BusinessWorld (Philippines), June 29, 2004
Tips from a British Thespian
by Cesar Miguel G. Escano
They say acting runs in the blood. Dee Cannon follows in the footsteps of her late mother, who was also an acting coach at the British-run Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
Ms. Cannon has been a main acting teacher for the institution since 1993. The RADA prides itself in having trained eminent actors such as Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Glenda Jackson, Alan Rickman, and Kenneth Branagh.
A product of the Arts Educational Drama School in London, Ms. Cannon prepares her charges for the stage and the screen. She has coached celebrities such as Jon Voight, Matthew Modine, Sinead O’Connor, Courtney Love, and Natalie Imbruglia. She is currently based in Los Angeles, California where she is running a series of master classes for professional actors.
BusinessWorld talked to Ms. Cannon, who is here in Metro Manila to conduct acting workshops. She was invited by the British Council.
BusinessWorld: Acting onstage is different from acting for the camera. Any advice for those making the transition from theater to television or cinema and vice-versa?
Dee Cannon: (To screen actors moving to the stage,) try and get some training. It takes a lot more skill to act for the theater. If you’ve been in theater, this makes it easier to cross over to film or television. In front of the camera, you can get away with playing yourself. A lot of untrained actors can get away with this. But if you invite them to do something on the stage, they wouldn’t be able to cope. The demands for theater are very underestimated. A lot of kids see reality television shows and say “I can do that.”
BW: What makes a great actor?
DC: In reality, a lot of people can be okay actors. But to be a great actor, you have to be at the top of your game. You have to be committed and dedicated. You have to devote yourself to wanting to give the best performance you can give. Working with lots of top successful actors, you see why they’re famous. They know what it takes to stay at the top. You have to work really hard and do the right kind of work. A lot of aspiring actors come to me and complain that they worked really hard. It turns out they worked in the wrong way. A good actor has emotional depth and possesses certain qualities.
BW: What are these qualities?
DC: Some of these are a natural sense of truth, humility, vulnerability, charm, charisma, openness, and imagination. These are start- off qualities but these qualities alone are not enough. Actors who possess these qualities, those I can train and like working with. I get good results from them. People always ask can you teach someone to act. It is not a question of yes or no. You can’t give someone talent. They have to have talent to begin with. You can teach them techniques to use that talent, techniques that will enable them to access any character and tap into emotional truth. You have to be emotionally accessible to be a good actor. If you are closed and don’t open yourself to the character, you become an actor who’s just saying the lines. A good actor brings the characters alive. You have to have certain qualities and from those good qualities, you can nurture an actor.
BW: Can anyone become an actor?
DC: No. Some lawyers can make quite good actors. Funnily enough, it’s often easier to train someone who hasn’t acted before. They’re cleaner and don’t have bad habits. They’re not self-conscious. Sometimes, when you’re innocent, the less you know and the more natural your actions are.
BW: Any tips on fighting being self-conscious?
DC: A lot of my work has been to rid actors of being self-conscious. I call it getting rid of the third eye. It takes some actors their whole lives to get rid of their third eye. For the first few months, I often spend the time trying to get rid of actors’ bad habits. I usually try to make one with a third eye work physically. You let them get very tired. I make them run up and down a staircase and tell them to become a chimpanzee, which I do very often. Twenty minutes later, there is no way they can be self-conscious. Since they’re so tired, they concentrate on their acting. It’s all they think about. After a time, they learn to sustain that feeling of being true to oneself. The worst type of actor is someone who thinks too much. What you’re trying to do as an actor is something natural. I try to train actors to be psychological in their approach.
BW: Doesn’t being psychological defeat the purpose of acting, which is supposed to be natural?
DC: The homework is to figure it all out on paper and work out how you want to psychologically affect other characters. But when you’re in front of a camera, you don’t think of psychology. You need to become the character. Initially you need your head, but when you’re acting, you don’t need it. You must train actors to have strong instincts, to be spontaneous. I’m not saying that you should frighten others by doing unpredictable things. But the spontaneity, the impulses can come out because the framework is there to begin with. That takes a lot of training, rehearsing, and skill.
BW: Any tips on improvisation?
DC: The best way to improvise is to leave yourself alone, to not anticipate, and most of all to listen to the person you’re improvising with. Because if you’re there to be funny, you can’t improvise unless you listen to the other person. Acting is reacting. If you’re in a bubble, you can’t act. You may think a lot of actors are in a bubble because they’re ego driven. These are the worst ingredients for an actor. You have to be generous. You can’t be selfish. The more generous, the more giving you are, the more you get back.