Acting Is Like Sneezing – “The Talk”

“Acting Is Like Sneezing” is the title of a talk I give at the beginning of the Acting classes and Directing lectures I teach at Motion Picture Institute (MPI).

The purpose of the talk is to introduce beginning actors and directors to the kind of work that actors must do to give a naturalistic and believable performance on camera.

“Acting is Like Sneezing” is a concept, or a philosophy about acting, not a method or a system.

I believe that when you understand this concept, you will get a better understanding of why certain acting methods and systems actually work so well to produce believable performances.

I don't know if anyone else in the world, or in history, has ever compared acting to sneezing.

I came up with the idea on my own, after reading about a Buddhist theory that orgasms and sneezes provide a glimpse into enlightenment: You can't experience either without being fully present in the allowing of those processes to take over the moment.

Being a student at the time, I immediately made the correlation to what I was learning in my classes.

“That's just like Acting!”

Many of you will read that and get it immediately. You won't have to read any further. Except, maybe to see how it relates to acting methodologies.

But, those unconvinced should read on. The explanation and walkthrough of my lecture may just make believers out of you.

So, I held onto that idea throughout my acting experience—

I came up with the idea on my own, based on my unorthodox training as an actor, and on years of experience working as a professional actor and an acting coach.

It has been a personal mantra that has bolstered my understanding…

Only a few years ago, after making the transition to teaching, did I finally decide to share the understanding with anyone.

I guess I could have called this “Acting is like Orgasms.” But, I think too many people already believe that about Acting, and for entirely different reasons.

It certainly doesn't cover every approach to acting, nor every aspect of acting. But, the talk usually shakes beginners out of their misconceptions about what acting is and how to approach it.

What is “Acting?”

I begin my talk with a question to the class: What is Acting?

I get a lot of interesting answers. None are wrong. They simply open up everyone's ideas about what acting is, what it means to act, and why. I encourage every answer to be good or to have solid elements of truth.

Acting is “embodying or realizing a character” XXXXXX (other answers here)

There are two answers I like to highlight, once everyone is done explaining what they think Acting is.

The first of those answers is that “Acting is pretending…”. Pretending to be a character, pretending to be angry, pretending to be something that you're not.

I get this answer less and less frequently these days. And, when I don't get it, I congratulate the class for not thinking this way.

Whether I get that answer or not, I use it to segue into the second answer, which is some iteration of “Acting is being truthful under imaginary circumstances.”

I'm actually surprised at how often I DO get this answer. Invariably, someone has taken an acting class, or done some studying about it, and is anxious to impress their classmates with that understanding.

So, “How do you do that?” I ask. How is it possible to be truthful when the circumstances are not “true”?

There are a few answers to that—and even more questions about the truthfulness of the imaginary circumstances—but, I leave that question hanging for the moment, and promise to get back to it after the demonstration…

The Demonstration

I invite three people to the front of the class for a demonstration.

“Sneeze,” I instruct them. “Please give us your best sneeze.”

They each take turns showing the class a sneeze, and there are always some really hammy and funny antics that ensue to produce these sneezes.

“OK, now which was the best sneeze?”

I then walk by each participant, asking the class to rate the believability of the sneeze by applause.

I don't bother giving the winner a gold star or anything. It's just for the fun of it, and to lead me to this next question to the class:

“Which of them actually sneezed?”

The answer is unanimous and instantaneous: None of them, of course.

“How do you KNOW?”

These answers come more slowly.

  • “You can't sneeze on command.”
  • “There was no build-up.”
  • “Sneezing is spontaneous.”
  • “They didn't inhale deeply enough.”
  • “Because you told them to act out a sneeze.”

What is Sneezing?

“If I asked you to actually sneeze, what would you do?”

Emotions are Like Sneezing

Triggering Reality in an Artificial Moment

You must be willing to surprise yourself (be surprised by your actions)

In filmmaking we really are trying to capture lightning in a bottle.

At this point, I'll either move on to doing some acting exercises for my Acting students, or talk to my Directing students about how actors train for…

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