We are not new to observation skills. We observe and analyze everything from things and people around us all the time. We perceive things that we come across from our subjective viewpoint and understand them. We are exposed to things we want or don’t want to see, and respond accordingly by either trying to secure them or pushing them away. In fact, most of our life lessons are a result of keen observations. Like in life, in acting too observation plays a key role.
As actors, you need to develop a knack of watching human interactions and remembering interesting parts about them so that you can recreate them on the stage or screen. In acting, observation serves as an assessment tool. Here, we refer to it as ‘formal observation’ or ‘field observation’ or ‘qualitative observation.’ In instances while we are assessing something, we are armed with the purpose of collecting data that may or may not serve as a support to our hypothesis. For example, say we are observing a film crew working on performance pieces. The objective handed over to this group is ‘Actors work together to create a performance piece.’ In order to assess if the group is adhering to its objective, we can begin by asking ourselves “How could I tell if the actors are really working together?” or “What behaviors can we expect actors working together to demonstrate?” After this, we might sit quietly and observe everything that’s happening in the sets or rehearsal halls.
However, the purpose of observational data is to describe. Typically, such observations help us to gather the following type of data:
• The setting
• The activities taking place in that setting
• The people participating in those activities
However, the purpose of observation is to describe, and not analyze our biases, prejudices, and experiences or color our observations, sometimes judging them and sometimes criticizing them. Well, there is nothing we can do about such distractions, as we are programmed that way. We begin to compare what the action we observe ought to have been or how we would have done it. One common mistake that we make is that we don’t acknowledge that there are different ways of performing the same task. As a result, we get bored and lose focus. We forget our purpose there, and do not pay complete attention to what is happening.
Every actor should avoid this failing. As an actor, you should observe not only what happens on the sets but also what happens around you in real life. You will be fascinated by the number of interesting characters around you; characters, whose habits you can observe, understand, and imitate. You need to understand human psyche, as the more you delve into it, the more flexible will be your performance of various roles. You should concentrate on whatever attracts your attention. This may come easily to some people who are simply blessed by nature with powers of observation. Such people can interpret a situation that others may have witnessed with an amazing amount of detail and arrive at conclusions that are closer to, if not the real truth. You need to hear such people talk to help you realize the amount of information that a non-observant person misses. Those who are experts at observing, notice almost everything important: the facial expression, the look of the eye, the tone of the voice, etc. Not only does this help to understand the other person’s state of mind but it also contributes immensely to their creative work, making it richer, finer, and deeper. Imagine the kind of stuff you may fail to add due to lack of good observation. Good observation skills may be natural to some; however, you too can develop it if you put in sufficient effort, time, and systematic practice. More importantly, you need to be driven by a strong desire to succeed.
If you want to notice what nature and life are trying to show you, learn to look at, listen to, and hear what is beautiful. Such habits will elevate your mind and arouse feelings that will leave a lasting impression on your mind. The truth is that nothing in life is more beautiful than nature, and it deserves to be the object of constant observation. Have you ever observed a little flower, a petal, a spider web, a seashell, or a bird? Observe any of these delights of nature and try to express in words what about these things gives pleasure. When you have to jot down something about an object or experience, it is natural that you observe the object more closely and effectively. However, you need to be prepared to understand that the darker side of nature may be some kind of disfigurement that often sets off beauty. When you observe nature, seek both beauty and its opposite, define them by understanding their complementary nature, and see them as a whole. Apply the same principles of observation when you view and analyze manmade beauty of art, literature, and music.
Remember that for an actor, imitation and imagination are as important as observation. They are effective tools that help an actor to explore and grow. When you acquire these skills, you can be confident of creating magic, whether on stage or on the screen, as these mental faculties provide a deep insight into the character an actor has to portray. Let us proceed to discuss the concepts of observation, imitation, and imagination, and how they can aid an actor.
As an actor, you may be required to play different characters and perform a variety of scenes. They could be as simple as crossing a road while talking to a friend or being resentful with parents without saying anything. How do you make your performance look natural or act like you are actually feeling what you are doing? How do you know which gestures or body posture or language will suit the character and make it look realistic? You can answer these questions only when you have a reference point, and this is possible only when you have developed the art of observation. So, view the world with the eyes of an observer. Observe everything as precisely and accurately as possible, be it living things, inanimate objects, or the smallest gestures that people use in their everyday life in daily situations that are so natural that they might go unnoticed. Your task, however, does not end with observing; you should also be able to imitate the same intricate observations as and when required without skipping even minute details.
All actors, especially those aspiring to reach their audiences with realistic performances, should work consciously towards making observation a habit. As you observe and absorb details of situations and scenes, you will realize there are a vast variety of ideas, images, and characters out there in the world that you can use effectively to enhance your acting style and enrich your performance.
Observation is a necessary tool for method actors, whose aim is to dish out identifiable characters and memorable performances. For this, as mentioned earlier, one needs to understand that observing gestures of everyday life as simple as these may be are worth observing. For example, something as simple as drinking a beverage or watching television may differ from person to person. By focusing on the little elements of habitual behaviour, you can successfully recreate the subtleties of everyday common behaviour. This, however, is not as easy as it sounds. You will not just have to spend many hours practising observation but also in analyzing your observations so that when you perform, every action or gesture in a scene has some logical meaning to them. It is only then that your performance will appear natural, compelling, and more importantly appealing.
Observation happens at different levels. So, as an observer, you can either be directly or partially involved with the object of observation, or simply observe it from the outside.