Last night we ran the show for our playwright for the first time. Overall, I felt it went pretty well, but man, as we came out of the gate, I got all kinds of self-conscious.
Flop sweat. I kid you not, literal flop sweat. I couldn't believe it.
Things kinda spiraled from there. I think everyone was feeling some pressure, and a number of things got rushed, or forgotten. Oh, trust me, I know on an intellectual level that this is to be expected. Even when you're performing, the show will ebb and flow, there will be good nights and bad nights, and you have to aim for more good than bad.
Of course, I'm one of those people who beats themselves up a lot after the fact. I go over every little mistake again and again in my mind. Usually that's a good thing, a part of the process. I can say that making the same mistake twice is rare for me. If I go up on a line, for example, you can bet I'll be going over that moment in my head again, and again, and again, usually with a chorus of "how could you be so STUPID!!?!?"
For those of you not "in the business," this is usual. Actors are usually on a spiral of egotism and self-loathing, back and forth, back and forth. It makes sense, because, I guarantee you, the second you start thinking, "hey, I'm kicking ass here," the acting gods are gonna start having their way with you. They'll pull a line right out of your head, and make sure it's the most embarrassing one possible. (Right in the middle of your centerpiece monologue, for example)
Of course the insidious thing is that those same acting gods will exploit moments of insecurity in the EXACT SAME MANNER. The moment you start to worry, oh, lord, it is all over.
The trick is, of course, focus. In both of those cases, you're not thinking about what you're doing.
My undergrad acting instructor was a man named Jeff Green, and he was really, really instrumental in getting me from the dumb-ass kid I was in college to the pseudo-professional actor I am now. I'll never forget when he called acting "juggling oranges."
I mention this concept in rehearsals sometimes, and usually get a blank look, or a "huh?" However, I always find it an elegant simile. As an actor on stage, you always have multiple factors to keep track of, to keep "in the air." I say "in the air" because none of these issues is a solid, concrete "you do it this way" concept.
Examples of oranges:
- Your lines (well, duh)
- Your blocking (don't want to be walking into furniture)
- The physical traits you've given the character (limp? Military with perfect posture? etc)
- The emotional content of the scene
- Your character's given circumstances (be it what's happened earlier in the play, or your backstory, if you're into that sort of thing)
- Your character's objectives in this particular scene (what does he/she want from the other characters in this scene?)
- Your character's super-objectives for the play as a whole (what does he/she want in terms of our overall story? - could be same as above)
- Your character's textual through-line (what's the spoken tactics he/she's using?)
- Your character's subtextual through-line (what's he/she REALLY thinking?)
- Listening to the other actors/characters (It's what it's all about)
- Your diction/projection (it's all pointless if the audience can't hear you)
- Your physical relation to the audience (it's all pointless if the audience can't see you)
- Finding your light (see above)
- Creating a compelling emotional environment for your audience (because, again, what's the point if the audience doesn't care? - Do not confuse with "pandering")
What's not on there? "How am I doing?"
The second you start trying to judge your success or failure while you're on the stage, in front of an audience, you've dropped your oranges, and you've failed. I don't mean to elevate myself with that statement, we've all failed, and I've failed as hard and spectacularly as anyone. I've had shows where I wanted the audience to "like me," and that was my goal.
Do you see what happens there? My super-objective is now "for the audience to like me," which doesn't have a damn thing to do with the character or the play. FAIL.
Again, the real key is focus. To shut out everything but the moment your character is living in, yet not so much that you lose the technical needs that make your work readable to the audience. (To all you "uber-Method," "don't constrain my art" folks, no, "feeling it" doesn't excuse being sloppy on stage. Brando "felt" the shit out of Stanley Kowalski, but he still found his damn light) You've got to watch those damn oranges go around, and keep them in the air.
Simply, there should be no time on stage to judge yourself. Play through! Hit the ground running and aim for the curtain call. Stop undermining yourself with worries that will only compound if you dwell on them. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Likewise, stop patting yourself on the back before you've completed the task.
After the fact? Oh you bet! (You could even say this entire blog is about me judging my work from last night after the fact.) Everyone can benefit from an honest "post-mortem" of a performance, but the key there is the word "honest." I find that actors are rarely fully honest with themselves, we're hardly ever as good, or as bad, as we think we are.