“What stops you in life, stops you in Acting.” ---Ken Garcia, founder of The Actor’s Studio of Orang
This quote hangs on the wall of the Actor’s Studio of Orange County where I have been holding my private sessions once a week, and I cringe every time I see it. All the times that I have sabotaged my acting due to blind spots or personal issues ricochet through my mind instantaneously. Thankfully, there is nothing unique about this situation; we all have human citizenship and therefore share in the plethora of human flaws and failings. To an extent, they make us who we are as actors; our imperfections brand us. A level of acceptance of this truth is certainly appropriate, but, on the other hand, it is worthwhile to reflect on how we inhibit the craft, process, or performance by denying our fears, resistances and shortcomings.
I’ve become keenly aware of this recently in my own work in a Pinter/Stoppard class I am taking at The Anteus Company in Los Angeles. After an initial presentation of a scene from Pinter’s The Homecoming, the instructor pointed out a key aspect of “Ruth” that I was missing: her domineering and unapologetic sexual power. I felt my resistances fly up immediately; Ken Garcia’s quote had come to haunt me. Mystified by the role and resistant to commit to her actions, I tried to embody Ruth by lending more of my own qualities, flirtatious, accommodating, and playful. I couldn’t yet perceive how Ruth’s ruthless advances could play through me, especially in front of a class of still mostly new faces! In spite of my discomfort, I tried out the instructor’s gentle but bold suggestion. It was revelatory allowing myself to be Ruth; I felt unapologetic, uncompromising, sexy and absolutely powerful. After the second go around, I remarked to the class how I could not have found that side of myself on my own. For one reason or another, that use of sexuality and authority was forbidden to me and, therefore, I had denied it in my craftwork. Now I feel a wall has been blasted open and I can access a whole other room of sensation and experience within my work.
Acting technique is at its best when it unnerves you and questions your very beliefs about yourself. A healthy dose of discomfort is definitely worth seeking. Ever since working in The Actor’s Studio of Orange County and snagging a weekly, wince-worthy glance at Ken Garcia’s quote, I’ve become attune to how it pertains to my students’ process. Within their training, it is my job to address resistances, fears and unhealthy beliefs, and they bravely face them in their own time. Over the years of observing others and living through my own process, I’ve noted some familiar faces. Here are some of the personal bugga-boos that can have deleterious effects on your acting:
The Need to “Get It Right.” This is the Number One compulsion that inhibits young actors, and I attribute it entirely to the school system that emphasizes correctness over experimentation, and answers over questions. Dare to be wrong, allow yourself to explore without the pressure of right/wrong duality.
Need for Permission. Great actors rarely ask for permission; within reason, they allow themselves to play, imagine, investigate, feel, risk, act, or to simply and fully GO THERE. For those who struggle with the need for permission, let “Allow” be your mantra. Allow yourself to breathe, to feel deeply, to take in the circumstances, to fight for something, to try something new. As actors, we are more than allowed to act on our impulses, it must be our first nature.
Laziness. This is resistance through and through. Regardless of talent, some actors rest on their laurels and kick back instead of kicking into gear. Or, actors resort to laziness in order to mask what is really fear of responsibility, feeling, and even success. My advice: read The War of Art; it’s a manifesto on the many faces of resistance.
Fear of Feeling. Accessing painful situations, imaginary or real, is unpleasant and quite difficult. The body does everything it can to protect against pain OR joy. For some, it is easy to access anger, but when it comes to happiness, daydreaming a moment that could bring it on only makes its absence glaringly apparent. For a lot of women, anger, even better: RAGE, is a challenge, as they have been groomed to veil their fiery impulses. Commonly for men, the act of crying is buried in social “do-nots.” Sexuality and Sensuality is another massive subject of denial. Because it is so closely linked to utter vulnerability, personal barriers are armed particularly well to defend against this very human sensation. The only way around these fears is to blaze right into them. Best to seek out a training program or coach whom you can trust to usher you through the process.
The Need to be Liked. DUH. Characters who are malicious, unfeeling, unkind, or downright atrocious can call to the fore fears of being ugly, unlikeable, and selfish. The truth of the matter is authentic selfishness is worth accessing, as it is a hotbed of desire and primal need.
Fear of Attention. What an anomaly, and yet it comes up in actors. How can you want to act if you fear the attention it brings? Interestingly, those who struggle with this come to acting because it allows them to break out and be seen under the guise of another person. However, when called upon to remove the mask of “character” or “performance,” these actors shirk to the sidelines. Allowing yourself to be seen just as you are, no more than as who you are, is a crucial step in accessing your humanity.
The Need to be Interesting. Stanislavski tells the story of a play he saw in which a real cat walked out on stage and totally drew the audience’s attention. The cat was unconcerned with anything except the lint ball floating across the stage; his absorption with his pursuit and total disregard of the audience is what made him magnetic. Actors who relinquish the need to entertain, interest or impress have tapped into a powerful source of presence.
Self-Deprecating Thoughts. Frequent ones are “I am unworthy,” “I am not a good actor,” “I will never make it,” or “Others have something I don’t…” These often fade with training and experience, but when an actor is grappling with these feelings it can be paralyzing. Ownership of one’s technique is a wonderful antidote to these thoughts.
A Judgemental Approach to Character. Inflexibility to accept the actions of the character is often rooted in judgment of their morality, ethics, or personality. This is classic projection: the actor is in denial of that exact quality. Immersing oneself in the circumstances of the character can alleviate the judgment. However, not every action is justifiable, which calls for an even greater willingness to simply dive into their actions. If Beckett, Pinter, or Kane taught us anything, it’s that human action is sometimes unfathomable.
Anxiousness. This short-breathed sensation is kryptonite to an actor’s work. Oftentimes, creating healthy habits, such as meditation and exercise, as well as therapeutic remedies can help to rewire the tension that anxiety creates. Fitzmaurice voice and breath work made a huge impact as I grappled with anxiety.
Addiction to Work. Stella Adler said, “It’s not enough to have talent. You must have a talent for your talent.” Knowing when to stop working is just as important as working in the first place. Gregory Peck was known for writing “NP” and “DNP” throughout his script to clarify for himself what moments Needed Preparation or Didn’t Need Preparation. This level of familiarity with what you need in order to do your job often marks the difference between an amateur and a professional.
Personality plays a huge role in how one approaches any endeavor, but the performance arts are an invitation to lay to bare all the many qualities of the self. The feeling you resist, the thought that scares you, the seizure of tension, the holding of breath…take note of these and begin an inquiry into what they are about. By undoing the fears, flaws and resistances that we carry around with us through life, we remove the blocks to our natural gifts and impulses.