On Staying in the Moment


Hamilton The Musical is my current obsession, and so I came across the above interview with five of the cast members.  Scroll down and you’ll find Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, talking about the moment every night when Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, hurls the insult that causes Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel and ultimately, to kill him, simultaneously ending his own political career.

“Every night, I’m looking for it in his eyes — I want him to make different decisions. I want it to end differently.”

When you are so in the moment and caught up in what your character is feeling that you actually want what your character wants, hope for it to be so, even though you know it can’t happen any other way — that is truly being in the moment.

Also interesting to note:  how they deal with the different energies that audiences bring with them to the performance, and how they continue to develop and understand their characters over time (and they’ve been working with the show for at least a year now).



Actor’s Etiquette: Deliberate Practice

10648110-got-etiquette-shirtDeliberate Practice, done in solitude, creates elite performers, says research psychologist Anders Ericsson.  What does that mean to an actor, who mostly performs with at least one other person on stage?  How can we, as actors, use Deliberate Practice outside of the classroom?

The fact that athletes in team sports also often spend unusual amounts of time in solitary practice caught my attention, because it’s the most comparable situation to an actor’s.  Yes, a violinist in an orchestra is working on a “team”, but he can practice his part in solitude more effectively than an actor can.  How what he does blends with the rest of the orchestra is secondary to what he does alone.

In football, wide receivers are dependent on their quarterbacks to throw them the ball, but that doesn’t mean that they can only get better by working with their QB.  Jerry Rice’s off-season workouts are legendary; Cris Carter last caught a ball in the NFL in 2002, but he’s caught thousands of them off of automatic throwing machines, and can still catch them one-handed (either hand).  Both Rice and Carter did an extraordinary amount of Deliberate Practice.  Which is one reason why they are in the Hall of Fame.

Monologue work is an obvious choice.  They are incredibly difficult to do well, as I’ll discuss in some distant future.  We do not ordinarily talk to ourselves in the way characters talk to themselves.  When we talk to ourselves, we mumble, or half of it is verbal and half in our heads.  None of which is interesting to watch on stage.

Monologues delivered to the audience are also tough, because they tend to become speeches.  We don’t speak to audiences the way we speak to best friends, and yet that is often exactly what is required.  Learning how to achieve this sort of natural behavior in a very unnatural circumstance is difficult and takes a lot of practice.

If you can learn to do it, however, you’ll find there is a lot of transference to your group acting skills.  The one clue I’ll give you is that the primary question I ask myself as an actor these days is, “Did I just sound like a human being?”  Often, in monologues directed to the audience, there are particular lines that just sound unnatural, and I have to work hard to overcome that.

You can see why casting directors like monologues.  They separate the men from the boys, as it were.

Monologues can only do so much, however.  There are a lot more of them available now than there was when I was growing up.  In fact, I don’t think I did much in the way of monologues until I was a teenager looking to audition.  So what was my form of Deliberate Practice, growing up?

I’ve read a lot of plays.  I mean, A LOT of plays.  Wanting to act is something I was born with, and once I discovered that there were plays out there, I got my hands on every script I could find, largely through libraries when I was in school.  Once I branched out into community theater, I discovered that there were playscripts I could borrow from friends or perhaps find in used bookstores.  Once I had more discretionary  income, I started buying scripts.

I didn’t just read them.  I read them over and over.  I identified characters in them (not always female) that appealed to me, and analyzed them, tried to figure out what made them tick, practiced their lines, tried to make them sound as natural as possible, while still being interesting.  I spent as much time with them as many actors do with their characters in rehearsal.  Enough time that I could see the links between the line in the third act and something that happened in the first.

I read old plays and new plays, classics and predictable modern comedies.  I read bad plays and good plays.  I learned why the good ones were good and the bad ones bad.  I figured out what playwrights had done to give me good material, and what was missing when they hadn’t.  I thought about how I could help disguise their lack, and how I could dig further into the complex characters so that I could show all of their complexity.  I worked to go beyond the obvious and find original ways to present my characters while staying true to them.  I learned how to read the text and let it speak to me without laying my trite perceptions on it.

I played hundreds of characters in my bedroom.  My first readings were about showing off and enjoying whatever attracted me to the character.  But I got pretty serious after that, working on the character as if I was actually going to play it, and doing all the work I still do in rehearsals.

Over and over again.

My sense is that many of my students, even the more ones, often don’t read a lot of plays, much less do the rest of what I’ve just described.  That’s unfortunate, because I think studying scripts is a huge part of actor’s form of Deliberate Practice.  Yes, I was born with a certain instinctive ability to sense what is going on with a character, but the work that I’ve described has most definitely helped me to become the actor I am today.

As with anything you want to do well – there are no shortcuts to putting in the time.

The Learning Process, Part III (The Fastest Route)

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.

The best way to learn to do something well is by breaking it into its smallest parts and getting really good at each of those parts without regard to any of the other parts.Puzzle Piece

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.

See Part I here, and Part II here.

The Learning Process, Part II (The Usual Route)

The second way to learn is to actively try to get better.  We gain a little bit of knowledge, enough to get a feel for the complexity of what it is that we are trying to do.  If I’m learning to play golf, at this point I understand that I have to learn to rotate my arms in a particular way, to push the club away from me rather than lifting it, to deal with weight shift, maintaining spine angle, keeping my head behind the ball, not rushing my backswing, following all the way through, finishing high . . .

“Sheesh!  That’s a lot to pay attention to, but okay – I want to learn this game, and learn it quickly!  So I make a swing.  And I have this feeling that I swung too quickly, and I know I did the weight shift wrong, and I hit behind the ball, so I must have done something else wrong, and I don’t know if I finished correctly or not.  Did I get all the way through?  And look what the ball did!  It never got higher than ten feet off the ground, and it’s over in the bushes, I don’t know if I can even find it over there.Print

“Let me swing again, I’ll do it better this time.  Oops!  I lost my balance that time, and I’m not sure what happened in the second half of the swing, but the club was doing some really weird things, and I could really tell that I rose up that time.  And the ball popped up and went left, but it came down just as quickly.”

How much learning do you think is going on here?

You can eventually sort everything out using this approach, but it’s a little time-consuming.  You gradually figure out what matters and what doesn’t.  Take a new physical activity, for instance.  You don’t know what muscles are required to get the job done initially.  But as you go along, your subconscious figures out what muscles don’t need to participate, and it shuts them down.

As long as you are actively paying attention to what happens (unlike the golfer in the previous example), the wheat and the chaff get separated over time.  You may go down some wrong paths, but you figure that out before you get too far, and you come back to the fork in the road and follow the other route.

But a certain amount of what happens in this learning process is serendipity.  Your subconscious is looking out for you and it does its best to make you happy.  Sometimes the best it can do it to try to save you from yourself, but given enough time, your subconscious will often figure out how to do something better.  What it can’t do, using this process, is figure out how to be great.

Why?  Because the rehearsal process is short.  Whether you use a two or six or eight week rehearsal period, it’s a finite length of time.  With each play, you’re starting the learning process at zero, but you don’t have the leisure to learn at your own pace.  No one is going to delay opening night so that you can improve your performance.

I guess you can figure out that my personal preference is Learning Process #3 . . .

To read Part I, go here.  For Part III, go here.

The Learning Process, Part I (The Path of Least Resistance)

So how do we develop good acting technique?

Let me digress just a bit and talk about the learning process.

In a previous post, I talked about your conscious brain being a Commodore 64 computer, while your subconscious brain, by comparison, is 1,000 times better than the most sophisticated computer and software presently available.  Let’s take that a little further and say that your conscious brain is like the computer’s RAM, while your subconscious is all the files you have saved.

Your conscious brain is the threshold over which knowledge passes into your head.  While you’re learning something, your conscious brain seems to do most of the work.  Once you’ve learned it, it is largely resident in your subconscious brain, from which it can be called forth when needed.

As actors, we want to move knowledge into our subconscious as much as possible, so that our subconscious can play a very big role in what we do on stage.  Yes, our conscious brain will be active during a performance, too, but great acting requires that your subconscious participates.  A lot.

There are three basic ways that we can teach our subconscious.  I’ll explain how they impact acting, and you can choose which route you’d like to take.

First, understand that your subconscious doesn’t have a value system.  It’s your conscious brain that decides ice cream is good, while sorbet is bad.  (My husband’s opinion; I love sorbet.)

Your subconscious does understand frequency, however.  Do the same thing over and over, and your subconscious will learn to do that thing very well.  Why?  Because it equates frequency with desire, and your subconscious wants you to be happy.  It wants you to succeed, and its job is to help you do that.

So it does its best to learn whatever it thinks you want to do, and to learn to do it better.  To learn to do as much of it as possible without troubling your conscious brain, freeing your conscious brain up to find world peace or the best price on a hotel.  A lot of your day is spent doing things on autopilot, thanks to your subconscious.  And isn’t that a good thing!  Remember how you had to pay full attention when you were learning to drive?  Now you can have a conversation when you drive without having an accident.

Self-taught golfers eventually come for lessons.  They have tried to imitate what they see others do, but they don’t know enough about the golf swing in the early stages to make the right choices.  They can’t see what they look like when they swing.  They imagine they look like Tiger Woods, when in fact they look like Charles Barkley.  (If you’ve never seen Barkley play golf, take my word for it, it’s not pretty.)

They have swing flaws that they have grooved over the years through repetition, and they come to me to undo years of learning in one lesson.  Which is extremely difficult to do.  Their flawed motion is firmly embedded in their subconscious, and it is only with great conscious discipline that they can change that.

cartoon manHow does this approach to learning affect an actor?  You make choices early in the rehearsal process, what seem to be the “obvious” choices about how to say your lines.  You have a “vision” of what you want the final performance to look like, and so you rush to put those pieces of the puzzle together and trust that everything else will fit in, over time.  Once you’ve got a few weeks under your belt, you’ll be comfortable with the material, and then you can really start to explore it.

“Getting comfortable” typically means run-throughs.  Let’s run that scene again!  And again!  And when I’m home rehearsing and memorizing my lines, I’m going to read them over and over.  And I’ll probably do a little bit of “acting” as I memorize them.  So I’m not just memorizing the words, I’m memorizing my surprise when you tell me you eloped with someone you met last week.

Before you know it, you’ve memorized a “primitive” performance, one without nuance or a real understanding of the character (which only comes with time.  You just met this character, after all.)  You’re well on your way to a performance that is superficial, with no real emotional core to it.  If you’re talented, you can shine this baby up, but you will never be able to give it a soul.  You can’t peel back the exterior you’ve created to add the foundation halfway through the rehearsal process, because adding the foundation is going to change the exterior.  At this point, you’re committed to the exterior.  You have grooved that swing.

Early run-throughs – repeating the scene without having a reasonably good idea of what you are trying to achieve in doing so – are the death-knell for great acting.

To read Part II, go here.  To read Part III, go here.