Moment to Schmoment?

This is a really popular catch-phrase in acting.  Moment to moment.  Not moment to schmoment.  That’s just a really lame attempt at humor.  Sorry about that….But every one tosses it around so cavalierly.  That phrase:  moment to moment.  As if it were easy to understand and simple to accomplish.

But what does it mean?  More importantly, how do you achieve it?

Some actors like to leave themselves alone and simply see what happens during the course of a rehearsal or a performance.  Seems brave.  Perhaps it is.  But acting, more eloquently stated by Uta Hagen in Respect for Acting then I will do right now, has everything to do with the illusion of the first time.  Actors do the same or very similar things night after night, but they make it look as if it has never happened before.  It’s one of the occupational hazards for the actor.

After all, there is a script.  The playwright has pre-determined everything the actor will say and do.  When the actor will enter.  When the actor will leave.  Generous playwrights encourage the actor to feel a specific some-thing.  More dictatorial playwrights demand a very specific response at a very specific moment in the play.  How can the actor live on stage moment to moment when she knows exactly what is about to happen, when she knows exactly what must happen, when she knows exactly what her response must be before she has ever gotten to that precise moment?  It can be an incredible distraction.

The actor has to lay the foundation for a specific response but also has to arrive at the response as if it were a surprise.  Part if this is accomplished by careful analysis of the script.  (Analysis is such a dry, medicinal word.  I wish I had a better, more inspiring phrase to offer.  Oh well.)  That analysis has to recognize that each line, each action, each exchange on stage is a surprise.  Each line is a WTF opportunity.  The play, the scene must be read in this manner.  Surprise — the unexpected — is what creates the heightened experience on stage.  Every interaction on stage contains the potential for this sense of surprise.  At the very least, every interaction — whether through the dialogue or through the physical life — should be considered, if not crafted, in this manner.

Yes, “crafted”.  Moment to moment, contrary to some opinions, is a crafted endeavor.  The actor cannot simply leave himself or herself alone to the whims of the imagination from one night or matinee to the next.  Not when dealing with a text.  Acting is not a matter of blind improvisation.  And improvisation has its own set of rules.  The rules of the game.  Demands that the improviser must follow.  Improvisation, too, is an illusion.  Everything on stage, before an audience, is an illusion.  Of the first time.  A substantial part of the art of acting lies in the actor’s ability to carefully craft a performance, create opportunity for his partners on stage join in that performance, to impact and effect that carefully crafted performance, and leave room for the “happy accident”.  As if for the first time, night after night, performance after performance.

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