“Usually when a person believes in a particular religion, his attitude becomes more and more a sharp angle pointing away from himself. In our way, the point of the angle is always towards ourselves.”
– Shunryu Suzuki
There are many stubborn people out there who are convinced they know the answer before a question is even posed. That is wrong in life and also in acting. Growtowski said something like, “It is only after a production that I know something, not before.” There was no agenda in his work. He didn’t start out trying to convince his audience that they should believe the way he did. He let the work teach him. We should all be so open-minded.
In the development of character, your focus should be forever inward. You should limit your activity to the exploration of self. This notion of limiting your activity can be very beneficial to the actor for many reasons. One, it tells us to concentrate on what we are doing in each moment and to concentrate on only small things. In developing a character, we should only concentrate on one aspect of the character at a time, first the physical, then the character’s background, and then how he feels about the other characters, or however your process goes. Do not think of the big picture because it is made up of a hundred different snapshots, each of which has to be developed one at a time.
A second point about this idea of limiting your activities is not to set goals. This may be a hard idea to accept; after all, how can you develop a character without goals? But the goal we often set for ourselves is to be wonderful, brilliant, or fantastic. This is not a realistic goal and can only lead to the opposite happening. When we want to be good, we plan a certain course for ourselves. When we hit a stumbling block or the director asks us to do something we feel is inconsistent with our character, we freeze. We feel that his wrong choice is limiting our conception. This leads to unkind thoughts which tend to constrict our own artistic choices. We shut ourselves down instead of opening up to a new and exciting possibility. Our preconceived notions of right and wrong destroy a new and innovative character from springing forth upon the world.
Finally, we use our art to dissect ourselves. Acting is a scalpel that we can cut away the layers of artifice to reveal true, honest emotions. We can only find that by looking inward and touching our soul.
“But for the rule and the compass, the square and the circle could not be determined;
but for the plumb-line, the straight and the bent could not be rectified.” Zen expression.
What are the tools used in the theatre? They are unlike any other tool used in other forms. The actor’s tools are his voice, body, and brain. These tools are constricted by the rigid form of the theatre.
Just think of how strange the theatre is. People saying other people’s words. Displaying all sorts of emotions not normally shown in public. Pretending not to notice a group of people who are watching them. If you were to describe the theatre to an alien from outer space, he would have a hard time comprehending its form. There are all sorts of guidelines of acceptable behavior to follow.
These rules are good. They give structure to the art. We all have to learn the rules so completely that they become second nature. The rules start out very basic, but the more we examine the rules, the more the rules test us. A simple rule like – stand in the light – has a hundred layers to comprehend. Of course you want to be seen but what is the light doing to your body? What kind of light is it? How can you use the light more effectively? And so on.
Every rule once learned, must be fully comprehended. With each new technical development and with each new theory or technique, these rules have to be reexamined and redefined.
“Act without doing: work without effort.” Tao Te Ching
The best acting has always been effortless. I’m sure you have had the experience, when on stage, of everything going perfectly well. You were hardly aware of being on stage until the final curtain came down. Everything happened exactly according to plan. The problem is that this happens so infrequently.
Lack of concentration is the only reason for this that I can think of. We get distracted or we are thinking about something else. It is a habit we create for ourselves as a safety net. I know this because whenever something bad happens due to lack of concentration, that person always has some excuse. “Someone made a noise backstage.” “A light blew out.” “Someone sneezed in the audience.” If we have an excuse, it doesn’t seem like it was our fault. But it is our fault.
How not to mess up takes some practice. Study those times when you were in the groove. See what you did right. And I mean everything from diet and exercise to social interactions before the performance. See if you can duplicate those same pre-performance conditions for the same results. If you are successful, then do those same things again.
If you are confused about where to start, let me give you some points to consider:
Exercise – Keep yourself in good physical condition. There is nothing so distracting during a performance than some minor ache and pain.
Diet – Don’t overload your system with heavy or greasy foods before a performance. It is difficult to concentrate on Hamlet’s situation with that bloated, gaseous feeling.
Social Interactions – Tell everyone to get lost. It is very important, before going on stage, to limit your social interaction. Except of course, if everyone has decided to behave in character from the moment they enter the theatre. That usually doesn’t happen. There is very little good that can come from the nervous chit-chat that occurs in the wings or dressing rooms. If you let yourself become distracted, your performance will suffer.
Get rid of all distractions and your work will become clear, effortless.