Probing Question: Can a shy person be an actor?

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- You're the type of person who stands back in a crowd, taking it all in. When out with a group of friends, you linger on the edges, contributing to the conversation only when you feel you have something worthwhile to share. You avoid being the center of attention.

For some reason, though, you're drawn to the stage. You don't want to be a star; you want to act. But can a shy person succeed as an actor?

"A shy person has a heck of an obstacle to overcome," Susan Russell, assistant professor of theatre, said. "A reserved person, however, can most certainly be a great actor."

So what's the difference between "shy" and "reserved"? The terms are often used interchangeably, but their definitions are quite different. According to Merriam-Webster, "shy" means "easily frightened." "Reserved" means "restrained in words and action."

So if you're shy, you're probably too scared to audition for a few people, let alone get up on stage in front of an audience. You're scared about the uncertainty of the profession, and the possibility you won't be able to make a living.

However, if you're reserved, Russell noted, you don't necessarily have those fears. Your restraint likely leads you to be a good observer -- an essential skill when it comes to acting.

An actor must be well-read, intellectually sharp and innately curious, as well as a good listener, she explained. "You cannot create with no foundation in human observation or experience as a researcher of the human condition."

Some actors are comfortable on stage, but seem shy on the red carpet. It's not uncommon to see a highly lauded actor stammer out a response when the Entertainment Tonight correspondent asks, "What designer are you wearing?"

"Shy people do not necessarily engage with the public as well as they do with a camera or a live audience," Russell said. "Being in the public eye is as much a performance as being in a show. Sometimes being in the public eye requires more energy than being in a show and not everyone is willing or able to spread their energies into both arenas."

On the flip side, we also see actors who relish the public eye, as evidenced by their antics recapped in the tabloids. Those antics could be a cover for insecurity, Russell observed. "Actors are regular people, and just as there are people who act out their insecurities, there are actors who do that as well. It is always good to remind the actor that they are hired for their performance on the stage -- not in the wings, the rehearsal studio, the dressing room or a public space. Acting in a show or film is a job and if you cannot do the job without torturing yourself and everyone around you, there is someone else right next to you who can."

In the acting studio, the focus is on teaching repeatable skills, no matter the student's personality. "Acting is a learned skill and a teacher must teach repeatable skills that lift an actor to where they want to go," said Russell. "Teaching acting is not magic; it's mostly watching what a student is doing, suggesting another way in or out of an obstacle, and then waiting to see when the student begins finding their own way out."

Russell says an acting teacher must have an unending bag of tools from which to draw, but the best teachers make up the rules based on who is standing in front of them. "It isn't the shyness," she concluded, "it's finding the methodology to make shyness something that is a choice."


- Amy Milgrub Marshall

Susan Russell, assistant professor in Penn State's School of Theatre, can be reached at (814) 865-7586 or sbr13@psu.edu.

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Last Updated April 04, 2013