August 30, 2007

Should a good actor be a good speaker?

I came across this article today about former senator/actor and presidential candidate Fred Thompson's apparently "lackluster" speaking style.

"One person in the audience Tuesday for the VFW speech in Kansas City expressed the view that an actor who makes his living in front of a camera should be able to 'talk to a crowd.'

That sounds reasonable, but is it true?

An actor filming a motion picture or television program works to please one person, the director. When something comes out not right, they reshoot the scene, over and over if necessary to get it right.

There are no retakes in a speech to a live audience. The speaker has to be ready to respond to the overt and subtle reaction to the people he's talking to. To put it another way, he has to know what the applause lines are in his address."

This analysis is partly true; an actor, whether on stage or on screen, performs a part based on that character's identity and relationships with other characters in the play or movie. It's not about creating a relationship with an audience as much as it is creating a sort of "parallel universe" that the audience can relate to and partake in emotionally, but still, the characters' relationships are primarily with each other.

An actor (or group of actors) is successful when an audience is able to "suspend their disbelief" and the performance and relationships feel real and true to them.

However, to say that an actor doesn't need to "be ready to respond to the overt and subtle reaction" of the audience or "know what the applause lines are in his address" shows a lack of understanding of live theater or television.

These are tools actors use every day in comedy performances; it's critical to understand timing and applause lines and to be able to read the audience moment by moment. Otherwise, a funny scene or line can easily fall flat.

Another trait actors bring to public speaking is the ability to avoid self-consciousness on stage and off. Because actors are willing to do whatever is necessary to portray a character honestly and authentically, a sense of confidence and even fearlessness develops through this ongoing training.

This isn't true of all actors, however; some actors are only comfortable when playing a character. Being "themselves" onstage is just as nervewracking as it is to less experienced speakers. (A nervous actor could try my technique of playing a character when speaking, only the character is the best version of myself!)

What do you think? Should actors automatically make good speakers?

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3 comments. Please add yours! :

Anonymous said...

Perhaps theatre actors make better public speakers because they are used to live audiences. However, they always have a script and learn it by heart with the others on stage who answer with known responses. The test for them would they would handle an unscripted part.
Improv "actors" who never have a script, although they can make the best of any situation, aren't used to staying on topic like a public speaker must do.
I guess a good public speaker must be a bit of everything...improv to handle the hecklers, theatre actor to handle the script and TV actor (just in case the speech is recorded).
Whew...that's a lot of work!

Anonymous said...

An actor speaks someone else's words. The link between content and delivery is organic. A "good" public speaker is first and foremost someone with something to say.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks, Jacki and Richard - great points!

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