Mindfulness for Actors
Many of us will be familiar with this term. It has become more and more widely used as Eastern philosophy enters the zeitgeist of the West.
For the sake of clarity, though, let’s be absolutely certain of its definition.
Mindfulness is, essentially, present moment awareness. It is similar to selflessness, but, strangely enough, it is achieved by becoming aware of ourselves! It is an awareness of the present moment—of being in the now and existing within it.
The term ‘mindfulness’ can appear misleading to some, as it might hint at intellectualising or rumination. For those of us who feel ‘stuck in our heads’, mindfulness, at first glance, sounds like throwing petrol in a fire. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
It is a game changer. It is the awakening of consciousness and it is a rather giant leap toward enlightenment.
Mindfulness is the practice of staying aware of the present moment so that our thoughts don’t haunt us. It is the only place we have ever lived in and it is the only place we ever will, so we simply need to get comfortable remaining there.
For many of us, if we ask ourselves how much time we honestly spend being present, we will either be reminded of the fact that our thoughts constantly plague us or, perhaps, be surprised by how little time we actually spend in the present.
Be honest with yourself. How often do you dwell on the past (rumination) or worry about the future (contemplation)? If we were to look at these as the contents of a ‘mental wallet’, we may be shocked to see how little we’ve left ourselves to spend on actually existing in this moment. And this moment is the only moment we have the luxury of living in. We might find that we are actually not living our lives, but taking frequent trips to the past or to tomorrow’s plans and mishaps, and so causing ourselves a great deal of stress.
Mindfulness is the ability to dwell on the here and now, and it is something we are born masters of, but can become less and less proficient at as life throws us its many curve-balls.
How does it apply to our work?
In order to restore order to this area, again meditation is prerequisite. Meditating about the present moment, be it our breath, a candle, the energy in our body, the ocean or a wall—whatever’s handy and whatever ‘floats your boat’.
Also, having found that our many trial separations from the present have proved fruitless, we can rekindle our relationship with it by simply dwelling in our senses. To state the obvious, we can’t hear yesterday or smell tomorrow, so what better way to regroup than to place our sensory awareness on our current surroundings.
Try this as an exercise:
Take a piece of food (perhaps a piece of chocolate or a raisin) and practice eating it mindfully. Experience every moment with your senses. Before you even think about putting it in your mouth, smell it. Take in its aroma. Feel its texture in your fingers and hands. Look at it in detail. Then, when you place it in your mouth, chew it as slowly as possible. Savour every single moment of eating it, without judgement. Take as long as you can on this one or two mouthfuls. What do you notice?
Mindfulness in our movement is also key.
A good way to teach ourselves the difference between mindfulness and a scattered sense of presence is just to move our hand from one spot to another.
Do it now.
What did you notice?
Was it sudden and jolted, concerned only with getting from point A to point B?
If not, you were being, at least partially, mindful.
How about, as an experiment, we keep point A as point A, but make point B point Z, so that we can think of the space between them as the remaining letters of the alphabet. If we jump straight from point A to point Z without any concern for the journey between the two, we have missed the other 24 letters of the alphabet. 24/26ths of our existence! Apply that to our whole life and we’ve lost some good years! The same applies to our work as actors.
A lack of mindfulness can be detrimental in so many ways in our profession.
Let us go back to the casting room.
You walk through the door, pre-occupied with the first take you’re about to put down before you’ve even taken a moment to shake the casting agents hand or say hello. You greet the reader, whilst in the back of your mind concerned only with that moment on page two that you felt unable to solve at home. You think back to the reading you did with your friend last night and how they said to keep eye contact on a particular line, while doing your ID and profiles. How are you feeling? Terrible. You’re not present. You’re an isolated fragment in a strange room. If you’d done the reverse and left the homework alone and stayed present in the room, observing with mindfulness its shape and size and then dwelling with your full attention on the other people in it, you would be in exactly the creative place you need to be!
If you’re still dwelling on the homework, then let me assure you, if it’s been attended to thoroughly, it will still be there. And if you feel under-prepared, it’s too late to do anything about it, so you may as well just take the present moment as it comes.
When it comes to mindfulness in performance, we can look at it in very simple terms. Some people refer to ‘dropping the ball’ when they are describing an actor who lets the scene slip through their fingers. Mindfulness is the opposite. It is being present to every offer, ready to pass it back. It is filling ourselves with awareness and vitality; with life energy that comes from attending to what is going on and immersing ourselves in it. It’s about letting go of that invisible director that sits on our shoulder and tells us how we’re doing. Very rarely does that director seem to be a pleasant colleague either, in my experience. My inner critic/director is a real bitch to work with, so I do my best to fire him before I’ve walked in to any rehearsal room these days.
Remember also, that what an audience wants is a live event to occur on stage or in front of the camera, and nothing makes you more ‘live’ than being mindful.
In order to be fascinating, you need to be fascinated. This logic works for almost all attitudes and the meanings that we attach to them.
‘If you want to be loved, you need to love’;
‘If you want to be boring, you need to be bored’;
And so on … simple rules of karma. You reap what you sow.
So fascination is the key. Be fascinated by the world around you and its inhabitants. This doesn’t mean that we have to stare intently at every single object around us. Fascination can be light and playful, easy and effortless. It is simply a state of open, mindful awareness of what is actually going on. It is paying attention to things with a sense of curiosity and intrigue, not ‘concentrating’ in the way our schoolteachers might have trained us to.
There’s an old adage that ‘there’s nothing more fascinating than a man tying his shoelace’.
I beg to differ, but the principle of it holds a lot of water. We are absolutely engaged by someone when they are engrossed in the things they are doing. The more focus, gentle and unforced, that is placed on a particular task, the more engaging it becomes to the viewer.
In fact, although many actors and teachers state that great film acting is about thinking, it is the mindfulness with which it is done and the point of focus at which the thinking is directed that tells us the story.
A brilliant example of this can be seen in Alec Guinness’ performance in ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’. A scene required him to weigh up a very difficult decision. The stakes are extremely high and it’s down to Guinness to convey that somehow. As the actor, feeling that it might not read as well on camera as he had hoped, he decided to simply count the wooden floorboards underneath his feet. What we, as the audience, witness however, due to our own projections, is a man immersed in an absolutely soul searching moment. What is actually happening is simply a man counting some floorboards! Let that be a lesson in mindfulness and fascination.
The other wonderful thing about mindfulness is that it is the greatest of teachers. Or, more to the point, it unlocks and improves our capacity for learning no end. Any great teacher will fulfil their job description, not by offering orders disguised as advice, but by seeking to unlock something that was already in the student—by sending them in the right direction and letting them learn through their own experiences.
Learning is about experience. Just as no good acting class can consist of a lecture with students just scribbling down notes, without them getting up on the floor and finding out for themselves. Just as reading this article, processing its contents intellectually and then putting it down without trying for yourself what is suggested won’t do much good.
With mindfulness comes a far greater capacity for experience.
Why? Because mindfulness teaches us to witness our thoughts and experiences objectively.
When mindfulness is used in therapy, or as a daily discipline, the practice involves witnessing thoughts and emotions observantly. By witnessing these thoughts and emotions in a non-attached manner, we are able to let them come and go without them disturbing our sense of peace as much as they might have if we latched onto them.
The same applies to learning. We are able to witness the information and experiences we are having in a far more useful and fruitful manner.
This can apply to both the short term and long term of our learning. Have you ever noticed that some people are better at picking up dance steps or remembering blocking than others? It may be that, yes, they are a more experienced dancer or have a greater muscle memory, but it is mindfulness that makes these skills blossom. The idea of second nature is, to me, simply referring to something that has been approached with enough mindfulness that it has been mastered.
In the long term, when we look at the ‘skill set’ of an actor, those who benefit most from their experiences, be it in drama school, further learning or simply on the job (where most of the real training happens), we are approaching it mindfully and continue to do so.
Let’s look at the great techniques that apply to movement and voice, for example.
Without flippantly condensing these invaluable teachings, which require years of practice to master, we can still see concisely, in a few short sentences, why they are useful as far as our mindfulness is concerned.
Voice: To become mindful of our breathing, excess jaw, neck, shoulder and body tension. To become mindful of diaphragmatic breathing. To become mindful of the difference between focusing on the sound of our voice, which is misleading, and the process of its production, which is where an accurate gauge lies.
To become mindful of our use of text and how we interpret what an author has set out for us. To become mindful of the size of the space in which we are playing and to suit our work accordingly.
Feldenkrais: To become mindful of the way in which we use our bodies, focusing on ease and reversibility. To become mindful of the joints and muscles, and how to use them economically and most effectively.
Alexander Technique: To become mindful of the use of our head, neck and spine. To become mindful of the difference between what we think our body is doing and what we are, in reality, doing with it.
Stage Fighting/Combat: To become mindful of depicting physical confrontation, armed or unarmed, whilst still retaining a sense of safety.
I have vivid recollections of my time at drama school, when mindfulness was fairly alien to me and, therefore, I struggled very often. I was often unable to focus. Or, more accurately, I was overly focused on the wrong things. Typical of the late teenager that I then was, I became preoccupied with how things looked and sounded, whether I was ‘getting it right’ and what my teachers/peers thought of my work. I was busy focusing on the end result of wanting to be the best actor that I could be, and not immersed enough in the process. If I could go back and give my younger self a friendly word in their ear, I would have said ‘Be mindful. Focus on the doing and experiencing, and not the result. You might even find yourself starting to enjoy yourself.’
I’m still certain that’s what my teachers were continually telling me, but I wasn’t mindful enough to listen!
So try it: in your work, your life and your learning. And if you’re already doing it, carry on!
Very Interesting Sam, thank you. Would love to add that Tai Chi is one of the greatest ways to experience mindfulness physically. As one learns Tai Chi, the moments (A to Z as you described) between each of the postures – or forms- becomes an experience of every millimetre of movement.