In my Advanced class the other night, we were taking a last look at a scene that two students had been working on for 10 weeks. The last time they had gotten up, I had felt that one of the two (we’ll call her Jessica) had incorporated some feedback she had received the previous time the scene had been put up, and had made some dramatic steps forward. It’s always exciting for me to see this happen, because while I see students improve with some regularity when I am coaching them, it is much rarer to see students take some feedback home with them and successfully integrate it to the degree that Jessica had. So I was looking forward to seeing where Jessica and her partner were with the scene.
Alas, I was disappointed. I felt that Jessica had lost significant ground, and I let her know that, as kindly as I could. The last time we had seen the scene, she had embodied true urgency, and so the scene had a real sense of danger. It was exciting to watch and experience. The experience of watching the scene was a physical one, a visceral one, because the actor herself was viscerally engaged.
And that danger seemed to have disappeared. I felt fairly confident that I could work with Jessica and recover it, but i wanted to understand, and I wanted Jessica to understand, why her work had visibly, palpably regressed. So I began to question her: was there feedback from the previous time she got up that she had been working on, trying to address? What had she been working on, focusing on in her work?
I didn’t get an answer right away. She described the feedback from the first time they had shown the scene that led to dramatic change that produced the second. But when pressed, she didn’t seem to have an answer to what feedback she had left the successful second showing of the scene with. I was ready to move on to working on the scene, when she or her partner (I can’t remember which) said something that caught my attention.
They said, in effect, that they felt that their work on the scene had lost its freshness, that it had become rote, that it no longer felt organic or alive. And so they had begun to experiment. They had started to try various exercises, such as switching roles, or an exercise that involved saying “I win!” after each line that they had read about in an acting book. These exercises, they felt, had helped them escape the rut they had fallen into, and they had restored as sense of freshness and spontaneity to the scene.
Sounds good, right? I mean, nobody wants to see actors just going through the motions of choices they arrived at ages ago. We want to feel that what we are watching is alive, is happening for the first time, is spontaneous.
And yet this is not what I saw. What I saw was that the depth of understanding and the investment that we had arrived at through our early work on the scene had largely been abandoned or forgotten. What I was seeing actually looked and felt suspiciously like the work on the scene that they had brought in when they showed the scene for the first time. They had not really discovered any “new” way to play the scene; they had just found their way back to a way of executing the scene that felt more comfortable to them.
And as Kiki says. “DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE!”
I began to understand what had happened. It was something I had encountered before, although usually it would take some time passing before I put it all together. Jessica had experienced a crisis of trust in the work she had done, in the work we had done. She had made some strides with the scene, and that felt great, initially. But the newness of that had worn off, and she begun to feel…restless. She had started to doubt her work to that point.
It’s a very natural progression. The actor starts to notice that she is repeating certain gestures or intonations verbatim each time, and starts to fret. She thinks that things have ossified, that there can’t be anything truthful in these repetitions
Of course, there is something right about this. The actor does need to keep a sense of freshness about her work. This is vital. But here’s the thing: she needs to find ways to do that that do not involve abandoning the shape of her work that she and her collaborators have worked hard to develop. That is nothing other than throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
Speaking as a theater director, I can say that there are few things more important to me in an actor than the ability to maintain a performance once the performance is developed. Yes, the performance needs to be a living thing, it can’t be allowed to become petrified. BUT, as directors we work very hard with actors to get them to embody the impulses that gave rise to the writing, that prompted the writer to create the characters in the first place. We work with an actor to shape their performance. And we feel proud and happy when that shape emerges as something rich and satisfying. But then it is also devastating to us when we have to watch a show with an audience and have that shape fail to materialize, knowing full well what could have been.
Don’t mistake me: the theater is a living art form, and I am not saying it needs to be the same every night. But Blanche Dubois has an essence. Hamlet has an essence. And we do our utmost to tease that essence out in our work with actors. and to achieve that and then to have that essence just disappear in front of an audience is…really hard. It’s really, really hard.
So while it’s natural to feel some discomfort with your work on a role after you have worn those choices for a while, choosing to “try some new things” is not usually the answer. This tends to produce pretty arbitrary outcomes, choices that are neither fish nor fowl, but have only the virtue of being new. A virtue that will not last for long.
Upon feeling this familiar restlessness, the actor needs to return to the sources of the choices made to date. He should revisit his preparatory imaginative work on the play. He should identify key, decisive moments in the character’s past and further particularize and specify them. Maybe invent some new ones. And he should also consider how he can refresh his or her investment in significant relationships and given circumstances of the piece. In the approach that I teach, this means looking at transferences or substitutions and seeing whether any of them seem to have ceased to function or resonate, to generate “heat”, and then find some new ones to help reinvigorate the investment in, and the connection to, the material.
In other words, it’s not that the actor needs to make new choices about the execution of the scene. It’s that she needs to renew her relationship to the material. She needs to find a way to bring fresh eyes to the understanding and execution of the scene that she has developed to date. That’s not to say that people never change their mind and revise their work; of course they do. But the decision to do so should be founded on something more substantial than the inevitable doubt and restlessness that comes from living with our decisions as we craft our work.
We have to learn to live with ourselves.