Every show you do requires high energy. That’s obvious (I hope!) for a show like The 39 Steps or Noises Off. It’s less obvious for Waiting for Godot or Our Town. If you don’t bring your best energy to a performance, it will suffer. Low energy is contagious and will infect the rest of the cast. It will infect the audience, too.
The reverse is also true. An audience that arrives tired will not respond well and that will affect the performance, since actors and audience work together to create the experience. But you can’t do anything about what the audience brings. You can, however, be sure that you bring your best energy.
Good acting can be tiring – for you, not for the audience! When acting, we ought to be operating with a heightened awareness of what is going on, and that requires unrelenting attentiveness. Let your focus drop for a few seconds, and it takes longer than a few seconds to get it back. This kind of attentiveness has a palpable energy to it; it gives power to your performance and keeps the audience involved.
Life on stage is NOT ordinary, nor should you treat it as such in the name of “believability”. “Naturalness” on stage is not the same thing as “casual”. Even film acting, which requires you to be much “smaller” about what you do since the camera can get right in your face, needs to be supported by a strong and consistent “electrical” current (if you will).
How can you be sure to bring your best energy on stage? Alan Alda does about two minutes of some sort of aerobic exercise just before he goes on stage, and there is scientific evidence that this helps you to perform any physical activity (and acting should be very physical) better. For one thing, it engages both sides of your brain in synchronicity. For another, it gets your blood pumping and wakes up your body.
It’s difficult to bring energy on stage with you if you’ve just spent fifteen minutes sitting in your dressing room or the Green Room. If you’ve ever been to a performance that took five or ten minutes to get off the ground, low energy is probably the culprit. Better to warm up your engine off stage, before you meet the audience.
How can you best do this? Obviously, you don’t want to get yourself winded (unless that’s appropriate for your “moment before”.) Being in good shape physically will make it easier to engage in physical activity that will “wake you up” without leaving you breathless, but if you aren’t, use your own judgment. Dancing, shadow-boxing, and jumping jacks are some choices that can rev your engine in limited space.
It’s not just about what you bring on stage when you enter, however. You’ve got to retain that energy throughout the performance, and that requires vigilance, especially on the days that your fellow actors seem drained or you yourself are. I know there are times when I can’t seem to get my engine past 55 mph, metaphorically speaking, when I really need to be flying at 70 or 80 mph (for comedies in particular)!
When that happens, you have to keep pushing yourself, and remember what the experience is like for you when you DO have the right level of energy. By recollecting that and measuring tonight’s performance against it, you have something clear to drive toward – even if I can’t quite make it to 70, I can usually get myself above 60 through sheer will . . .
The matter of energy is tied in with speed, which I’ll talk about in the next Actor’s Etiquette post.