When the Lights Come On

“All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players;”- William Shakespeare

In episode 81 of Don’t Quit Your Daydream Tamarea Kramer answered what her greatest strength as an actress was with “my ability to be.” I believe that ‘being’ or ‘the ability to be’ is the single greatest determiner of success in any enterprise you might undertake. It’s what separates the real from the fake, the authentic from the manipulative, it’s what makes or breaks pieces of art and entertainment, and it is in acting that we most clearly see the discrepancy in that ability. What do we say in response to an incredible performance? It was her ability to be vulnerable, her emotion, that she made it feel so real. But to be vulnerable there must be something to be uncovered, to show genuine emotion there must be genuine feelings, and it follows that to make a performance feel real, real in the gut, real in the heart of things, then it must be real to the person playing the part.

But how do you do that? How do you just be?

Tamarea’s full quote goes: “My ability to be. I like the way I approach things. A lot of people do the whole research thing, and that’s great, they should research, it’s very important. But a lot of people are caught up in the thinking of a character. It’s ‘why would my character do this,’ it’s ‘my character,’ it’s ‘why would the character.’ For me it’s not like that. It’s just me. -- Because it’s not you, and it shouldn’t be you every time. The character is a mould that you pour yourself into. You’re going to fill it differently every time, but the fundamental part of it is you so it has to be you.”

One of the most important things to note in this quote is the “a lot of people are caught up in the thinking of a character.” By thinking about what the character would do you begin rationalizing behaviour, emotional responses, and displays of those emotions, most of the time winding up in you developing concepts about what you think the character should be doing. And when you try and translate that should on stage, it comes across as inauthentic. Why? Because you cannot rationalize an emotional performance.

What happens when you begin rationalizing, or thinking too much (you should think some of course), is that you distance the character from yourself naturally through the analytic process. Say you’re in a show and in one scene your character’s mom dies. You start thinking, okay so in this scene I’m supposed to be sad, how can I be sad. You begin thinking about the character’s relationship to the mother, you begin thinking about what this means for the character, if you’re going really deep you think about the character’s reactions to their reaction to the mother’s death (ie: feeling guilty for not feeling sad enough, etc), and you continue this process until you have a sound understanding of what the character’s sadness should be. But in practice everyone keeps telling you it feels off, it feels forced or mechanical, and you feel it’s forced too because you can’t make the real tears come. You understand why the character should feel something, but there is no feeling in knowing why. I know why some people love Big Bang Theory, but in no way does that make me feel that love.

It’s this ‘should’ that interrupts and distorts the essential quality of being that is flow, that is instinct. Craig MacDonald said “The best acting is instinctive. It’s not intellectual, it’s not mechanical, it’s instinctive,” and “Stop explaining yourself. Shut up and act!” In explaining we rationalize, and we rationalize to justify. We use shoulds to protect ourselves because we lack the confidence to just be. The confidence to be vulnerable.

“If you really do want to be an actor who can satisfy himself and his audience, you need to be vulnerable.” - Jack Lemmon

“Actors think more with their hearts than with their heads.” - William Esper

To think is to stop being. To think is to be self-conscious. To think is to distort and manipulate. To think is to be inauthentic. If there is one truth to being, it is that you can never think your way there. You do not think your way into vulnerability. But to give up thinking you must have confidence, and to develop confidence one must work.

“One of the things I like about acting is that, in a funny way, I come back to myself.” - Bill Murray.

“You have to break your own personal blocks. You have to be able to be vulnerable in front of anybody. You have to break the thing inside you that doesn’t want people to see. And when you get comfortable with that, when you let people see that, you get access to power you never thought you had.” - Will Smith

It’s in the process of doing that the truth is revealed. It is when one is acting that the gap between character and actor blur, when the lines blend. To be the character one must be in the moment, to be in the moment you must not indulge in your thoughts, to not indulge in thoughts you must believe that you will do the right thing without having to think about it, to believe that you can do that you must be confident, and to develop that confidence you just have to do it. Which means you have to try, again and again. Which means you have to be able to take criticism saying you are not there yet. You have to listen when the director tells you that you’re holding on too tightly when you thought there was nothing left to hold. You will have to fail until you no longer fear failure because it is the fear of failure that forces you to protect yourself, to clam up, to not allow yourself to do anything without first judging it to decide if it’s what you are supposed to be doing. But it’s this confidence that will also allow you to quiet the war raging inside your head for a moment, so that when the lights come on, you can just be.

“The first step to a better audition is to give up character and use yourself.”- Michael Shurtleff

“Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself there.” -Meryl Streep

I’m not insulated from the reality that it’s not always this mythical, pseudo spiritual incarnation of yourself as the character. That there is a real gap, and you do not literally become the character. Gary Oldman once said “Anyone who tells you that they have become the people they play, unless they’re clearly diagnosed as schizophrenic, is bullshitting you.” I am arguing only that creative greatness come from a spontaneity that rationality imprisons. That trying is not the same as being, and that most of your success in life will come from your ability to understand that difference.

I understand most of this can be construed as cliche, as drivel, as overwrought, as self-indulgent, as a ridiculous aggrandizing of artistry. I’m well aware that there are no words which can sufficiently explain the difference, and that when someone tells you to just be in the face of your best efforts, you can’t help but be enraged when told that you have to just do it. I can be told to write it instead of write about it all day, but still at times I fall in the same trap that I am preaching against. Another cliche, but: “The vapider the cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers,” - David Foster Wallace. And perhaps there is no more vapid, no more cliche cliche, then the everlasting ‘be yourself,’ whose real truth lies entirely in that first word, be.

So to close, let me ask this:

Who will you be when the lights come on?

Much love, and thank you!