I work with and teach a lot of actors, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what a complex task it is to perform. On one hand it’s the most natural thing in the world. On the other hand though, to appear natural in front of an audience is perhaps the hardest task ever known to man. (Corroborated by the fact that people fear public speaking more than death!)
I’ve come to believe that when we’re performing, we’re always balancing three things. Those three things are: the text, our imagination, and the present moment. Let’s break them down.
These are our tasks. We’ve got a script so we’ve got to say our lines. We’ve got blocking so we’ve got to execute it. We’ve got props to handle and choreography to do, we’ve got to keep our body open to the audience onstage and not step out of frame on set. This is all the stuff we have to do.
Many acting teachers define acting as “living truthfully in the given circumstances.” Well, the given circumstances are what we need our imagination for. Our imagination is the bridge that allows us to be in a 100 seat black box theatre looking out over an audience of people, and act as if we’re staring out at the ocean. Stepping into a character is bringing all of ourself to the role and then imagining more possibilities.
If we forget about this part, we’re dead. The whole beauty of performing is communicating with our audience in the present moment. The word communication has the same root as the word commune. Acting is communing, coming into union, with those with whom we’re sharing. And the only time that can happen? Right now. Here in New York I teach at Anthony Meindl’s Actors Workshop, and we are all about the present moment. I love everything Tony has to say about presence – watch him talk about it here.
The challenge of performing then, is the dance of holding these three aspects in our awareness the whole time. If we grip too hard to the text, it’s obvious we’re acting…. we’re doing too much (like the dude in the picture above in my opinion). If we favor imagination over everything else, we’ll either go off into lalaland or we’ll come across as portraying the idea of what we think we should be doing, as opposed to what we’re actually doing. And of course if we lose touch with the present moment we’re not even performing anymore. If a tree falls in the forest and no one’s there to hear it… you catch my drift.
Acting is profoundly and beautifully challenging because the task is to hold these three things in our consciousness simulaneously. Without gripping. Without pushing. Without withholding. In a state of allowing.
I think this is something really big to chew on. The more I think about these ideas, the more they make sense. Plus there’s something incredibly powerful about the number three. A triangle is the most stable shape in geometry. So here’s your acting triangle: