Acting is a complex art form. Every performance is larger than what the audience sees. Live theater, movies, and television shows are the result of many minds working together to create something memorable and impactful.
There’s a lot to talk about here, and we’ll do our best to cover as much ground as we can, all with the help of renowned actress Christina Toth, of television, stage, and film.
Originally from Montreal, Toth was mentored early on by actress Rita Lafontaine. Toth went on to study at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York and has since collaborated with acclaimed groups such as the New York Theatre Workshop, A.R.T. Theatres, and is currently a resident artist with The Bridge Production Group.
Her lead performance in LaTea Theatre’s production of The Woolgatherer earned her the award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Play at the Planet Connections Theatre Awards.
Toth was also featured in seasons six and seven of Netflix’s smash-hit original series, Orange is the New Black, as Annalisa Damiva.
With Toth’s help, we will try to share with audiences just how much goes into each performance and what is going through the minds of performers before, during, and after a performance.
Empathizing with characters
A common misperception about the nature of acting is that each performer must have some personal connection with the character they’re playing. This just isn’t true.
Of course, there are certainly times when there will be significant overlap between the performer and the character, but that overlap is in no way necessary for a compelling performance.
This misperception may even be the result of believable acting. For example, when we saw Meryl Streep play Aunt March in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, it was difficult to separate the performer from the character. But more than anything, this is proof that a performance is convincing and genuine.
Toth commented on the topic, explaining that having major differences from the characters she portrays, whether in thought, background, or personality, is one of the joys of committing to a role.
“I appreciate the differences I have with my characters. Not relating directly to how my characters operate forces me to see life from a different perspective. When you are too similar to your character, there is a risk of tainting the character with your own ways of life, rather than giving it the originality it deserves.”
Maintaining that separation can positively affect the manifestation of the character. The emotion behind a performance still requires that an actor draws from their own experiences, but the end result has to be true to the character.
Otherwise, the performance won’t feel real to the audience and will be more likely to attract criticism.
Shaped by mentors and communities
Given the nature of celebrity culture, the public doesn’t often get to know actors until they’ve already become successful and prolific.
Even when performers do break through into public consciousness, as Toth has, it’s difficult to look back at where they came from and understand just how much effort and commitment helped them achieve success.
But whether we realize it or not, performers are shaped by so many different factors and individuals.
In particular, many of the actors and actresses we know and love had mentors who guided them through the early days of their careers.
For Toth, actress Rita Lafontaine helped her realize what she had to contribute to the acting community. But more than anything, Lafontaine’s mentorship encouraged Toth to continue to seek out mentorships and community collaboration.
“Rita Lafontaine was a major force in my life. She helped me realize there are many layers to an individual, and that subtext is the vehicle to those layers. Overall, it’s part of my journey to find different mentors and communities along the way so that my work keeps evolving.”
Acting is a highly competitive field, but there are so many opportunities for performers to collaborate and help each other achieve new heights.
Communication and collaboration
For performers, the concept of collaboration can apply to many different situations. It can mean working together with other actors outside of the context of a production to help each other improve.
But it also applies during the preparation stages of an upcoming performance, and it absolutely applies during the performance itself.
Again, audiences tend to only notice the flashiest performances, ones where performers display the extremes of human emotion. But for those especially dramatic moments to work, everyone on stage or in the frame needs to be 100% in character and responding to every single line authentically.
That takes a lot of preparation and it takes a great deal of communication, too, and that level of collaboration definitely isn’t a given.
Toth noted that there are indeed performers who prefer not to collaborate heavily with their fellow cast members. But personally, she can’t imagine shutting herself off the rest of the team.
“If a performer feels isolated, misunderstandings might soon arise from a lack of communication, and these are detrimental to growth. Isolation has no room for outside opinions. Creative isolation works for some people, but this isn’t appealing to me. I love collaboration and that is how I will continue to work.”
It’s not that either of these methods is inherently right or wrong, but individual performers need to know themselves well enough to decide which path they need to take.
All of these little choices are tools performers can use to alter their work. Different situations and different projects call for different tools. Successful performers can look to their past work and make these decisions almost instantly.
But it takes time and experience to reach that level of expertise.
The wide reach of performances
For anyone who doesn’t spend much time watching live theater or television shows and movies, it can be all too easy to dismiss entertainment as frivolous and ancillary to the concerns of the real world.
But for viewers who have been deeply touched by some form of entertainment, just the opposite is true.
Expressions of creativity and culture are a core aspect of human society, and they have been for thousands of years.
Entertainment is about telling stories. Those stories can be simple, or they can communicate much more complex ideas. The stories we tell also have the impressive ability to motivate social change.
This is exactly what Toth realized during her time working on Orange is the New Black.
“There are times when acting taught me about myself and other moments where acting showed me the impact it can have on a community. Being a part of projects like Orange Is The New Black taught me about the power of using this voice. When you’re part of a project, you become a part of something bigger than yourself.”
In this light, performers immediately become a core ingredient of the process. Performers synthesize scripts and direction to create something that feels real, that will have a direct impact on the people who engage with it.
Some of those people may take the messaging to heart and work to change things for the better.
Key takeaways for viewers
In summary, we’d like to touch on the essence of what viewers don’t see, the work behind the performances we love.
Toth put it quite well at the very end of our conversation with her:
“I truly believe a performance is nourished by the writer’s words, the director’s vision, and the actor’s spirit and emotional intelligence. I believe a good performance is founded within an actor’s will to fully trust the writing, let himself or herself be guided by the director, and let all these forces come together. A performance is never just about the actor.”
We often pay the most attention to performers because we believe the things they say and do on the screen or on the stage.
Achieving that believability is a kind of magic act. It’s about taking all these disparate elements from many different artists and congealing them into a performance that will never be questioned by audience members.
Like many art forms, when it’s done well, the viewer doesn’t even notice the work that went into it.
It’s only when things go wrong that we start to see the gears turning, wondering why this doesn’t feel the way it should.
So we encourage each of you to watch carefully. When a performance moves you, consider what it took to make that little moment of magic happen.