When you are about to perform or audition, pack light. Unburden your brain with the extraneous self-directions we often give ourselves in the eleventh hour of our preparation, and distill your focus to just three simple tasks to do before beginning to act.
The options are limitless, but perhaps you may want to focus on releasing tension, breathing, running lines, drilling actions, imagining the other, being in the moment, clarifying your goal, staying calm and grounded, daydreaming, imagining circumstances, connecting emotionally to the character, etc… As you can see, the list goes on and on. This begs the question, “What do I chose to focus on?” You must weed out the unnecessary in order to make way for the essential.
Home vs. On the Road
You’ve likely been working on many aspects of your craft, text, or character, which is totally appropriate for your homework or rehearsal process. This is akin to living at home: you have plenty of room to spread out and have all your belongings at your fingertips. However, when it comes time to travel, you can’t take it with you. You must hand-pick the bare minimum in order to travel conveniently, comfortably and successfully. Applying this to acting, your entire process cannot fit into the suitcase of performance! At that point, it is more of a liability than an asset, resulting in stressing you out, putting you in your head, and locking you out of contact with your partner, real or imaginary. You need as little as possible going on in your mind, and all that remains better be connected to your next step on-stage.
One Size Does Not Fit All
There is no catch-all/cure-all formula for this type of preparation. It must be tailor-made to fit the actor and the situation. Therefore, you should create your own short-list, as only you know what will connect you most fully to the character and to the moment. The length of time you dedicate to this focus is also individual. Some actors need to take the whole day to prepare, or fifteen minutes, or just a millisecond. If talking to fellow (and willing) actors helps you to stay in the moment up until your go-time, then by all means! If you require at least ten minutes of meditation or quiet, then that time is yours for the claiming. What is most important is gaining a sense of self-awareness so that you are able to prescribe your own concoction of therapeutic steps or stimuli. Do not feel guilty if you do not require an hour-long massage to act. Avoid comparing your process to another’s; judgment never helped anyone act. Also, do not insist that you have the same preparation night after night. Your body and mind are more fluid than that. Trust your sense of self and prepare as you feel compelled to instinctually.
All that being said, when you are a beginning actor, you may not know an instinct from a hiccup, and that is why you are in training! I have a recommendation on what to focus on, as it has consistently been helpful to me and my students. The length of time for this is generally around five to fifteen minutes.
Imaginative/Emotional Prep—In what state does the character begin the scene or monologue? Where are they coming from on an inner level?
Circumstances---What are the bare bone circumstances you need to reconnect with before beginning?
Objective --- What are you going to attempt to achieve? And why?
Very often for monologues and certainly for performance, high emotional stakes are demanded straight out of the hat. Emotional Preparation, a tool from Sanford Meisner, is the process of filling up emotionally in order to launch into initial action. In order to do this, daydream or imagine any set of circumstances that would bring you to the emotional state that your character is coming from at the top of the scene. You may be so connected to the character’s circumstances that they are all you require. But, you may need to use your own life circumstances, (I prefer those that are fabricated but based on your life experience,) in order to come to full emotional life. I must stress that EMOTIONS ARE NOT TO BE PLAYED. Emo Prep, an abbreviation, is just for the first, fleeting moment. Your needs and actions are what carry you from there.
After you are adequately prepared, simply reacquaint yourself with the key circumstances that precipitate the scene at hand. Where are you coming from? What has happened just before entering the scene? What circumstances are you anticipating for this scene? What future circumstances do you envisage? These should flicker through your mind, gearing you up mentally for your entrance and rooting you in an imagined reality.
Finally, state for yourself what you are coming in to achieve. Every character comes into a room or a situation with a purpose. Speak that clearly to yourself in your mind, and then go for it!
And we have lift off!
Once you begin, preparation is GONE. You’ve discarded your well-packed suitcase and you are air-born. Acting is release, release, release. Let go of the past and play what is happening in the present.