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).



Harnessing Your Subconscious: Using Tools to Build Layers

LayersWhen you use a tool, you are putting down a layer of your character.  Tools need not be things you carry into your performance.  They usually aren’t.  I wouldn’t, for instance, suggest using the Open Door Reading tool in front of an audience.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a very useful way of exploring the character at certain points in rehearsals.  (I’ll talk about when to use these tools another time.)

This is a very different way of looking at rehearsals than you may be accustomed to.  Many actors I encounter in community theater see rehearsals as a means of reaching a finished performance.  Nailing down choices as soon as possible is the order of the day.

That’s natural.  We want to give a good performance, and we’d like to believe that it’s like putting together a barbecue grill.  You take the parts out of the box and lay them out, so you can be sure you have them all.  You follow the instructions, step by step.  And voilà, you have a barbecue grill that looks like the one in the store!

Acting isn’t like that.  You aren’t painting by numbers here.  You’re creating a characterization that is unique to you.  And every time you do a new play, you start from scratch.  You may develop skills to do this better and faster over time, but even when you become a technically proficient actor, you are still starting from scratch with a new play:  a character you know nothing about in a circumstance which is entirely new to you.

Acting is always a learning process.

Tools are ways to explore the character in all its diversity.  If used properly, they don’t require you to think excessively.  As with any new activity, you have to employ your conscious brain a bit more as you learn the technique, but the better you get at the technique, the less you’ll need to think about it. So please don’t look at the tools as handcuffs that will bind your creativity.  They actually free your creativity.

You don’t have to use all the tools I give you.  I suggest you try them with a certain amount of conscientiousness, simply so that you can understand what they are addressing and decide for yourself if they have anything to offer you.  You may not use them consistently over the course of your acting life; I don’t.  And you may find ways to achieve what they give you that are more effective for you as an individual.  However, doing them as I explain them and repeating them until you’re sure you understand them is a good way to understand the issues involved.

As Davina noted in class, it’s hard to speed up a scene when you’re still focusing on playing your verbs.  It’s hard to focus on playing your verbs when you are trying to receive emotional content from your partner.  It’s hard to do any of them when you are trying to remember your lines.

That’s okay.  That’s how it works.  Remember, your conscious brain doesn’t multi-task well enough to handle this, and in any case, trying to do them all at once means you don’t do any of them particularly well – at this early stage in rehearsals.  And by early stage, I’m talking about the first half of the rehearsal period.  Maybe even the first two-thirds.

“But I know this line should be said this way!”  No, you don’t.  You think you do.  But you’re forcing something on it.  Even if it IS the right choice, you shouldn’t force it.

If you are a very instinctive actor, as I am, it is easy to “know” early on what is right for your character, but the truth is you are only in the ballpark, not on base yet.  It is also true that you will not be correct 100% of the time.  Even if you have fabulous instincts, a good 10-20% of the time there is a much better choice out there waiting for you to discover it.  But if you stick with your “but I know this is right!” ego attitude, you’ll never discover it.

You can always come back to your “right” choice.  But if you’ve explored your other options, you’ll be sure it really is “right”!

To read Layering a Character, go here.

Harnessing Your Subconscious: Layering a Character

Okay, back to the acting tools.  At long last.

The recipe for this yummy lasagne can be found at http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/lasagna/

The tools I am introducing you to are simply ways to input good, focused, intentional data into the computer that is your subconscious.  Practical ways of using the open/closed modes of creativity.  Your subconscious, brilliant synthesizer that it is, discards what doesn’t work and keeps what does.  You don’t have to tell it what to keep most of the time, not that it would really understand anyway.  It just knows what works in context.

Give it plenty of data, and it will know what works in the puzzle that is your character and what doesn’t.

But remember, it does understand frequency.  It equates frequency with desire, and it considers your desires to be more important than what works.  So if you do a scene the same way every time, it will accept your choice.  It will try to compensate as much as it can for any choices that don’t work, but it has limited abilities in this regard, just as it does with your golf swing.  Make a lousy golf swing, and your subconscious can’t make it perfect.  It will just help to give you better results than you would have gotten if your subconscious hadn’t interfered on your behalf.

So how do you run a scene over and over in rehearsals without encountering the frequency problem?

Simple.  You keep coming at the scene from different angles.  You intentionally avoid doing it the same way every time during the first half of the rehearsal period.

If you can successfully “stay in the moment” – which, as I’ve said elsewhere, is much harder to do than you probably imagine – then by definition, what you’re doing will always be different.  But “staying in the moment” in the first rehearsals isn’t enough.  Later, yes.  But early on?  No.

A really interesting, creative, complex characterization is composed of “layers”.  When we talk about people being complicated, we liken them to onions.  Every time you peel away another layer, you find some different and unexpected aspect to their character underneath.

lasagne 4As an actor, you build a character in reverse, by putting down layer after layer.  You’re taking an unfinished piece of furniture and doing some complex faux finish work.  You sand it, you prime it, you sand again, you paint, you wipe, you paint again, you distress it, etc.  But you put down those layers one at a time.  You examine different aspects of your character’s relationships, needs, worries, desires, etc., individually – with your conscious brain (aided by your subconscious) – but you let your subconscious put the layers together.

When you are examining the components of a given layer, you are free to ignore the other layers.  When you are able to do this, you are giving high quality, focused attention to whatever you’re working on.  Whatever you’re ignoring this time, you’ll pay attention to some other time!

To read Using Tools to Build Layers, go here.



What Is Creativity?

creativityI’m going to shut up for this post.

I know.  Can I even find it possible?

I’m going to let others speak.  And then I’ll pick up the train of thought next time.

“It is a commonplace among artists that masterpieces are made in passing, not by the focused attempt to create one.  That very attempt often skewers the spontaneous internal process, the inspired hunch or ‘fine madness’, that makes great art a happy accident that seems inevitable only in retrospect.”Julia Cameron, Chicago Tribune, 1986.

“You don’t have to be a believer to recognize a moment of grace.  By grace I mean those precious, rare times when exactly what you were expecting gives way to something utterly different, when patterns of thought and behavior we have grown accustomed to and at times despaired of, suddenly cede to something new and marvelous.  It may be the moment when a warrior unexpectedly lays down his weapon, when the sternest disciplinarian breaks into a smile, when an ideologue admits error, when a criminal seeks forgiveness, or when an addict hits bottom and finally sees a future.  Grace is the proof that hope is not groundless.”Andrew Stillman, “Untier of Knots”, 12/17/13.

“I don’t just use bad writing excerpts as prompts for workshops.  I also produce a tremendous amount of bad writing myself.   In fact, if some poor graduate student were assigned to do an audit of my entire literary output over the past twenty years, this person—before killing themselves—would find that about 70 percent of what I write is dreck.

“And I know I’m not alone.  If you go visit the archives of your favorite writer, as I did with Kurt Vonnegut several years ago, you will find a treasure trove of unpublished work.  And, if you’re anything like me, you will be heartened by this discovery.  It’s a great relief to realize that all those published writers we idolize aren’t cranking out epic prose every day at the keyboard.  Sometimes, they’re stinking it up, just like we do. …..My basic theory is that most pieces of failed writing—whether stories, poems, or novels—are usually attempts to tell a story that the author simply wasn’t ready to tell yet.

“This is why so much of my bad poetry is clogged with overwrought language, because I’m stonewalling basically, trying to sound profound and beautiful rather than telling the truth. …..My own belief is that writing is too intimate and arduous an activity ever to perfect.  We need to stop viewing our task as the production of transcendent work. Instead, we should emphasize the process as a gradual reduction of our (necessary and inevitable) imperfections.

“I realize how frustrating it can feel to produce weak work.  Believe me.  But I’ve also come to accept that bad writing doesn’t just mark a creative dead end.  It’s a necessary station on the path to good writing.”Steve Almond, Blog Post on AWP Website, Feb. 2014.

“Fine writing is never one to one, never a matter of devising the exact number of events necessary to fill a story, then penciling dialogue.  Creativity is five to one, perhaps ten or twenty to one.  The craft demands the invention of far more material than you can possibly use, then the astute selection from this quantity of quality events, moments of originality that are true to character and true to world.  When actors compliment each other, for example, they often say, “I like your choices.”  They know that if a colleague has arrived at a beautiful moment, it’s because in rehearsal the actor tried it twenty different ways, then chose the one perfect moment.  The same is true for us.

“Finally, it’s important to realize that whatever inspires the writing need not stay in the writing.  A Premise is not precious.  As long as it contributes to the growth of story, keep it, but should the telling take a left turn, abandon the original inspiration to follow the evolving story.  The problem is not to start writing, but to keep writing and renewing inspiration.  We rarely know where we’re going:  writing is discovery.”Robert McKee, Story, 1997.

A few thoughts from John Cleese:

“…the most creative professionals always played with a problem for much longer before they tried to resolve it.  Because they were prepared to tolerate that slight discomfort and anxiety that we all experience when we haven’t solved a problem.”

“Now, the people I find it hardest to be creative with are the people who need, all the time, to project an image of themselves as decisive.  And they feel that, to create this image, they need to decide everything very quickly, and with a great show of confidence.  Well, this behaviour, I suggest sincerely, is the most effective way of strangling creativity at birth.”

“And if while you’re pondering, somebody accuses you of indecision, say:  ‘Look, babycakes, I don’t have to decide until Tuesday, and I’m not chickening out of my creative discomfort by taking a snap decision before then, that’s too easy.‘  So, to summarise, the third factor that facilitates creativity is time.  Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original.”

And I’ll leave the final words to Thomas Edison:

“Negative results are just what I want.  They’re just as valuable to me as positive results.  I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.” 

To read What If I’m Not Creative?, go here.  To read How On Earth Can I Be Creative As an Actor?, go here.  To read John Cleese on Creativity, go here.


Trusting Your Subconscious

How I swing the golf club isn’t going to be exactly the way you do.  Our golf swings are as unique as our personalities.  But good golf swings all have certain things in common.  You can’t break the laws of physics and have success.

When I break the golf swing into little pieces so I can learn to do it better, I can clearly identify what works and what doesn’t work, using these natural laws.  I can then practice what works over and over.

Acting is different.  This is a new play, and I don’t have a clear destination.  What I did in the last play doesn’t apply.  I am starting from scratch and have to figure out what works in this play, with this cast.  Acting is a creative, subjective art, and we make our way to a final performance bit by bit.

So how do you decide what works in a role, which “bits” to keep and which to discard?

The best way is to let your subconscious decide for you.  As I’ve said, it is much better equipped to synthesize everything into a cohesive performance than your conscious brain is.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t make some conscious decisions throughout rehearsals.  You will.  But if you refuse to set them in stone until your subconscious lets you know what conclusions it’s come to, you’ll give a more integrated and complete performance.

So how do we keep our conscious brains from doing what they love to do:  make decisions left, right, and center?

It’s an act of self-discipline, for starters.  You have to learn to intentionally sit on the fence for a while, to refuse the temptation to hop down on one side or another.  To hold open the possibility that something is different than what you expect it to be.  That your subconscious may have a different opinion.Straddle Fence

It’s a product of actively seeking opposites, and developing a willingness to experiment.

It’s a function of inputting data into the computer (your subconscious), and trusting that it will do its calculations and spit out the right answer.  I can assure you that it will.  Learning to act is, in part, a matter of learning to stop manipulating your subconscious and to trust it instead.

I tell my golfers that their subconscious knows how to play golf, and that if they could only shut down their conscious brains, they’d all play great.  And it’s true.  Your subconscious will compensate for your swing flaws as much as it can, because it knows what you’re doing wrong.  It’s fascinating to watch.

The same thing applies to acting.  Your subconscious will find your character much faster than your conscious brain will.  And time is, after all, of the essence.  A rehearsal period is finite.

Ah, but I hear you say, “You are asking me to trust this blindly, to not only try these things in class, but to try them when I’m in a play.  But what if they don’t work?  I’ll make a fool of myself on opening night!”

No, you won’t.  And I’ll explain why I am so confident of this in the next post.

To read The Subconscious Effect, go here.  To read Good Process = Great Performances, go here.

The “Subconscious Effect”, or Why You Can’t Do Any Acting Until You’re Off Book

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.

the-subconscious-mindSo 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!

To read Trusting Your Subconscious, go here.  To read Good Process = Great Performances, go here.

Acting is Exploring, Not Deciding

Forgive the length of this post, I couldn’t find a way to split it in two!

Your subconscious is the most amazingly sophisticated computer.  I almost wrote “known to man”, except that we cannot, with our conscious brains, begin to appreciate all that our subconscious can do.

I say “can” do, because our conscious brain is apt to interfere with the process.  We think far too much and do ourselves a disservice by doing so.  If, instead, we would listen for the words our subconscious whispers to us, we’d all be better off.  Learning to do something well is in large part a product of learning to shut up and listen.

Remember the old adage about computers, “Garbage in, garbage out”?  When we use our conscious brains too much, we tend to put garbage into the computer.  I’ll explain why it’s garbage another time, but garbage confuses the subconscious, which doesn’t know what to do with it.  The garbage doesn’t fit with what’s true, but the fact that you’ve entered this data makes your subconscious try to work with it, to fit the square peg into the round hole.  Because here’s the funny thing about your subconscious:

It doesn’t have a value system.

Binary codeIt’s like Binary Code computer language.  It knows 0s and 1s, but it doesn’t have an opinion as to which is better.  It just knows they are different.  It understands frequency, however.  Here’s my golf analogy:  If you hit a ball in the water the last time you played, you’ll worry that you’ll do it again during your next round.  So you’ll think things like, “Just don’t hit it in the water.”  “Just get it over the water, I don’t care where it ends up.”  “Oh my God, I hit it in the water last time, I don’t want to do that again.”

Your subconscious doesn’t understand the word “don’t”.  Instead, it homes in on the word “water”.  “Oh,” says your subconscious, “he keeps talking about the water.  That must be where he wants his ball.”  And Bingo! That’s where your ball goes.

On the other hand, if you simply present ideas to your subconscious without stressing one over another, your subconscious is free to choose what works best, and it is smart enough to do precisely that.

It is easy to rush to make choices as an actor.  After all, you have a finite rehearsal period in which to put a play together to show the public.  No one wants to make a fool of themselves, so making choices early makes us feel that we’ll be able to practice those choices often enough to make them look good.  This theory is fine as long as the choices are good ones, but they often aren’t.  It’s impossible to understand your character in the first few weeks of rehearsal.  And even if the choices are good, making them early often precludes choosing a better one later.

Rehearsals are instead best used as explorations into what is possible.  In experimenting, we often come across things that don’t work, but those “mistakes” often lead us to things that do.  The creative process starts, I’m afraid, with a lot of garbage, but the garbage is the warm-up.  Your work at the end of the night is always better than the work at the beginning, isn’t it?

Once your creative juices get warmed up, they start to produce quality stuff you can keep.  Do enough exploring and, after a few weeks, the pattern starts to emerge, a pattern that is impossible to see with any clarity before then.

This is an uncomfortable approach at first.  It’s easy to get scared by an opening night that seems to loom larger with each passing day.  Making choices makes us feel secure, but if you can have the courage to trust the process and explore every conceivable option throughout the first half of your rehearsal process without making choices, you will find that a great performance will be the natural result, and that it will come together fairly effortlessly in the last few weeks of rehearsal.

I’ve seen this happen time and again.  I make my actors a nervous wreck when I direct, because I refuse to let them settle into complacency early on.  I am continually pushing and asking questions and trying new things through Week 5 (assuming an eight-week rehearsal period).  They are sure, I think, that this thing will NEVER come together!  Can’t we please have more run-throughs?  (Run-throughs are an actor’s greatest security blanket.)  But the work starts bearing fruit after Week 5, and the payoff in performance is self-evident.

By delaying choosing, you turn the decision-making process over to your subconscious, which is better qualified for the job.  You will also find that you don’t have many choices to make after all, that it has made them for you.  All you need to do is run with them!