Learning to Act from Other Art Forms

John Currivan explains how exploring different art forms can be used to inspire new ideas and unique approaches to the art of acting.

by John Currivan

Artists sometimes discover gems of inspiration in the most unexpected corners of their lives. The smallest things, a sight, a sound, a smell can spark an insane amount of creativity. Our experience of art and different artforms can be just as valuable. After all, novelists, poets, painters and musicians have often been inspired by other art forms to create their work.

But what about actors? I've found that learning about other art forms and media can help give actors a different type of mindset or new vocabulary to help understand not just acting, but how we use our senses to observe the world.

I’ve learnt about melodramatic and exaggerated gestures by reading comic books and watching cartoons
John Currivan

Look: paintings, photography, design, comics and cartoons

From cave paintings to the renaissance through to Picasso, painting and visual art is so prominent that the word ‘artist’ is often synonymous with ‘painter’ or ‘illustrator’. In technical terms, the angles, colours, framing and content of images all combine to impact audiences in unique ways. Images communicate with our brains so effectively that we can have an immediate reaction to them without fully understanding what we’re looking at. 

I’ve learnt about symbolism and realism through classical paintings. I’ve learnt about melodramatic and exaggerated gestures by reading comic books and watching cartoons. I’ve also learnt about framing and subtlety through photography.

Actor’s performances, while never being frozen in time like a painting or photograph, tell a story in every single moment, as our gestures and physical relationships are communicating constantly with the audience. Our position onstage or onscreen and in relation to our scene partners creates an image that can be extremely powerful and effective in conveying relationships, intentions or status. We don’t always have control over the angle or framing of the stage, but we can control our positions within the frame to adjust how we are being perceived, both by the audience and our scene partners.

We can also ask ourselves if there was one defining moment or image from a scene, or from a whole play, which would it be? If you were to imagine the scene as a storyboard or comic strip how might you visualise it from various characters’ perspectives?

Modern and abstract paintings might not be to everyone’s taste, but enjoying specific works or types of art, or thinking they’re ‘good’ or ‘bad’, is beside the point. These images can still convey a feeling or evoke an emotion. They might be hypnotic, atmospheric, bland, frantic, pointless, dense, frustrating, hypnotic etc. But if it makes you feel something, anything at all, then it is a valuable experience.

Listen: music and sound design

Rockers, ravers, punks, hipsters and the stagey kids in Glee Club all use their musical tastes to help define their personalities. Musical Theatre aside, which relies on it pretty heavily, music and sound design is a fantastic tool for actors to use in their work. 

The historical context of a story can be explored by listening to the music of the era and sometimes when working on a dense or older text, imagining or imposing more modern music over it can reinvigorate the language. 

Composers and sound designers often use specific melodies, themes or instruments to represent certain characters. Actors can hijack this technique, and use rhythm, melody or quality of sound to influence their decisions. We can ask what music might a character like/hate? What kind of music or sound does this person's mind make when they think, feel or sleep? Is your character a major chord? minor chord? Perhaps they’re a major diminished 7th?

The language and jargon of music are invaluable too. Terms like staccato, falsetto, legato, tempo and timbre, can help when playing with rhythms and tones of speech, because sometimes it’s not about what you say, it’s about the way that you say it. Playing with these different rhythms of speech can sometimes feel artificial for both audience and actor, but they open up new options and ideas that can be fun to experiment with in rehearsal. 

If you're working on more subtle or intimate scenes you can start by thinking about the musicality and rhythm of your breath. Play with deep, slow and steady breaths. Play with sharp, tight and ragged gasps. Play with jumping from one rhythm to the next and keep playing as much as you want… so long as you don’t hyperventilate or pass out!

One of the more unusual ways to explore through taste or smell is to physicalise and exaggerate the sensation that a strong flavour or scent gives you

Smell, touch and taste: cooking and baking

Artfully prepared food or drink is made to appeal to our senses of touch, taste and smell and fulfils one of our most basic necessities. We can start building a rough idea of a character’s personality by asking general questions like, what’s this character’s favourite food? If they were a cake or biscuit what would they be? How do they like their eggs in the morning?

We can also use foodie words to describe a person’s actions and personality. They might be spicy, bland, spongy, fiery, sour, greasy, crusty, bitter or sweet. I once heard someone called a ‘milky handshake of a man’. After the phrase, ‘milky handshake’ stopped sending shivers up my spine I realised how accurate and evocative the description was and how effective foody words, can be. 

NB: Not all actors need to use "foodie words". Classical thespians can use 'culinary adjectives' if they prefer.

One of the more unusual ways to explore through taste or smell is to physicalise and exaggerate the sensation that a strong flavour or scent gives you. One exercise, which I have done in a Michael Chekhov workshop, presents an actor with a collection of foods with distinct flavours like lemon, sugar, salt, hot spice, honey, garlic, mint etc. The actor then tastes and eats them. They’re then encouraged to explore the strength, subtlety and quality of the flavour, as well as the texture: how it feels on the tongue, the teeth, if it sticks to the roof of the mouth. They can physicalise those sensations using their face, arms, legs, feet, voice and in doing so start creating characters. 

The physical act of preparing food is another good way to explore characters and actions. There is something special and almost ritualistic about preparing food. How people cook and how they eat can tell us volumes. Do they prepare meticulously colour-coordinated sushi or do they reheat the Greggs pastry they’ve had in their pocket since the morning? What types of knife do they use to chop? Do they play with their food or wolf it down? What have they just eaten before this scene began?

Some people may find these thoughts and exercises helpful, others may not, some may think they’re a little superficial or frivolous… and yeah, they might be… but if they help actors to produce high-quality work, then they are worth trying out. Whilst these ideas and techniques don’t provide any miraculous finished products, they offer us unique starting points, fresh sources of inspiration and new ways of approaching our work, all of which can help us stand out from the crowd.

John is an Irish actor living in London. He started his career in Clondalkin Youth Theatre and trained in the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College, Dublin. He has worked and toured with productions internationally, and starred in The Commitments, in the Palace theatre and on the UK and Ireland Tour. He has written scripts for radio, stage and also for comic books.