For the last five Thursdays I’ve been attending an acting scene study workshop. The goal when I signed up was just to brush up on my skills and try something new. I’ve been a big proponent of actors taking the occasional class or workshop to shake things up, as it’s easy to get into an acting rut, especially if you’re constantly working in the same basic environment. For me personally, I’ve developed a lot of bad habits in the last several years and the class has certainly opened my eyes to some of them. Whether or not I’m broken of them remains to be seen, but at least I recognize them more clearly now. In that regard the class has been exactly what I expected it to be. What I *didn’t* expect was the three fairly major realizations I’ve made about myself as an actor/director, two of which are not so good, and one of which gives me hope.
The first realization, and for me the most frightening, is the simple fact that there are roles out there that – *gasp* – I’m not meant for! A shocker to be sure. Like most actors who are confident in their abilities, I tend to think that there isn’t a role out there I couldn’t play if I was just given the chance. I’ve been blessed over the years with the opportunity to play all sorts of characters, and I always feel like I’ve acquitted myself quite well, even when I wasn’t exactly the right “type”. Sitting in class and watching the other students work, I’m constantly squirming in my seat because I see them struggling with such simple characters and I want so desperately to run up on stage and show them how it’s done. But when it comes to the scene I’ve been assigned, I’m pretty much lost. I have a solid handle on what’s going on, I’ve broken down and intellectualized the scene, and I’m using everything I can think of to make it work. The problem is… it *doesn’t* work. Because I’m just not comfortable in the role. It doesn’t suit me, I don’t like it, and ultimately, I don’t “get it”. There’s a clear disconnect between me and the character. Of course, this struggle is the very reason I was assigned the particular scene in the first place, as the instructor – familiar with my work – wanted to put me in a place where I wouldn’t be comfortable. And she’s done that. And there are certainly other factors in play that are making it a little more difficult than it might have been were I involved in mounting a full production of the show. But therein lies the rub – I wouldn’t *want* to mount a full production of it. Because it’s not a role I’d ever care to play, nor one that I would really be right for. All of which is something I never thought I’d find myself considering, let alone accepting.
The second realization is that I am a masochistic actor. That is – I want to be told that I suck. I’ve always had a hard time accepting praise, in part because I want to remain humble, afraid to turn into one of those people who knows they’re great – and worse – feels the need to let everyone else know it. But on an artistic level, I don’t care about knowing what I did right. I want to hear what I did wrong. I want a director to point out what didn’t work, to call attention to things I’m completely missing, to be totally blunt with me if I’m awful. When all I get is polite or positive feedback – or none at all, as is often the case – I get annoyed. In my mind I’m thinking, “yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s all well and good, but help me get BETTER!”. No performance is perfect, which means there’s always somewhere I can improve. I long ago learned to check my feelings at the door when I enter a rehearsal, so I’m quite prepared to have someone tell me I’m not convincing without taking it as an attack on my personal character. As a director I’ve discovered one of the greatest strengths and toughest jobs of any director is to learn how each individual actor needs to be handled. Who needs to be coddled and told they’re doing well? Who needs to be bullied? Who wants the chance to figure things out on their own? Who needs to be told bluntly what to do? It’s an interesting game that gets played. As an actor, I’ve always thrown myself into the “needs to be told bluntly” category. “Tell me what you think, give it to me simple and straight, and move on”. But for whatever reason, I don’t tend to get that kind of feedback as often as I’d like. Which leads me to wonder, am I just not working with directors who are skilled in assessing what I need, or am I sending out completely wrong signals?
The third realization, the one that gives me hope, is the fact that I really get off on watching actors “get it”, particularly inexperienced actors. The first few weeks of class were rather arduous, in part because the talent level of the rest of the class is fairly low (primarily due to lack of experience). But the last couple of weeks have been fascinating, because we’ve seen these people that couldn’t get out of their own way suddenly making discoveries and stepping over the line from just regurgitating dialogue to a place where they’re starting to look like actors. And it’s encouraging for *me* because not only does it fire me up, but it’s something I’m having a hand in. I’m far and away the most vocal of the students when it comes to the class feedback sessions, and the instructor will often turn to me specifically for my thoughts on something, either as a way to back up what she’s said or to point out something she may have missed. It’s the director in me coming out, and it’s something I really enjoy. In the shows I’ve directed over the last couple of years, I’ve been put in a position of having to cast a number of extremely inexperienced actors in prominent roles, and while they may not have wound up as Pacino or Streep when it was all said and done, they were certainly much better off than when they started. More importantly, they’ve each gone on to bigger and better things, in part (I think) because they enjoyed their first experience so much. All of which is a really drawn-out way of saying that I feel like I’m becoming a very good teacher of this thing called acting. What’s more, I get a thrill from it that I don’t get anywhere else. So while there’s a part of me that’s glad that I won’t be directing next season, mostly due to the time commitments and the stress, I’m hopeful for the fact that I haven’t lost my love of inspiring and teaching and will someday soon return to directing.
All-in-all it’s been an educational experience, this workshop thing. When we do our final presentation in a couple of weeks, it won’t end up being the greatest performance I’ve ever given. But the journey that the class has sent me on has been well worth the time spent. At very least I’ve received my money’s worth (especially considering I didn’t pay a cent).