs may be minimal. Both emotion regulation and self (behavioral) regulation increase across the lifespan, with infants and young children depending on others to help them regulate (e.g. running to a parent when something upsetting happens) while adolescents and adults are better able to regulate themselves (although not always).

A Model of Acting development

So how does it all come together in one performance? Cognitive, Social, and Self-Regulation: each type of skill affects all other skills. Development does not happen as a series of isolated abilities. Yet for the purposes of becoming an actor, I believe these skills are hierarchical in their importance, as well as the mastery that is needed in order to act.

First comes the ability to understand distinctions between fiction and reality, and the executive functioning skills that are required to keep the multiple tasks of performance in mind. Then comes the metacognitive skills to understand what each moment on the stage or screen requires of the character (and therefore of the actor) in order to create the best portrayal for the audience.

Once those cognitive aspects of performance are in place, the actor can consider the social understanding of the character—what does the character want and need?, what emotions are they feeling?, what is their personality like?, and how do they feel towards others?

Then, with that social understanding, an actor takes what they understand and can regulate about themselves- their voices and bodies, their emotions and thoughts, and creates a performance that can be read by an audience as authentic, realistic, and appropriate to the needs of the show.

Of course, this isn’t the way that these skills develop ontogenetically. Each skill – social, self-regulatory, and cognitive – has its seeds in place early in development, and each develops in concert with the others, but at its own pace. All are affected by context, environment, culture, guidance, and previous experience. It is the job of young actors and acting teachers to meet children where they are in each of these skill sets and bring them into a full understanding of the task at hand in their character portrayal.

Humans are the only species to create theatre (although the dancing birds of paradise come close – link). The evolution of meta representational skills, linguistic skills, and pretense seem to be uniquely human. Many species are social. Dogs, apes, monkeys, fish, even some snakes and birds all live socially. The skills that make humans socially adept, such as understanding others’ intentions, engaging in and with behaviors of others, and managing their own behavior to fit the social patters of others, must either have come from common ancestry with many other species, or are evidence of convergent evolution (van Schaik and Burkart).

Can any child with a typical developmental trajectory in cognitive, social, and regulation skills learn how to act? Theoretically, yes. But we don’t have evidence as to which skills are the most important, and how to best teach them to children. Every acting technique has a different theory. Acting training and theatre classes, of course, go through their own developmental progressions. Acting teachers, through training and instinct, learn how to adjust their classes to the developmental abilities and levels of the children in front of them, without necessarily knowing about the psychological skills and capabilities that go into the classes. Drama games for early childhood classes look very different from drama games for adolescent actors, which are also different from complex scene study and character study (e.g. Viola Spolin). Theatre itself also progresses, with each generation believing their actors are the most naturalistic and realistic the world has ever seen.

All of this is to point out, once again, how complicated a question about the psychology of acting actually is. There are extensive open questions, with many holes in our knowledge.

Questions not even touched upon in this blog include:

  • What is the difference between a good actor and a bad one?
  • What is “charisma” or “chemistry”?
  • Can a teacher teach students acting without directly teaching them these psychological skills?

Having interdisciplinary conversations on these questions may help answer how these acting skills develop, what psychological skills underlie acting skills, and how training might best be developed for both acting and psychological skills. Acting theorists, psychologists interested in play, creativity and imagination, and actors, film makers all have something to learn from each other.

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