‘Acting is reacting!’ – the ancient adage of the actor.

It’s the idea that when you’re performing, you don’t need to ‘do’ or ‘create’, anything you just need to react to the stimuli around you: the temperature, the space, the light, and most importantly, the other people – and what they’re giving you.

In their search for the holy grail of ‘good acting’, loads of actors cling onto ideas like this. It can become a mantra.

But then they can get anxious that any kind of ‘character work’ contradicts this mantra. Actors want to play ‘a character’ but they see this as a ‘creation’ not a ‘reaction’. And that Joan Littlewood, Harold Meisner and even Stanislavsky himself might be rather disappointed in them if they start ‘pretending’ to be someone that they’re not.

The solution to this is to see the character as a reaction as well – the actor is reacting to the given world, the other characters, their own subconscious. None of it is a new creation – just a synthesis of old attitudes and feelings that we react to.

For example, when an actor plays King Lear, he or she finds the part of the psyche that wants to be powerful and wants to be held in awe and wants to be respected and wants to be loved. Sam Kogan calls these ‘psychological purposes’. The actor sits with these purposes and the exterior world, the historical context and the text. And then reacts to them – allowing these ‘wants’ and circumstances to colour the thinking and allowing other characters to react to them as well.

This is still reaction – not creation.

What if I don’t have thinking or feelings like King Lear? How can I react to psychology that I don’t have? Won’t I have to create it? Joseph Campbell suggests that there are archetypes which are universal to all of us. We all have the capability to want these things. It’s part of being human. So, in different ways, we all have the ability to play King Lear.