Writing about acting is challenging. It is difficult to be precise enough to be sure you’re receiving what I’m trying to communicate. In trying to write the final posts on the topic of “How to Use the Tools”, I keep finding things that I think you need to understand first if I can hope for you to really “get” what I mean about the tools. So please forgive me if I take another detour for a few posts.
What I really want to talk about is rehearsals, but I think what I have to say might have a little more clarity if I first talk a little bit more about the concept of “staying in the moment.”
I think both of these concepts are easily misunderstood, albeit for slightly different reasons. Shifting your perspective from what you are “sure of” is necessary if you’re going to improve as an actor, but it’s a very difficult shift. And here’s why.
“Staying in the moment”, whether it be as an actor or an athlete or anything else you may do, is very difficult. Heck, it’s supremely difficult to do just as a human being. People spend years studying Buddhism, in part, to learn to do just that. It’s a lifetime journey, and it’s still difficult to do it consistently at the end of it. But it is what produces quality work (or a quality life) of any kind.
Why is it so difficult to do something that came so naturally to us as very young children? Well, that’s a topic for someone else’s blog, and a lengthy one at that. Let’s just accept that after a certain, far-too-young age, it uniformly is. We may think we are in the “Now”, but we’re usually in the Past, or the Future, or both, occasionally flickering through the Present, but never for very long.
I know many people who tell me they’ve tried to meditate, but they just can’t seem to do it, to “stop thinking”. Well, those thoughts all belong to the Past or the Future, not the Present. A clear indication that you can’t possibly live in the Now very much. In fact, it’s been suggested that we spend 95% of our time OUT of the Now!
Because we aren’t very good at staying in the moment in our real lives, most of us don’t possess the natural ability to do so on stage, either. A few lucky ones do, right from the beginning. They are exceptionally gifted, although I will wager that over time, they will start thinking a little too much and will have to learn how to be in the moment all the time. But because they are gifted, they will be able to learn this fairly quickly.
A slightly larger portion of the population can stay in the moment sporadically despite having no training. I’m in that group. When I was younger, I gave performances when I was in the moment, and performances when I wasn’t. And while I knew which performances were more successful, I had no idea why, and I certainly had no control over when it happened. Sometimes I got lucky, and sometimes I felt like I was in a paper bag, trying to push my way out.
I learned how to control it one night in scene class. I had done the scene the week before, and I had nailed it. My scene partner hadn’t, though, and so we worked on it for another week. And this time I was awful. I was trying so hard to recapture my brilliance of the previous week (my first mistake) and was failing miserably. It wasn’t a terrible performance, in the grand scheme of things, but it utterly lacked the spontaneity and charm of the previous week. Afterward, my teacher explained to me what had happened, and I suddenly got it. I had the ability to put two performances of the same scene side-by-side, and to compare what was going on internally in each. I suddenly not only understood the difference between a perfectly serviceable but uninspired performance and a great one, I also knew what caused each and how to actively pursue the great one.
But most of the population who acts for fun or profit does not, at least initially, have the ability to stay in the moment, and your ability to learn how to do this on your own is limited. The odds are very good that you need at least a little assistance in this regard.
Why? Because we have dualistic brains. We know what we know because we can compare and contrast it with other things. A chair is not only a chair because it is like other chairs, it is a chair because it is not a table. Because it is not a teddy bear. Or a paper clip.
So it’s difficult to know what “staying in the moment” is like if you can’t compare it to “not staying in the moment”. If you’ve never had someone do you the favor my acting teacher did for me that day, and say (effectively, although in much kinder terms), “What you did last week was fantastic, but this week was crap,” you may only be able to have a general sense of what “staying in the moment” might mean. But not a real understanding.
I think I’ve told you that I have occasion, now and then, to chat with fellow actors about acting, and if the phrase “staying in the moment” comes up, they will nod sagely, as if they not only know precisely what it means, they practice it conscientiously every time they are on stage. And I know they sincerely believe this, but I’ve also seen their work, and so I also know that they manage to dance through the moment periodically, but to never stay there for any period of time.
Not their fault. They really think they’re working correctly, and until they decide that there might be a better “them” yet to discover, they won’t learn what “staying in the moment” really means. Because it doesn’t mean concentrating only on what is happening on stage, without regard for your shopping list or the fact that you forgot to pick up your dry cleaning this afternoon.
“Concentrating” and “staying in the moment” are not the same thing. It is perfectly possible to fully concentrate and still be completely focused on yourself and your own performance. It is perfectly possible to look your scene partner in the eye without wavering and still be completely focused on yourself and your own performance. And when you are focused on yourself and your own performance, it is nearly impossible to stay in the moment.