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Audiences turn to theater, television, and film when they want to take a break from reality and tune into someone else’s story. A fine performance leaves viewers feeling as though they’re witnessing something real—a genuine interaction full of all the complexity, intensity, joy, and heartbreak that goes hand-in-hand with the human experience. 

From a thespian’s point of view, these compelling performances require the actor to be “in the moment.” And as whimsical and spontaneous as that sounds, it takes a whole lot of preparation to get there. It takes a keen focus on a scene partner or something other than the self, plus the ability to relax—even when the stakes are high. Here are quotes from legendary acting instructors as they attempt to describe this somewhat elusive goal of “acting in the moment:”

Constantin Stanislavski

“When we are on stage, we are in the here and now.”

“You must be so thoroughly immersed in the given circumstances of the play, then you decide what it is at any given moment what … the actor wants.”

“When an actor is completely absorbed by some profoundly moving objective so that he throws his whole being passionately into its execution, he reaches a state we call inspiration.”

Michael Chekov

“Real inspired acting is never doing; it is always happening.”

“When you really concentrate, you will get a sense of expansion. You will feel that you are [a] larger person than you are physically, as if you become a person two or three sizes bigger than your ordinary physical self, and that you are flowing with all your being toward the object of your concentration. Whether it is a physical thing or an image that you are concentrating on, your whole invisible person will be in movement.”

Uta Hagen

“All tedious research is worth one inspired moment.”

“No work of art is ever finished, nothing is ever static, no performance is for keeps.”

Lee Strasberg

“Acting isn’t something you do. Instead of doing it, it occurs. If you’re going to start with logic, you might as well give up. You can have conscious preparation, but you have unconscious results.”

Stella Adler

“You’ll begin to act when you can forget your technique, when it is so securely inside you that you need not call upon it consciously.”

Sanford Meisner

“Every little moment has a meaning all its own.”

“Transfer the point of concentration to some object outside of yourself—another person, a puzzle, a broken plate that you are gluing.”

“The truth of your instincts is the root of your foundation.”

“Listen with your gut, not your head.”

Viola Spolin

“Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves. It creates an explosion that for the moment frees us from handed-down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other people’s findings. Spontaneity is the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with reality and see it, explore it, and act accordingly. In this reality, the bits and pieces of ourselves function as an organic whole. It is the time of discovery, of experiencing, of creative expression.” 

“Get out of your head, into your space, and await the invisible stranger.”

“Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves.”

“Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise. Anyone who wishes to can play in the theater.”

“Play touches and stimulates vitality, awakening the whole person—mind, body, intelligence, and creativity.”

“When the rational mind is shut off, we have the possibility of intuition.”

Susan Glaspell

“The only man who knows just what he thinks at the present moment is the man who hasn’t done any new thinking in the past ten years.”

“We are living now. We shall not live long. No one should tell us we shall live again. This is our little while. This is our chance.”