Forgive the length of this post, I couldn’t find a way to split it in two!
Your subconscious is the most amazingly sophisticated computer. I almost wrote “known to man”, except that we cannot, with our conscious brains, begin to appreciate all that our subconscious can do.
I say “can” do, because our conscious brain is apt to interfere with the process. We think far too much and do ourselves a disservice by doing so. If, instead, we would listen for the words our subconscious whispers to us, we’d all be better off. Learning to do something well is in large part a product of learning to shut up and listen.
Remember the old adage about computers, “Garbage in, garbage out”? When we use our conscious brains too much, we tend to put garbage into the computer. I’ll explain why it’s garbage another time, but garbage confuses the subconscious, which doesn’t know what to do with it. The garbage doesn’t fit with what’s true, but the fact that you’ve entered this data makes your subconscious try to work with it, to fit the square peg into the round hole. Because here’s the funny thing about your subconscious:
It doesn’t have a value system.
It’s like Binary Code computer language. It knows 0s and 1s, but it doesn’t have an opinion as to which is better. It just knows they are different. It understands frequency, however. Here’s my golf analogy: If you hit a ball in the water the last time you played, you’ll worry that you’ll do it again during your next round. So you’ll think things like, “Just don’t hit it in the water.” “Just get it over the water, I don’t care where it ends up.” “Oh my God, I hit it in the water last time, I don’t want to do that again.”
Your subconscious doesn’t understand the word “don’t”. Instead, it homes in on the word “water”. “Oh,” says your subconscious, “he keeps talking about the water. That must be where he wants his ball.” And Bingo! That’s where your ball goes.
On the other hand, if you simply present ideas to your subconscious without stressing one over another, your subconscious is free to choose what works best, and it is smart enough to do precisely that.
It is easy to rush to make choices as an actor. After all, you have a finite rehearsal period in which to put a play together to show the public. No one wants to make a fool of themselves, so making choices early makes us feel that we’ll be able to practice those choices often enough to make them look good. This theory is fine as long as the choices are good ones, but they often aren’t. It’s impossible to understand your character in the first few weeks of rehearsal. And even if the choices are good, making them early often precludes choosing a better one later.
Rehearsals are instead best used as explorations into what is possible. In experimenting, we often come across things that don’t work, but those “mistakes” often lead us to things that do. The creative process starts, I’m afraid, with a lot of garbage, but the garbage is the warm-up. Your work at the end of the night is always better than the work at the beginning, isn’t it?
Once your creative juices get warmed up, they start to produce quality stuff you can keep. Do enough exploring and, after a few weeks, the pattern starts to emerge, a pattern that is impossible to see with any clarity before then.
This is an uncomfortable approach at first. It’s easy to get scared by an opening night that seems to loom larger with each passing day. Making choices makes us feel secure, but if you can have the courage to trust the process and explore every conceivable option throughout the first half of your rehearsal process without making choices, you will find that a great performance will be the natural result, and that it will come together fairly effortlessly in the last few weeks of rehearsal.
I’ve seen this happen time and again. I make my actors a nervous wreck when I direct, because I refuse to let them settle into complacency early on. I am continually pushing and asking questions and trying new things through Week 5 (assuming an eight-week rehearsal period). They are sure, I think, that this thing will NEVER come together! Can’t we please have more run-throughs? (Run-throughs are an actor’s greatest security blanket.) But the work starts bearing fruit after Week 5, and the payoff in performance is self-evident.
By delaying choosing, you turn the decision-making process over to your subconscious, which is better qualified for the job. You will also find that you don’t have many choices to make after all, that it has made them for you. All you need to do is run with them!