Baptism by Fire

The opportunity to rehearse and perform a play is arguably the best way to learn to act.  There’s some old saying to that effect.  All the formal schooling in the world can’t re-place the baptism by fire that is the need to succeed in front of a live audience.  The ability to make quick decisions and commit to a course of action is invaluable.  This tends to occur when the prospect of a paying public is fast approaching.

A challenge occurs when this kind of pressure – the pressure to perform – propels the creative effort toward safe decisions.  Decisions that will seem acceptable to the majority.  Choices that will make infinite sense and will invite no debate.  Nothing that could possibly shake the attention of anyone watching.

The pressure to perform is weird thing.  Some actors are very sensitive to it.  Know they are sensitive to it.  Others claim the opposite and brag about their comfort in front of the audience, any audience.  Either kind of actor is susceptible to the practical need and genetically encoded desire to fit in.  Few of us want to be separated from the group, from the herd.  We want to fit in.  To fit in is to survive.  That’s why there are no plaid zebras.  They were the easiest to spot way-back-when, and predators did away with them a long time ago.

It is an unconscious habit to want and to work to blend into our surroundings.  To be-come part of the whole.  It’s safer.  And the body knows this at a cellular level.  It’s in our DNA.  So the thrill that we sense whenever we act in performance or in rehearsal is a response, an innate response, a chemical response, to the unconscious habit to blend in.  To lift ourselves out of the world around us and separate ourselves, distinguish ourselves as different from the rest is unnatural.  Engaging in the art of acting, the practice of acting, it is unnatural.  It’s thrilling.  It’s terrifying.  It’s an adrenaline rush.  It’s fight or flight.

So the rehearsal process is a terrifying journey.  It is also a thrilling one.  It’s typically both.  Because each day at work on a play, hopefully the actor is continually putting herself out there, making quick instinctive dangerous decisions.  Constantly separating herself from the pack.  Stepping far away from the conventions of conformity, of approval, of safety, of fitting in.  Of merely doing what works or what is effective.

What exactly is it that the actor is looking for?  How does the actor get there?  I don’t know.  No one really does.  So just start flinging stuff around the room and see what sticks.  It’s a messy process, and much of it stinks.  But it’s one of the few things
in life that you can truly call your own.

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