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15 minute read - Books

The Actor's Ways and Means

Mar 11, 2002

…Meyerhold’s bio-mechanical actor said, “I make these movements because I know that when I make them what I want to do can most easily and directly be done.” [1]

All quotations in this article are from “The Actor’s Ways and Means”, Michael Redgrave, William Heinemann Ltd, 1953

More for amusement than a desire to educate myself further in the ways of testing, I picked up a copy of Michael Redgrave’s lectures on the actor’s craft “The Actor’s Ways and Means”. I was attracted, in much the same way that I am attracted to black and white films on TV by the prospect of concise, focused, gentile and erudite communication. And also by the entertainingly quaint photographs of an earnest and experienced Stagecraft Exponent; all greasepaint, wild hair and madness as Lear; splendidly posed, seated on a high backed chair, and with teacup held perfectly as a well to do gentleman should; and again, all greasepaint, wild hair and evil lidded stare as Shylock.

It was for amusement that I read this small tome. But as I started to read, I found parallels to the software testing and development world. This could be seen as a mild form of obsession, but I was waiting to go to a testing meeting and I had an hour to spend in idle pursuits, so naturally testing was still just below my conscious focus.

Admittedly when I had bought the book I thought “perhaps testers need to learn the skills of acting in order to put themselves in the situation of users when testing the software”. Perhaps they do, perhaps they don’t. Perhaps they don’t need anything so formal as acting skills, as developing other thought processes or taking on other beliefs, perhaps they just need to understand and think about the aims of that user. Perhaps these are the same things.

But I had forgotten all that when I came to read the book, which after all deals with the actor’s craft and the skills required to handle the acting life. However, I quickly realised that the book might bear relevance to my own testing vocation when I came upon Michael Redgrave’s descriptions of critics.

The conditions in which critics work are harder than is generally supposed. I could wish they could be given more time, more space, less to do and more room in which to do it. I could also wish that the written history of our theatre were not a history of first nights. [1]

I could not help but empathise. I too could wish that the critics of the software development world, and I refer to testers here, were given more time, more space, less to do and more acknowledgement of the hard work that is done. It often seems that software development is a history of first nights because systems are so very quickly passed to the repertory players in the maintenance department.

After more than a few years in theatre, Michael Redgrave was aware that however harsh his critics’ words might be, they would critique out of a love of good theatre. Testers too do it out of a preference for good development practices and to have produced for the user a product which will match the user’s needs.

Testers, like critics, can “occasionally be severe … savage… loving and yet frivolous and spiteful”.

Testers can be all these things but we try hard to be diplomatic for unlike the relationship between critic and actor, the tester plays on the same stage as the developers and are judged as harshly by the audience of management and users as the development team players.

Michael Redgrave’s book is intended to be read by aspiring, flowering and seasoned actors so is a practical treatise on his own theories of acting and those of Stanislavski and Meyerhold, with a few anecdotes thrown in for the luvvies in the gallery.

Over the years Michael Redgrave had recourse to converse with many of his acting chums on the theory and practice of acting but held true to his own belief that actors were born, not made, yet they could better their exposition of their craft through the use of theory and method.

No doubt this was a contention that many of his colleagues could not agree with. “No No Michael”, they must have emphasised with a sigh, “these theories and methods are of no use, we are artists born to either greatness or mediocrity, we live for the play and play to live, we have a prime and we will reach it naturally over time and experience, it takes 20 years to make an actor dear boy.”

Perhaps some people are born with the base requisite attitudes to be a tester but these attitudes can also be learned, the skills of testing are certainly learned, often by experience in the flaming inferno of development hell.

The theories and methods of testing have been outlined in numerous tomes and it is up to the individual tester to educate themselves in the numerous pages of testing experience.

Anyone who has learned some of these skills and methods will have experienced the pain of trying to implement them in the real world and while some of the testing tomes cover this aspect of applying the theory, none do so in quite the same way as Michael Redgrave did in the following paragraph.

Theory and method…are of immense value to the actor who can translate them into practice. They are also, there can be no doubt, toxic to the actor who cannot. They should be labeled ‘as prescribed by the physician.’ But at their worst they are never as poisonous as convention. The conventional actor suffers a growing paralysis for which there is, after a time, no known cure. [1]

There are certainly times when we have unsuccessfully tried to apply a technique to a situation where it was not suited and it failed. There are certainly times when we tried to apply a technique or theory when we did not understand it and the application cost us more than if we had not. But we should certainly never fail to continue to learn our testing methods and theories and also learn from applying them. There is a skill in the application of this knowledge and this too has to be learned. We should never be put off from this application after a few failures.

And we should never be put off from using or learning a technique because we can’t see how it might apply. The subtleties of the technique may not become apparent until a degree of mastery has been achieved, and then we are faced with problems of a different nature.

When the actor has gained some mastery of the essential qualifications, his difficulties have only just begun. He must in the first place strengthen his mastery of all these things so that in each of them he can feel a great reserve of power and then he must, by his intelligence or taste, know how not to use these powers to the full. He must know in fact what to leave out. [1]

There are many levels of maturity of development process and there is no single fit testing method. There is no book that you can take off the shelf and guarantee that the application of the methods and theories in that book will result in the most effective testing practice for that organisation. There are basic skills which we have to learn, but more importantly we have to learn when to apply them to construct the most efficacious test strategy.

And sometimes the most efficacious test strategy is not going to be as formalistic and structured as we would wish.

The basis of all acting is undoubtedly instinctive, but that does not mean that a great deal of this is not susceptible to some kind of analysis, or that method may not make it more than it mars. [1]

All of us have had the experience of using a computer program, trying something and having said program crash. Testers appear more prone to phenomenon than other users, even in their non-professional use of computers.

The power of improvisation is something which is very much underrated in our professional theatre, where it is regarded as something a little bit amateurish or childish. It is not childish but rather child-like, and it is the faculty which an actor has to be like a child in his naiveté which helps him to avoid becoming merely a routine performer. It is paradoxical that in our commercial theatre, with its long runs, in the performance of which the actors are most in need of a stimulus to keep their imagination fresh and child-like, we should neglect the opportunity of exercising those qualities. Of course every really imaginative actor and actress has the power to improvise. We show it at rehearsals and also when things go wrong during the performance… [1]

Witness the rise of exploratory testing, best fit testing and agile methods. These are not simply a throw back to unstructured and unmanaged testing. These require highly skilled testers with a full knowledge of techniques and methods with a highly honed sixth sense of quality.

Testers are skilled in the art of usage improvisation. When a fault occurs, testers enter a phase of isolation where they focus in on the fault and try to narrow the range of circumstances in which it happens in order to communicate more effectively the nature of the defect to the developers. This is a process of improvisation, and it is improvisation based on a pre-existing model of an ideal system.

There are no doubt people of theatrical genius who can completely improvise their way through 90 minutes without it proving detrimental to the cast, crew or audience, but most actors will be better served by thinking about what they are going to do before hand but being prepared to improvise when required.

The actor has to build a model of the character and the play in which they find themselves playing in order to effectively present that role to the audience so that the performance is a “great moment… when his playing achieves ‘rhythm’ … has ‘flight’, or ’leaves the ground’… But these occasions mostly happen when the preliminary work has been deeply felt and composed with at least some conscious care."[1]. And

Michael Redgrave has some notes on how this is done.

I imagine that the mind process of the actor at this stage are similar to the work of a detective. He does not set about like a police inspector, simply to gather every bit of evidence for its own sake as a matter of routine, but like Sherlock Holmes, or the detective Maigret…he shifts the available evidence around in his mind rather as one might shift the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle until by some instinct he finds himself in possession of a psychological clue or characteristic which will suddenly illuminate the whole character for him, and help him find the truth.[1]

Similarly preparation is vital to the testing process. Thinking is vital to the testing process. Questioning is vital to the testing process. Just as the actor questions the motivation of his character, not to berate the writer of the play, but to understand the words he his saying and to make those words live. If words contribute only 7% of the meaning of communication [footnote1] and physiology and intonation contribute far more, then the test scripts that we have are merely words. The thinking behind those scripts, the models, the conditions, the aims and hunches, these are the valuable aspects of testing and these are what we get from preparation.

[The Stanislavski method] remains largely a matter of instinct though the germ of the Stanislavski method is to help the actor discover the creative mood, to clear the decks for action. [1]

From the brief summary of Stanislavski’s method in this book I wonder, could the method be of use in inspiring the tester, to help them think and to identify their aims and purpose?

On Offered circumstances…

When I have directed a play I have sometimes asked an actor to ask himself why he thinks the author has written his particular part in the play. Absurd as it may seem, it is often very difficult to persuade actors to consider this point seriously…It is not so much a question of the actor ‘knowing his place’ in drama but of knowing his value. [1]

Testers too should ask themselves. Why am I on this project? What do the customers want? What do the developers want? What does the manager want? What do I want? Which of those wants are valid? Which of those wants conflict? Which of those wants are unreasonable?

The final phase in the preparatory work on a role was to find what has variously been translated as the seed, the grain, the kernel or the core of the character, to which all the previous considerations are preparatory. This is followed by the ‘aim’ of the character and when the actor is conscious of this, all else is forgotten, for then the actor, as the character, can answer the question, ‘What do I want and why?’ [1]

And should we be too wary of constructing such models lest we get them wrong.

The truth for him that is. It does not, of course, follow that he will always be right…And what do we mean by ‘right’ in this case? We mean right in the sense that it fits both the circumstances offered by the author - the scene of the crime - and what we might call the personality and motives of the criminal- that is, the character. [1]
We may well get them wrong. False Positives are a hazard of the trade. Extraneous tests as a result of incorrect domain analysis and data partitioning are par for the course. But by not preparing correctly we run the risk of putting in a performance which does not fly and in which the audience do not believe.

There are techniques for helping us get our models right. Reviews are very important. Communication with our other testers and development team members is essential. The test process can not be isolated. Actors don’t prepare and practice individually with the script and then come together for opening night, if they did then every play would be a disaster and theatre would become financially impossible to produce. Such a thing should never be allowed to happen in the world of software development, just imagine how much it would cost the business community if most IT projects failed. The economy could be ruined.

But we should not judge our performance solely by the reaction of the audience, we must have our own integrity and faith in our own craft. If we pander too much to the audience then we risk the play becoming a pantomime.

[The audience] can betray [an actor] into seeking easy ways to please, repeating blandishments which he knows have been previously successful. It can force him to seek to dominate their mood, as he is frequently obliged to do, with force or tricks which are alien to the part his is playing. It can, in short, make him a flatterer or a fighting madman. ‘To please the ears of the groundlings’ has become ‘To play to the gallery.’ [1]

…though the audience may bring a stronger pressure on him than either his author, his producer or his own artistic conscience, it should never force him to be faithless to these three. Perhaps what I am really trying to say is that the must find his own artistic conscience. A faith in what he thinks and hopes he can do. [1]

Everyone involved in the development process has their own aims and requirements of the process. They will not necessarily want to know those of the testers. They will however want to see that where there is an overlap between the aims and processes of the testers and their own aims and processes that they are not detrimentally affected. The conducting of the testing process can be a process of education for everybody in the development team. Not least of all the testers. The comedian can’t know how well a joke works until he has said it out loud and been witness to the response.

It is a fallacy to suppose that even an average audience, if there is such a thing, comes to a play with an open mind. It comes bristling with a variety of prejudices. It is one of the functions of the drama to allay these prejudices and to leave the audience with a more open mind and heart…[the actor] must challenge and at the same time embrace his audience… [1]

And so we reach an end. To sum up, how does one become a good actor, or a tester?

Well, just as there are similarities in method and philosophy, there is also a similarity at the fundamental level.

To act well and to act well repeatedly has to become an obsession. [1]

In order to become good.

To become better than good.

In order to excel.

You have to care.

Be interested in the subject, study the subject, do your best to reinterpret and reinvent the subject.

Good actors are not good actors because they mimic the performances of other earlier great actors. They are good actors because they have worked hard to become good actors with their own styles and methods, they take inspiration from the world around them and bring it to the performance at hand.

When I said…that the desire to act must become an obsession, I did not mean that it should become a total obsession. Quite simply it means that if you are going to produce the best work of which you are capable, that work will, sooner or later, take first place in your mind. [1]


[1] “The Actor’s Ways and Means”, Michael Redgrave, William Heinemann Ltd, 1953 (,


[footnote1] a seemingly random figure which I remember from somewhere but I’m can’t remember exactly where.

This essay originally appeared on on 4th January 2002 as a ‘journal notes’ this was in the days before I had a ‘blog’ setup and still had a ‘web site’. It seems more like a blog post than an essay so I’ve moved it over to