This one acting hack is my greatest discovery so far: rehearse how you want to perform.
Yesterday I was coaching one of my students. She was stressed, agonising over how to write an accurate backstory, and find the perfect scene objective. Seeing her in that way, was like seeing myself every day at drama school. There was so much that I didn’t understand and I desperately wanted to make sense of it all. Actors universally have this desire to master the process and “get things right”. We want to be able to dice up any scene or monologue, put it through a clever little system, and pop out a perfect performance at the end. The issue is, even if you find the perfect scene objective, a detailed backstory, and learn every possible thing about your character, if you have found it through stress, you will perform it with stress.
It’s actors like James Dean and Jennifer Laurence, who live truthfully in the moment, and constantly surprise us, that we fall in love with.
For years my script analysis was cobbled together from everything I learnt at drama school. 12 Steps of Ivana Chubbuck, muddled together with Uta Hagen’s Given Circumstances, and why not throw in 20 transitive verbs from my actor’s thesaurus while I’m at it? This work ethic was admirable, but the intention was not. All I cared about was getting it right! But a desire to get something right is simply a desire to be in control. And words like control, accurate, and safe are not what we look for in great performances. In fact, what gets us salivating, is danger! It’s actors like James Dean and Jennifer Laurence, who live truthfully in the moment, and constantly surprise us, that we fall in love with. We want performances that are built on impulse and spontaneity. It’s the goal of actors to “put a mirror up to nature” and genuinely show us something truthful, honest and compelling about ourselves.
If you’ve ever been in a great rehearsal room, where you are collaborating with the director, it’s an incredible experience. Both of you are throwing ideas at each other, and exploring the possibilities of the scene and the character. This is play. Whenever a director creates this kind of rehearsal environment, the culture lives on into performance. Yes we formulate blocking, and create structure, but our performances remain playful and spontaneous. Conversely, if you’ve ever worked with an autocratic director, where you are simply a pawn in their ego driven vision, you will understand how feeling limited, controlled and afraid leads to stilted and monotonous performances. This environment stifles our creative impulses.
So we understand this when it comes to working with directors, but how are we directing ourselves? Most of us play the role of the second director when we are working on our own projects. We begrudge the process and eagerly demand a perfect end product. Whether it’s an audition, or a performance, we are judgmental and controlling of how the work should be:”ok, I have to cry here” or “this just isn’t working!!!”. These outcome oriented approaches drench us in stress. We search for a scene objective, and instead of saying, “yes that could really help unlock the scene” we say “maybe that’s not the right scene objective”.
Always remember that there are no right answers. Even experienced teachers will squabble over objectives for the same scene. That’s because we all see scenes differently and what inspires something in me might not work for you.
It becomes more like doing maths homework, than playing in the sandpit.
Remember acting techniques are all designed to help you. We often forget this, and so the whole process becomes unhelpful. It becomes more like doing maths homework, than playing in the sandpit.
You only turn to an acting methodology when you need help. Don’t force it upon every scene! If you have a scene that you instantly connect with, why force it through your stressful process. Trust that you have it and don’t over prepare. However, if you pick up a scene and it just isn’t working, take a look in your toolkit and see what can help. Maybe you don’t understand the character: well, you need to read the play again and maybe look at Uta Hagen’s given circumstances. Don’t understand the structure of the scene? Time to turn to units, or beats, to breakdown the scene into manageable sections. Your toolkit is there to help when you need it.
If you do force a scene through the same old process it becomes an intellectual pursuit. We all understand the notion of feeling “in our head” or disconnected. If you keep telling yourself to get something right again and again, how do you expect to have a free and open mindset in performance? We censor ourselves whilst performing, because we don’t want to get it wrong. But the only way to be great is to give up the agenda of being great.
The other issue with approaching our work in a stressful/outcome oriented way is that it makes acting miserable. As actors, we spend more time prepping and rehearsing than we do performing, so why not start trying to enjoy that process. If your process has become like this, I recommend finding teachers and coaches that make acting fun again. Seek out teachers who love the craft. The same goes with acting methodologies. Which techniques and practitioners excite you? When you start to enjoy the process of being a detective and unlocking scenes, your script analysis work will improve massively.
Most of our hours as actors are spent alone: learning, practicing and rehearsing. Isn’t it potentially a liberating thought that making your rehearsal process more enjoyable, not only makes your life as an actor rewarding, but it could also lead to more impulsive, creative and present work. It is never about getting it right, instead focus on what actually helps you tell the story. For some, strictly following Ivana Chubbuck’s 12 steps will be the key, for others it will be shouting your lines to the ocean, or singing them in the shower.