When it comes to acting, there are two levels of learning. One is learning technique – the tools we are talking about. But once you’ve learned technique, the learning process doesn’t stop in the way that it did when you learned to drive. Each time you do a play, you have to learn the play. Rehearsals are all about learning. So understanding the learning process and how you can use it to your benefit matters.
Given that we have a short time frame for rehearsals, we want to move as much knowledge about the play and our character as we can into our subconscious as fast as possible. The better we get at this, the more layered and interesting our performances will be.
So what’s the fastest way to learn? Intentional focus.
Let me say that again, because it’s really important: If you can give up attachment to how you do all those other things, and just pay attention to how you do this one particular small piece of the big puzzle, you’ll get really good at this one particular small piece of the puzzle, and in surprisingly short order, too.
Let’s look back at the Process #2 example. If we stop worrying about all the other things we do “wrong”, and just pay attention to the speed of our backswing, we can figure out what is going on in our backswing and what corrections we need to make. If we stop worrying about what the ball is doing – the final product – we can focus on making the backswing the correct speed, and by repeating it often enough, we can groove the speed so well that it becomes part of our subconscious behavior, and we can turn our attention to something else.
Confuse our subconscious by trying to do too many things at once and not doing any of them well, and it takes a while to learn. Isolate the pieces that we are trying to learn so we are giving our subconscious clear information about our expectations, and we can learn much more quickly. Get the process right, and the final product will take care of itself.
Acting isn’t golf. We aren’t trying to create a perfect, repeatable swing every time. We’re trying to create a character who lives and breathes in ways that may be unique every night. But as actors, we are as prone to focusing on final product – our performance on opening night – as a golfer is. It is just as true for us that process is what matters, and that good process results in great performances. This is what we call “staying in the moment.” (More on that another time.)
Okay. I’m now going to wind my way back to the matter of acting tools. I’m going to talk a little about the role your subconscious plays in your acting, because it will help you to commit to using the tools. And then I’ll talk about the practical aspect of how you put the tools together.