I just received an email from a student of mine. He was telling me passionately about how he had taken a suggestion of mine and run with it. A little background: he was playing a hospital administrator in a scene in which he had to confront one of his doctors about the fact that she was deviating from the hospital’s policies about being honest with terminally ill people about the fact that they were, in fact, dying. In the course of the scene the administrator mentions, fleetingly, that the doctor has “managed to dick off several of my high-strung surgeons” with her candor; they didn’t appreciate that the doctor was exposing them as liars for having concealed the reality of the patients’ fate. Anyway, the student playing the administrator had dutifully written up his “Who-am-I” and sent it to me, and in responding, I had suggested to the student that he imagine exactly who the “high-strung surgeons” were and what the encounters with them had been like, i.e. how unpleasant that they had been. I was suggesting to the students that he “daydream” these encounters, play them out for himself in the theater of his mind. In the email I just received, the student told me that he had just had lunch with another actor whose work he admired, and he had gotten the actor-friend to improv one of the those encounters with the pissed-off, high-strung surgeons. He was delighted with the result; the actor-friend had been suitably intense, after a little coaching from my student, and my student had left the lunch with a fully personalized, bona-fide experience of a critical moment in his character’s past.
There is a blog post in this anecdote about the usefulness of improvisation in making the past and future of the character real to us as actors, but that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the initiative, ingenuity and diligence of this actor in the unfolding of this tale. First of all, none of it would have happened had he not submitted his Who-am-I for review. Now, this student is an experienced actor, director, and film-editor, and he very easily could have turned up his nose at filling in the Who-Am-I chart as too “mickey-mouse” for him. Secondly, I don’t require submission of the Who-Am-I chart to me for review. I strongly encourage it, but the decision to do so is up to the student. This student, in spite of his substantial prior experience, did the exercise as instructed and submitted it to me for feedback, knowing that some of what he would get back from me would be constructive criticism. The openness and humility in this is what Suzuki Roshi calls “Beginner’s Mind” in Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind. In Beginner’s Mind, we see interactions with mentors primarily as occasions to receive input to improve, not as a chance to be validated or stroked. And when we receive feedback, we apply our imaginations and intentions to making the most of that feedback to help our work develop.
And this student is one of many among my students over the years who have demonstrated such initiative in relationship to their work. A young woman playing a fugitive from the scientologists actually went to some scientology services (or whatever they call their church gatherings). A straight guy playing a gay teenager in a Peoria with nothing to offer him but homophobia and parochial stupidity did research on first-person accounts of coming-out experiences of LGBT youth in small towns. These are just a few examples of how students of mine have brought extraordinary thoughtfulness and initiative to their work on the role over the years.
And it isn’t just that it made their work better. I can’t even say definitively that it did, immediately; having the preparatory work immediately translate into results in the rehearsal process is not a given. It often takes time in an actor’s development before these two realms truly begin to inform each other. But what I can say for certain is that it made the process more rewarding for these students. These students were allowing the work of art that they were, for the current 10 weeks, immersed in, that is, the play that their scene was from, to entice them into broadening their view of life and the world. Realms previously unknown to them were becoming charted territory through their imagination, initiative and courage. The Zen Master Senug Sahn, founder of the Kwan Um School of Zen, said that artists are natural Zen students. And these students are unquestionably artists. This alertness to the possibilities, to the opportunities constantly afforded us in creative work and in life in general, to expand and actualize ourselves, is the hallmark of the creative person. It’s the greatest gift we give to ourselves, and it is this talent for renewal and for springing eternal that sustains.