In Henry Fielding’s great novel Tom Jones, the young hero and his friend Partridge go to see a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet—a play that had been around for less than 50 years at that point. Partridge, always opinionated and usually wrong, is not impressed by the actor playing Hamlet: “Why, I could act as well as he myself. I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did …”
Partridge could be right that he would have behaved the same way, if he had indeed seen a ghost, but he has missed the point entirely. The actor who played Hamlet hasn’t seen a ghost, just another member of the cast playing a ghost. The wonder is that the actor playing Hamlet can make Partridge think, “That’s just what I would have done!”
Acting is pretending. Actors pretend to be people they aren’t, caught up in fictional circumstances that sometimes take place in the distant past or the far future. Pretending like this isn’t easy to do in a way that will convince an audience of the truth of what’s happening. Even critics, who ought to know better, sometimes forget how much pretense is involved. Many movie critics were excited by the special effects in 1999’s The Matrix, but tended to dismiss its star Keanu Reeves as just okay. They forgot that Reeves had to act a lot of his scenes in front of a blue screen, with the actual effects added much later. Reeves knew what he was supposed to be seeing, but it wasn’t there in front of him. He needed to be thoroughly believable, because otherwise no audience would ultimately accept the reality of the special effects. You believe in them because Reeves behaves as though they are indeed real, just as an actor playing Hamlet does when he sees the ghost acted by his good friend Bob.
How do they do it? And—perhaps more important—how do they get the chance to show they can do it? Do you want to play Hamlet? Do you dream of becoming a movie star? Do you think you’d be a wonderful Maria in West Side Story, or have your eye on Shakespeare’s Cleopatra? Would you be excited to get cast in a small role in your high school play or at the local community theater? Would singing in the chorus of a big musical give you a thrill?
If so, you’ve been bitten by the acting bug. You may have first appeared on stage in grade school, in a Christmas pageant, but now you want to know more about acting. (You may also be the parent of a grade school kid and want to understand what your child is so excited about.) You may be in junior high or high school, at college, or an adult with a full-time job who still wants to act. Some of you may be thinking seriously about making acting a career.