Have you ever been part of a theater production that seemed to be noticeably better on the second weekend of performances? Have you personally experienced moments in the last couple of weeks of rehearsal, or during performances, when you did something, said something, in a completely different way than you ever had before? And it surprised you, but it worked?
Not only did it work, but it was so much better than anything you could have dreamt up if you’d tried! It was a “gift of the acting gods”, who kindly sent you a little epiphany.
If so, you’re looking at what I call the “subconscious effect”.
Your subconscious is not only in the business of making you happy; it is in the business of synthesizing disparate things into a “whole”. Your conscious can’t do this very well, because you can only hold so many things in your head at once. Even if you’re a great multi-tasker, you’ve got your limits, and creating a believable and interesting character on stage surpasses them.
So your subconscious plays a very large role in what you do on stage. Yes, your conscious brain has a function during acting, too. Among other things, it notices when something unusual happens that needs to be acknowledged (like when your earring falls on the floor.) It notices when the audience’s laughter has crested, and you can deliver your next line. And it saves the day when someone forgets their lines.
But most of the heavy-lifting in performance is done by your subconscious. Learning how to act is, in part, figuring out how to keep your conscious brain from interfering with your subconscious.
In the first weeks of rehearsal, your conscious brain is fairly active. It’s putting data into the computer. Your subconscious is participating, too, but it’s difficult for it to be involved continuously in this phase. That’s okay. The more you do this, the more you’ll learn how to make room for it. But right now, don’t worry if you notice that you’re “thinking” more than you’re “not thinking”. (You will find that the tools I’m introducing you to help you to “not think” in a constructive way.)
As long as you have a script in your hand, your conscious brain is more active than you want it to be. Both the physical presence of a script in your hand, which you won’t be carrying in performance and is therefore unnatural and distracting, and the ability (or need) to read lines rather than speak them from memory impede what your subconscious can do. You are too aware of the mechanics and the underlying unreality of what you are doing – that is, that you are pretending to be someone else – to do any real acting.
You can lay a great foundation for real acting in these early weeks of rehearsal. Absolutely! And that’s what you should be using this time for. But don’t for a minute think that you’re doing anything worthy of an audience at this stage.
Once you get off book, your subconscious gets very busy and does work on your role that you aren’t aware of. This is where good acting comes from. Once your subconscious has the freedom to work, because your conscious brain has started to cede to it, the character finally starts to seem like a real person. And it’s because this happens that people think that Learning Process #2 is sufficient. They understand that the subconscious is working in some mysterious way. But think how much more your subconscious can do for you if you give it more quality data using Process #3!