Skip to toolbar

What you think is what you are!


I had a question today about how to keep a performance fresh…how some well-known actors will demand limited surroundings on set so they can imagine they were really there and it would feel more like they were doing it for the first time. All I know is that these actors are considered high maintenance. Acting IS being realistic in an unrealistic situation. That is the craft. But what is the secret for transporting yourself to another time and place…over and over? For me it is about thinking my character’s thoughts, constantly.

When I was a little kid, whenever someone said something mean to me, I would reply in a sing-songy voice, “What you say is what you are”. Now I’m an acting coach and I tell my students “What you think is what you are”. It’s really the key to authentic character portrayal.

In many acting classes, students are asked to do a lot of exercises to “Get out of their heads”. In other words – stop thinking their own thoughts. Their own thoughts are often self-critical and self-conscious, making a good performance impossible. But what many actors are not taught, is that if they get out of their own heads without replacing their thoughts with the thoughts of their character, they end up with a mindless performance. The trick is to know your character well enough to know what he or she would think in every situation. For instance, if you are playing a murderer, one of your thoughts might be,”You deserve to die, you worthless SOB.” This will continue to the next thought and the next. If you are playing a victim you might think a thought like, “Bad things always happen to me”. Each situation in the scene will trigger these types of thoughts and reactions. If you are playing a loser you might think a thought like, “Nobody likes me. You probably won’t like me either”. If you are playing a hero, you might choose to think a thought like, “You can count on me. I know how to take care of this”. And on and on. As you think the thoughts, your body and face will automatically reflect the character’s view of life and himself. What you think is what you will be.

Each time you do a scene, your character is experiencing it for the first time, so your mind will be filled with those thoughts… discovering…seeing with fresh eyes. When you are aware that you have done the scene many times, you are allowing your own thoughts to creep in. It is very simple really. I have had actors argue with me that thinking is an interference with doing. But if you are doing things without thinking, I want to steer clear of you. Our minds are always thinking something. We just need to choose what to think.

I have seen the results in actors of all ages and experience. It works! They need only think their character’s thoughts constantly, as well as respond to others with their character’s thoughts. These thoughts lead into the scripted words in a constant “stream of consciousness”. It is like you are constantly talking…only sometimes your lips move and you are heard. Sometimes your lips don’t move and you can’t be heard.

Of course it takes a great imagination to understand and create an entire thought world for your character. But the thoughts will create feelings and emotions in the actor and the audience. It all snowballs into a very realistic experience.

This applies to your everyday life, too. Shakespeare said, “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players”. Whether you realize it or not, you are choosing the character you are playing every moment of your life by the thoughts you allow to run through your mind. Who do you want to play in this comedy/drama of your life? It’s your choice. You are the star of the show, for sure, but will you play the victim, the loser, the villain or the hero? A lot of it is determined by the thoughts you choose to think. If you are thinking thoughts that you wouldn’t say out loud, you need to know that you are projecting their message loudly and clearly, even if your lips aren’t moving. The other characters in your story are responding to them as though you were saying them out loud. It’s a heaven or hell creating situation.

On stage or off, “What you think is what you are”. Get out of the head that is thinking the wrong way by thinking the right way. Use your imagination to think about what kind of character you want to have. Know that character well enough to allow his/her mind to be your mind. Think those thoughts. They will trigger the emotions and feelings that will attract what you want in your performance and in your life. You are doing it, randomly, anyway, when you allow your mind to “go wild”. Might as well play the role you truly want to play.

Winnie Hiller