I heard a number of teachers asking each other for advice about help their students gain the skills of demanding the attention of the audience. They then went on to discuss louder voices, bigger behavior, more interesting tactics. Of course, all of these old theatrical notions simply push the audience further away. Unfortunate for all involved because in these endeavors, there is no real interest, no real enjoyment for the actors, so no interest or enjoyment for the people who have come to see them on stage. Let's be very, very simple. We would say a cat on stage has presence. You can not take your eyes off her. She may be sitting upstage in a corner licking her paw and your attention is drawn to her while the actors are busy downstage trying to demand your attention. Please, you must see why this is true. It has to do with what Sanford Meisner called the "Reality of Doing". Even without the addition of personal meaning, urgency, high stakes, the struggle to accomplish against all odds, yes, even without any of that, the simple reality of doing something without adding anything extra, is captivating. If you can grasp that, if you can embrace it, trust it, encourage it and master it, well... You can take it to the bank.
Facing the fact that life is happening like a movie reel, one frame at a time, is powerfully liberating. There's tremendous freedom when you finally grasp that we are not continuous beings who move from the past flowing through the present and into the future, rather, we are an evolving being, built from the ground up to evolve, and it is all happening right now! This fact also implies a great challenge as the next question you must face is "How fully can I bring myself to this moment right now?" For the new born human organism, the question of course is unnecessary as he or she is completely involved, interested, available and responsive in every moment as it arises. It's as if the infant is walking on the very top of a rapidly spinning wheel, keeping right in stride, not too fast and not too slow but at the very pace that keeps him or her from reeling backwards or being spun off the wheel into the distance ahead. But as you get older, you fall into a kind of sleep state caused by what has been called the "distraction addiction." One drifts off into the cyclical, ongoing rumination of the mind and then seduced by the virtual world with its infinite assortment of little digital screens. Before very long, this condition is no longer at the level of awareness, like the fish who is asked about the meaning of "water"... The fish has no idea what to tell you! It is only when the fish jumps above the wave and looks down does it exclaim, "Is that what I have been living in?"
The flow of these journal entries has taken me right into the heart of the "true acting" matter, because it is crystal clear that without an outward directed attention, completely off of yourself, so that you disappear to yourself, so that you no longer have any concern what you look like, sound like, what impression you make on anyone in the whole wide world, so that the fear of looking foolish no longer holds its grip on you, so that you have freed all energy normally consumed by your attempts to have control over every nook and cranny of life and human relations that will not be controlled anyway, so that you can once again respond to the reality of what is happening all around you, in every person and in their every subtle shift of emotional and physical behavior and so that you regain the courage to respond out of your native, instinctual, simple and human impulses immediately, before the crashing in of the committee of internal voices that make you pretend you are other than that, after all of this, which will come simply by having your attention directed outwards one hundred percent, one hundred percent, then and only then, is there the slightest possibility for one of the rarest things in this world, the thing which is the root of all great acting, the underpinning of all dramatic expression, the basis of all human existence as we know it on this little planet of the universe that we inhabit - authentic relationship.
A renowned Broadway actress of the 1920's would arrive at the theatre early, before every performance, to walk through the house and make sure nothing was left in the aisles or under the seats. She wanted to be confident that the audience was walking into a clean space when they came to see the play. It stuns me how disinterested many acting students are in the quality of space. I begin with the physical space as it is the most obvious. As a student, how much care do you take in making the room ready to be worked in and clearing it for those who will work next? Or do you leave the "pile of dishes" for others to scrub? Wasn't it you who just enjoyed the meal?
Just as essential is the more subtle, unseen "space" that the student walks into. Is it "clean"? Has there been a deep caring invested by the teacher in making a space founded on respect, compassion, clarity of purpose, honesty, deep listening, simplicity and a loving sincerity? These are some of the qualities necessary to offer a place where students will gain the courage to take leaps into the unknown and into the space of creation itself. I do believe that this kind of class, this kind of teacher, is in the great majority.
But for years, and again today, actors have shared their experience of teachers encouraging violence in their classrooms, teachers manipulating students to be mean spirited, hostile, sexual without true desire, physically and emotionally explosive without an honest impulse, hitting each other, spitting in each others faces and more... What do the rest of the students learn? They learn collectively that they too must fake their way into explosive states of being, they too must ramp up their meanness, they too must masturbate emotionally for the teacher's approval and so win entrance into "the club". Of course, none of this has any relationship to the craft of acting, but it is too late as the students have become chained to the teacher, artistically crippled. If it is not yet clear, the tip for the day? Be on the lookout for a clean space.
Being "in the present moment" has become a widely used acting catch phrase that is misleading because as it is used in actor training, in countless acting classes, it sends the message that this is something you have to "do".
To clarify the real issue, if you say that you need to be more in the present moment, my question to you is "Where else could you possibly be?"
Yes, your thoughts are pulled to what did or did not happen in the past.
Yes, your mind drifts into endless fantasies of what might happen in the future.
But where are these thoughts happening? Your thoughts are always taking place in this moment right now. You see? There is no other place you can possibly exist than this moment right now, you are always in the present moment and you can give up all effort to get there. Then what is the actual problem that must be addressed? Let's continue the conversation in my next True Acting Journal entry...