John Abbott has enjoyed a varied career in theatre – as an actor, director, educator (namely, Head of Acting at ArtsEd) and author. He has written three books for NHB on theatre, and his latest – The Acting Book – is published this month. John identifies charisma as one of the most important attributes for the modern actor – but what exactly is ‘charisma’? Here, he demystifies the notion…
Lately I’ve found myself shouting at the television more and more often: ‘“ConTROversy” not “ContraVERsy”!’ I yell. Or: “A road map is something that shows you all the roads in an area, you idiot. It gives you thousands of different ways of getting from A to B. What you mean is a route! Something that tells you the best way to get where you want to go!”
But the thing that drives me round the bend is Louis Walsh bouncing up and down behind his desk when he rejects the public’s favourite X Factor contestant and defends his decision by shouting, “But it’s a singing contest, Simon!”
No, Louis. It’s not. The clue is in the title of the show. The contest is to find a performer with the X Factor. That indefinable something that touches an audience’s imagination. Bob Dylan would never have won a singing contest based on the quality of his voice. Neither would Frank Sinatra. Nor Kylie Minogue.
In fact, almost no one on The X Factor has the X Factor. Yes, they can be trained to sing like Rihanna or Adele or Jessie J, but there is always something missing. Very few contestants on reality TV shows have sustainable careers because that special something – that X Factor – is hard to find. It’s elusive. Let’s call it what it is: Charisma.
They say that trying to explain Buddhism is like trying to explain Beauty. Or Love. Or Happiness. Once you begin to analyse it, you’ve already missed the point. You know it when you experience it, but try to explain that experience to someone else and it just comes out wrong. Charisma is like that.
We’ve all seen charismatic actors. We go to see a play or a film just because they are in it. No other reason. We want to see them. You know who the charismatic actors are. And although there are a lot of brilliant actors in the profession and we can teach committed students how to act like them, can we teach the students how to become charismatic actors?
Ten years ago, Jane Harrison (now the Principal of ArtsEd) and I set about writing a document that would establish the academic credentials of the acting course we were teaching at ArtsEd. Lots of drama schools do it. They get their course validated by a university so their students can get a bachelor’s degree. We were lucky enough to get involved with City University, and I knew we were talking to like-minded people when the Dean of Validation, Steve Stanton, questioned one of the sentences in our proposed document: “You have used the word ‘heart’ when assessing a student’s creative commitment, but surely a heart is just a machine that pumps blood round the body. Wouldn’t it be better to use the word ‘soul’?” (Yes indeedy! Thanks, Steve.)
When you write a course document that needs to be validated by an academic institution, you have to come up with assessment criteria in order to give each of the students a mark for their performances. Some aspects of a performance are easy to assess: Have they learnt the lines? Is their character believable? Could you hear them? Did they look confident? And so on. But time and again you come up with the same problem because there are some actors you just want to watch. They draw you in to their performance. They could stumble over their lines and their characterisation could be flimsy, but when they are on stage they… what is it? They nourish you. They excite you. They make your heart flutter. They take you out of yourself. They thrill you. They have charisma.
So we wanted to add ‘charisma’ into the list of assessment criteria for performances and in order to do that we had to define it to some degree. Here’s what we came up with:
The students are assessed on their ability to:
- Use their own personal qualities as a performer to convey plot, character and mood.
- Display an understanding that personal focus and concentration is engaging for an audience.
- Demonstrate a positive use of their unique qualities as a performer.’
One of the jokes we often tell ourselves is that if we could teach students to be confident and sexy we wouldn’t have to teach them anything else because that’s what people want to see in an actor. But actually ‘sexy’ isn’t quite the right word, because the quality we are referring to is something that appeals to both sexes. Perhaps ‘appealing’ is a better word. Or ‘charming’. Or ‘engaging’. (I’m using the thesaurus now, but you can see where I’m coming from).
Whichever adjective you choose, there is no doubt that confidence is the driving force behind them all. An agent once said that ArtsEd students were ‘confident without being arrogant’ and that was the biggest compliment we could have got, because confidence without arrogance is sexy, appealing, charming, engaging and, of course – charismatic. I do think it’s possible to teach ‘confidence without arrogance’ (and I’ve touched on an approach to that in The Acting Book when I refer to the ‘Confidence Trick’).
We don’t teach our students to act in any particular style or expect them to become disciples of any special methodology. All we do is introduce them to a collection of styles and methodologies and let them choose what suits them best. It’s what I do in The Acting Book as well, which outlines the course at ArtsEd and the different techniques and approaches that all actors, at every level, should be familiar with. It’s knowledge of these techniques that gives the students confidence. Our aim is to empower them, not enslave them. If drama teachers can help acting students to value their own unique qualities and then show them how to realise their personal artistic vision, then we will be on our way to training students to become truly charismatic actors.
The Acting Book is published by Nick Hern Books. For a limited period only copies can be purchased with a 20% discount (RRP £10.99). Plus, our blog readers can claim free UK p&p (international rates apply) by using the voucher code ‘ActingBookPP’ at checkout. Click here to purchase your copy.