The Four Levels of Acting: Becoming a Master

When I was an actor, at different stages in my career and artistic growth I often wondered what skill level I was at in my evolution as an actor. Though teachers, directors, and my audience would often deliver positive feedback, which gave me a nice boost of confidence, I also knew that I struggled with technique and really wanted to own my craft. I came upon a study of the craftsman’s development and found it identical to the development of the artist. The following lesson is the journey from Novice to Master.

Acting is both a craft and an art. The difference between them is that a craftsman can multiply a product, while an artist produces one-of-a-kind originals. A fine tailor is a craftsman because the garments can be multiplied over and over again, without a visible change in appearance. This is true of a brick layer, or one that lays tiles, a glass blower, etc. all are also crafts. When we look at these skills, where physical labor is involved, there is an art that lives inside them as well.

The difference is that the artist can’t duplicate their product to an exact, because art lends itself to personal interpretation. It adds another human element—the identity of the creator and therefore, can’t be “Xeroxed” or duplicated precisely. If it could, it wouldn’t be organic, as it would be robotic. Even if an actor reads a line in a similar way, because it’s a living expression, it must be fresh and organic. Being an artist is creating something that will never be expressed or created again, ever.

This is the very distinction that separates art from craft, however, the training cycles for both artists and craftsmen are identical, moving through four stages: novice, apprentice, journeyman and master.

A novice is a beginner who has a passionate desire to become an artist or learn a skill. This desire can be sparked at any age in life. Like a child who is fascinated with a piece of glass-blown art or a woman who longs to play the piano or a man who wants to build designer fireplaces, once the novice chooses their forum, they must find a mentor.

The next stage, the apprentice, must surrender prior concepts and ideas (commercial and hearsay influences) to gain true insight into their chosen discipline.

In the olden times families would have their son apprentice to become a blacksmith, metal or wood worker, tailor, or other craft professional. A master would be paid tuition for their child or teenager to study for a number of years until they were ready to work for pay in the shop or move back to their homeland to serve as the master craftsman in their community.

Fine actors are known to have apprenticed for several years. Some attend universities and more commonly, many find a master teacher. And because the actor’s instrument is the body, one that is-ever changing due to age and life experience, to keep their instrument tuned, many actors throughout their career continue to study in ongoing classes.

When the actor has gained enough skill to begin making a contribution professionally, the transition is made to journeyman. The journeyman takes the challenges encountered on set or on stage back into the classroom and works out issues to enhance their performance skill. The journeyman will incorporate lessons learned from their training and technique in the field. The journeyman’s goal is to be a major contributor as an artist and to become a master at their craft.

A journeyman becomes a master when fellow colleagues recognize the work as exceptional. When those whom you admire seek out opportunities to work with you because you exhibit an elevated skill, the realm of master craftsman and artist is achieved. Like the craftsman, a layman may not recognize the difference in a finely tailored suit. But a master tailor will look at the seams and know instantly. The same is true in the art and craft of acting. The public at large may not know the difference, but fellow actors know, they recognize and applaud a master.

As an actor, you are like a fine bottle of wine. You must marinate, cultivate and develop your flavor. When you are ready for market, some may want a different brand and some will chose your brand. However, you cannot change the essence of who you are… you can only learn ways to enhance your range and flexibility by aiming to become a master at your craft. There are many great actors that have developed themselves into masters…. Meryl Streep, Ryan Gosling, Viola Davis, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Jack Nicholson, etc.

I always tell my actors, whatever arc type you fall into, strive to be the best in your category. Major arc types include: the leading woman, ingénue (innocent young woman), character actress, leading man, young leading man, and character actor. Casting Directors will get even more specific when breaking down scripts for roles… like the bad girl, girl next door, best buddy to the male lead, brooding male lead, etc. Casting categories can lend the actor to having a range that can fall into several casting types.

Technique and craft development in acting is about learning how to play those types believably and build flexibility and range. It’s also about mastering different genres: comedy, sit-com, drama, period drama, episodic, etc. It’s also necessary to develop the skill required to book in different mediums: film, television, stage and new media.

Acting requires the ability to adapt and listen to the verbal and silent instructions being given. Only an actor with confidence is capable of handling the pressure required for a solid audition, and the exhausting demands of a long shooting schedule. Developing your craft creates a calm confidence—knowing that you are on your way to mastery and that you are committed to developing your skill brings a feeling of comfort and self-trust. And it is training that can inspire you, for as you build expertise in your skill, you also build an inner sense of self-belief.