An actor-in-training, in pursuit of learning and eventually mastering her craft, will inevitably confront the learning curve multiple times along her way. The learning curve looks like this: the starting position is called “Unconscious Unknowing.” At this stage, you are on the top of a mountain, full of hubris. Unconscious Unknowing literally means you don’t know what you don’t know. When folks don’t know what is involved in acting training, they commonly misperceive acting as something that is easy to do, or it’s all about acting emotions, or they think it either comes naturally or not at all. From this vantage point, ignorance is bliss. You may be fine right where you are, but if you desire to learn something, then the next stage of the learning curve must follow…
You plummet down to what looks like the bottom of a deep trench. That is the place of “Conscious Unknowing.” In other words, you know that you don’t know. It’s an awful feeling; it’s like walking through mud. However, this pit might as well be quicksand because you feel like you are drowning… drowning in insecurities, self-awareness, or in the deluge of new terms and tools you didn’t know existed. Actors: if you don’t experience this fall then I doubt you will achieve considerable learning. Every actor goes through this painful part of the learning curve. The key here is to not tap out and call for your understudy. You got to strap yourself in and know the discomfort you are feeling is the right experience. Best of all, it is temporary. That being said, no one should ever feel disrespected or disadvantaged in a class. That level of discomfort negates any growth. When you are in the hands of a teacher you trust and within a safe, encouraging environment, you can fully give yourself over to the peaks and valleys acting training will put you through.
The next stage in the learning curve is “Conscious Knowing,” meaning you know that you know. Most people would like to think at this point they are at least half back out of the trench. But unfortunately, that is not the case. When in the Conscious Knowing position, you are just as deep in the mud as you were in the previous station; you’ve only moved a little over to the right. The good news is you are learning something, but the bad is you feel as wretched as you did before. You are self-conscious, critical, overly self-aware, and, therefore, likely in egoic fear, which can make you resistant, defensive, and judgmental of the training. You may find yourself hating your teacher or colleagues and thinking you don’t need training anymore. Your acting may also feel inconsistent at this point: one day your scene comes to life and the next it falls apart. You are grasping the tools, but it’s like holding fish. I often have to remind my students, as I have been in this precise spot of the learning curve more times than I want to admit, if they are feeling comfortable then they may have lost touch with the lesson or training. It takes tremendous bravery, humility, and a true desire to grow as an artist to pull through this rinse/repeat dark night of the soul.
The final stage in the learning curve is “Unconscious Knowing;” at this point you’ve emerged from the pit, having clawed your way out from Conscious Knowing. There is serious cause for celebration because you did the unimaginable work of sticking through all the psychological and egoic traps that acting training ensnares you in. You also managed to practice your craft with such consistency and high standards that the technique happens without your consciously cracking at it. Eventually, acting should no longer be work, but play. That being said, I don’t want to give the impression that from this point on you don’t have to play actions or emotionally prepare. That would be as foolish as the carpenter saying to herself, “Gee, I’m a really good carpenter; I think I’ll work today without my hammer.” But perhaps you have a lighter touch with your technique, it takes less time to do. Or you have the sense you can’t imagine acting any other way than with the process you have come to love. You’ve reached a new vantage point; you’ve earned your spot back on the mountain.
Not sure you’ve reached Unconscious Knowing? You wouldn’t be alone. In fact, you often don’t know you’ve reached this final stage of the learning curve until you are on the verge of yet… the next curve. Of course, there is more to learn! But before you take that fresh dive again, it is important to take in the panorama. You should see acting better, having gained higher ground. You should feel the airy release in your performance; it’s not as much work as it used to be. Conversely, if you feel you never get out of the state of hammering out effects, then it may be possible that you are denying yourself this final and crucial stage. What is holding you back from trusting you’ve done the work? Unconscious Knowing should not just be a relief for you; on the contrary, your audience desires it, as well. They don’t want to see an actor working, but rather they want to witness a character in the throes of her own experience. Of course, you never cease to self-critique or lose awareness you are acting. But, having gone through the learning curve, you have the skills to get caught in the whirlwind of circumstance, whipping you out of your self-centered judgments and into your creative imagination.
Acting is a deliciously impossible artform, full of contradictions and situated in the most competitive industry the world has ever seen. Students of this craft cycle through learning curve after learning curve in pursuit of their artistry and careers. The take-away is this: use your knowledge of the learning curve to cultivate more compassion and patience in your work. The turbulence is your indication that you’re en route.