The other night in class, we were looking at a scene. A student was having an issue that comes up a lot: I have written about it previously, more than once, here and here, for example. Every time the student spoke a line in his scene, before he spoke, he looked off to the side, away from his partner. It was while looking away that the impulse to speak the next line seemed to arise. Once that had happened, he would look again at his partner and deliver the balance of the line to her.
I don’t wish to say that actors should always look at their partners. However, when an actor looks away constantly, apparently compulsively, in exactly the same way before every line, we are not talking about something that is arising out of the circumstances or the character: this is an actor’s tic. It’s actually, I believe, a way that the actor attempts to manage his discomfort with the public intimacy he is engaging in in the scene. By constantly interrupting that intimacy by looking away, he makes sure that he doesn’t expose himself too much. Of course, that he exposes himself is exactly what we want.
So the actor needs to overcome his discomfort with allowing the impulse to arise while he is still connected with the partner, and so he needs to either maintain eye contact with her, or be sure that he always looks at her prior to starting to speak, even prior to inhaling the air he will need to speak. Once he feels comfortable with that intimacy, and does not feel compelled to look away, then if he looks away, there is a better chance that it is behavior arising from the situation of the scene, and not a function of his discomfort.
So I worked with the actor on it. He needed it brought to his attention more than once, which is normal. He had been completely unaware that he was doing it, or completely unaware that it made any difference, so it took some insistence on my part before he is really ready to confront it, and confront himself. But after a few attempts, he successfully adjusted, and the difference that it made was obvious to everyone present. For one thing, we began to see a sense of development across the section of the scene we were working with; he started to bring the engagement and conviction from one moment into the next, and as a result he was able to add to the engagement and conviction, and there started to be an authentic “build” to that section of the scene. Before, with the constant looking away, nothing could develop because it was like he was going back to 0 prior to every moment.
This type of adjustment comes up a lot. When an actor is able to make the adjustment, the difference is always quite dramatic, not to mention satisfying. But as I mentioned previously, I have written about this before, and certainly experienced it quite often. What was new this time was that after we finished working on the scene, the actor told me that when he made himself stay with the partner, stay “in it”, instead of retreating to the comfort of looking off to the side into space, he felt like he was going to fall, like he would lose his balance, like he wasn’t sure if he could stay standing. I told him that this was terrific. We have a mantra in the class:”Ask for, and try to get, a piece of what you need at each moment of the scene.” When we ask for what we need from others, we extend ourselves to them, and we risk rejection. As actors, we need to do this at all times. Every moment of every scene is in some way a moment of asking for what we need. We use the metaphor of “throwing the ball” in class as well, and when we throw the ball with the whole body, and step forward when doing so, we actually fall forward a little and catch ourselves on the front foot. If the follow-through is complete, the arms are outstretched, following the ball that has just left our hands. We are poised to receive, extended horizontally, hopefully with our balance still intact, but even so, only barely. The physical extension of ourselves is a kind of magnified version of what we do when we propel words through the air with our abdominal muscles. “Words are the messengers of our wishes”, Uta Hagen says that Herbert Berghof said. We extend ourselves with our words, and if we are not used to doing so, we are likely to feel unsure about whether or not we will fall down. But extend ourselves we must. We don’t score any points with anyone playing it safe. And not only do we need to extend ourselves; we need to stay extended. We have to embody our vulnerability and project it out to the other actors we are interacting with in a sustained way. So we have to get comfortable in this fully extended, barely balanced, vulnerable condition. This condition has to become our medium, the water in which we swim.
I am reminded of something someone told me that the late great Trungpa Rinpoche, a legendary teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, is said to have said: you have just jumped out of a plane. The bad news? You have no parachute. The good news? There’s no ground.
We are drawn to creative work, I think, because of the appeal of this sense of free fall, of infinite possibility. But when we first get a taste of it, it can be quite frightening. We are asked to learn to feel at home in this state of free fall. To be able to enter that condition of free fall at will, and stay there for as long as is necessary, is a mark of the mature actor.