Friday, May 9, 2014

Having "It"

Tom:  We’ve often talked about that intangible quality that certain stars have.

Austin:  The It Factor.

Tom: Exactly, and I’m not sure it’s something we can define - we could probably make a million bucks if we could - but maybe we can narrow it down.  

Austin:  Let’s go for it.

Tom:  What are some of the qualities that stars have?  What is “that thing” that some possess?

Austin:  Great question and you’re right: if we had the short answer we’d be millionaires!  I think one thing to state – and maybe it’s the obvious – but that “it” is in the eye of the beholder.  Right?

Tom:  It is to a degree, but why is it that the public keeps shelling out money to see certain actors?  What is it about Jennifer Lawrence that makes her so arresting?  Or George Clooney?  Or Adam Sandler?  What on earth do they have in common?

Austin:  First off, I think on one level they all have some fine skills.  But I’m curious – before we get too deep into this conversation – if you think that once that “it” is discovered, is it then capitalized and broadcast to the masses and that is what “it” eventually becomes?  Or is it that there is something magical within that person and their abilities?

Tom:  Really good question, and I think I’m leaning to the former.  It’s not just looks – although those can help – and it’s not just skills – although those seem like a necessity.  It’s also finding the right role(s) at the right time.  I think of John Wayne.  He’d been playing supporting characters in B westerns and not making a name for himself.  Then he did Stagecoach in 1939 and wham!  His career took off.  He’d been acting plenty before, but he nailed that role and became associated with it and played that type of role from then on out.  

Austin:  That’s a good example of the “it” factor he possessed, and it also displays how that was then put front and center, so to speak.  

Tom:  Absolutely.

Austin:  So getting back to what started this conversation, then what is a young actor’s recipe or equation?  Can it be explained so simply?  And how does a young actor discover their own IT factor?

Tom:  I like the word recipe a lot.  Of course, the tricky thing is that it might tempt young actors to want to copy someone else’s recipe, and I think that’s exactly the wrong thing to do.  

Austin:  Agreed.

Tom:  I think each actor’s recipe is different - and rightly so.  I guess I would start with the word “authentic.”  And if you’re a young actor, ask yourself, “What makes you authentic?  What do you do that is genuine and different and unique and honest … and authentic?”  Because that’s not something you can fake.

Austin:  Man, now you are speaking my language!  That is so true.  You know, I always tell actors that all this career stuff and your IT is a lot like dating.  I spent many years before I met my wife trying to be what I thought girls wanted.  I tried to be something for them and all the time never staying true to who I was for me.  As a result I ended up in unsuccessful relationships because there was an element of falseness where there should have been truth.  That truth of who you are carries over into SO many aspects of life and I think here is a prime example of where the truth IS the truth!

Tom:  I love that.  And it explains a good deal of my unsuccessful pre-marriage dating.  The difficulty is - the TRAP is - that actors are always asking themselves, “What does the director want?”  Well, the director may not actually know what they want.  

Austin:  Very true.

Tom:  Or they may think they know, but you can change their mind.  Because what they REALLY want is an actor to be authentic, who comes in the room with an attitude of, “I don’t really need this job, but I could nail it if you wanted me to, because I know this role, and I can bring something to it no one else can.”  It’s that confidence.  That authenticity. Which, as you say, is a lot like dating.

Austin:  Once again I think we are coming back around to balance!  

Tom:  Of course – doesn’t it always?

Austin:  I think of it as trying to do what I want to do with a role while at the same time KNOWING that I’m going to and WANT to mold my performance WITH the director.  BUT!  I don’t show up waiting for the director to tell me what they want.  I will discover that through trial and error … once again much like dating!  HUZZAH!!

Tom:  Man, you and the dating.  But you’re exactly right - it’s not waiting for the director (or the teacher or the producer or the casting director) to give you your life.  It’s you making those choices.  There have been so many examples of actors giving breakout performances when they reached that point of, “You know what?  I’ve been at this for a while, and I’m tired of the BS, and I’m just going to do what I do best.”  And that often translates into fantastic performances, because they’re no longer trying to please.  They’re allowing their true selves to come out.  Like … dating.

Austin:  You see?  Now you’re catching on!!  You know, if I can take this analogy a touch further…

Tom:  Oh no…

Austin:  …by bringing up a word you used earlier: confidence.  Like dating, there’s a point where you have to have confidence in who you are and that there’s someone out there for you ... who will dig you for you!  Now some might disagree with that, but it goes back to the actor making that breakthrough because they have confidence in who they are and what they bring to the table and not taking all of it too personally to let it crush them.  If magic happens, it does, and if it doesn’t, then it will the next time.  Does that make sense?

Tom:  Absolutely!  And I think as we talk about confidence and authenticity, it’s probably worth saying – I don’t know if you agree with this or not – that maybe early on in one’s training, we should forget about the “it” factor.  Forget even about confidence and authenticity.  Work on the craft.  Polish skills.  And then, at some point, before you know it, presto: you will have confidence and you will have developed something authentic.  It’s like a writer discovering his/her voice.  It’s not something one should consciously strive for; it happens over time while trying to improve.

Austin:  I agree.  As a matter of fact, that dovetails into something I’ve been thinking about recently and that is the inconsistent flow of confidence.  How do you get it and how do you keep it?  

Tom:  The $64,000 question.

Austin:  You just touched on the most successful way to build confidence by actually fulfilling your talent over time.  But how do you keep that going or healthy?  Because I truly believe that confidence is built and grows and you have to keep it in check so it doesn’t change into arrogance.

Tom:  And now we’re back to…

Austin/Tom:  Balance!

Tom:  Indeed.  Confidence is such a tricky thing … and a necessity.  And you’re right; we don’t want it to become arrogance.  (I always like the phrase “quiet confidence.”) Actors grow their confidence from classes and/or work.  It doesn’t matter how it grows, as long as it does.  As a teacher, I wish it were that easy to say, “Be confident” to a student and it would be so.  But of course, it’s more than that.  It’s the actor doing the work, and then believing in that work, and accepting the results.  How about you?  How do you encourage confidence in young actors when they don’t seem to have it for themselves?

Austin:  That’s a good one, and I’m not sure – this is just thinking out loud – but I wonder if you can?  Or should?  Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that the best work and the true growth of confidence comes from strong encouragement, but I think it’s simple encouragement within the range of their own willingness to develop. 

Tom:  I see what you’re saying.

Austin:  No teacher or director can “give” or “make” a student confident.  At some point, we all have to take that up ourselves and we’ll do it when we are good and ready.  Now we might fake it until we make it, so to speak, but at some point we all have to come back to that honest place in the dark where we make a decision.  We choose to be confident or we choose not to be.  

Tom:  I like that.

Austin:  Let me ask you this: do you think there’s a difference between confidence and bravery?  Or does confidence lead to bravery?

Tom:  That’s a good question, and one I’ve never thought of before.  I certainly think bravery can lead to confidence, and probably the other way around, but I see them as slightly different.  And you’re right; no one can make us confident.  BUT.  Outside influences help.  

Austin:  For example?

Tom:  I can remember occasions in the past when I didn’t believe in myself and I needed others to give me a kick in the pants.  Then I could  believe in myself.  And there are times as a teacher where that’s reversed: where I’m the one who can say to the actor, “You have some skills here.  Don’t take those for granted.”  But you’re right: ultimately, it comes down to the individual themselves.  Haven’t there been people in your life who have given you confidence?

Austin:  Oh, every day!!  Hello – vain, insecure actor always looking for approval!!  No, you’re absolutely right.  Outside influence is VERY important in the development of confidence.  For me, it comes down to someone “believing” in me because I think that’s a very palpable sensation.  

Tom:  Absolutely!

Austin:  You can feel it!  It makes your skin stand up.  And in the classroom, when I see something in an actor that’s just hiding behind insecurity, I want them to feel my belief – because that’s the only way to get them out in front on their own.  But on the other hand, that need to be believed in or validated can turn against you.  You don’t want your confidence to be dependent on that outside belief.  At some point, you have to – again – find that balance between the outside and the inside of how you truly are.

Tom:  Amen!  And if you’re too dependent on that outside validation, then you’ll start trying to please and nothing good comes of that.  So if you want to create your own “it” quality, you have to do the work, and then believe in the results, gaining that quiet confidence.

Austin:  Right.  And I think you just have to have faith that you’re going to break a few eggs to make an omelet.  Finding your IT factor is also about being patient that your true self is in there and is going to show up … even if it takes a little while to get to the party.  Some of that is just perspective and maturity, and I don’t think that’s bad at all!  If you’re in this business for the long haul, then you have nothing to worry about.

Tom:  That’s a good place to end, especially since we’re talking about eggs and omelets.

Austin:  These lunches always make me hungry.  

Tom:  And I love how you sum it up: if you’re in it for the long haul and doing the work, things will take care of themselves.  They will.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Tom:  There are a couple of words we keep coming back to.  One is balance, which we’ve already discussed, and the other is Objectives.  So our topic for today is simple: how important are Objectives to an actor?

Austin:  This is such a good and simple topic that it’s beyond important!  I honestly feel there are many “things” an actor can pick up along the way, but without a good grasp of the notion of Objectives, they’re just dead in the water.

Tom:  I agree with you entirely, and I think part of the reason is because - in so-called “real life” - we have Objectives every waking second.  We always, always, always want something.  We may not always express those wants, nor articulate them, but we nonetheless have them.  Don’t you think?

Austin:  Without a doubt!!  But you know that “real life” idea of Objective can work against an actor from time to time.  

Tom:  How so?

Austin:  I’ve had students say that in real life they don’t always have an Objective in the front of their mind, so they don’t feel it’s necessary to have them on stage.  So is there a way that we can (a) define Objective, and (b) define how it works for an actor within the context of their technique?

Tom:  Good questions, and I do see the students’ point with what they’re saying.  To start with: the definition. 

Austin:  Right.

Tom:  It’s a great place to begin, especially because teachers and directors use so many words when referring to nearly the same thing: Objective, Intention, Motivation, Want, Goal, Need.  

Austin:  To me, there’s validity to each of them.

Tom:  Absolutely, although a word like “Need” is particularly good because it implies higher stakes than a mere “Want.”  But as for a definition, I prefer the simplest: it’s what you get from or do to another character on stage.

Austin:  Exactly!  You know, and I’ve mentioned this before, but I stumbled across something in a book on Stanislavsky (The Stanislavsky System of Acting: Legacy and Influence in Modern Performance by Rose Whyman) and the author presented the idea that the Russian word for Objective is the same word for Task and that there might have been a translation issue.  

Tom:  Oooh, a conspiracy theory.  I love it.

Austin:  Either way, one of the things I like about the word Task is that it ACTIVATES the Objective.  It creates a way to articulate WHAT you do to get or do to another character.

Tom:  And Task is a great word, but for me, it’s a different word.  It has more to do with action - what the character does to achieve their Objective.  Am I crazy for thinking that?

Austin:  Not at all!  To me these words are all about moving the character forward in the story.

Tom:  I like that.

Austin:  I use the words interchangeably because I’ve been trained with the concept of Objectives and Super-objectives.  And maybe we’re using Task the same way, but to me there’s something even more basic about a Task.  Something like: “I need to get to the other side of the room to get some distance between Masha and me or I might just destroy my marriage.”  That kind of thing.  The Task is in service of a greater Objective, but for me it’s a small, simple active THING a character can do.  Does that make sense or am I babbling?

Tom:  (a) It makes perfect sense, and (b) you never babble.  The only thing I would say about it is that sometimes the Objective can be “un-Task-like.”  By that I mean: “I want to convince Masha that she shouldn’t stay married.”  Would you still consider that a Task?

Austin:  I might.  Obviously, I would also consider that an Objective, but to me they’re both still active.  I guess the thing I’m drawn to with regards to the idea of Task is that if my Task is to convince Masha that she shouldn’t stay married, then the Task version could focus on HOW I would do that and the active choices I make to achieve that.  

Tom:  Gotcha.

Austin:  Not much different than Objective, but I want it to be more focused on the activities directed at the other character instead of turning it into a lengthy psychological thesis.

Tom:  What I like about what you say is that you and I are pretty much saying the same thing … but with slightly different terms.  Or different uses of the same terms.  I love that!  

Austin:  Me, too.

Tom:  Because frankly, that’s valuable for students – that’s what they’re going to experience “out there”: directors and teachers using different words but often meaning the same thing.  For example, I use the word Objective, but I’ll be the first to admit it’s kind of stuffy, and when I’m actually working with actors, far more often I’ll say, “What do you Want?”  For me, that’s more direct and simple and can lead to a strong Action – what actors are DOING to achieve that Objective.

Austin:  SO TRUE!  It’s almost like the word Objective has become the universal term for all actors, but when you’re in the trenches the main vocabulary comes down to that Want or Need!  

Tom:  I like that phrase: in the trenches.  Because that’s what it feels like much of the time: a battle.  Characters fighting to get something from someone else.

Austin:  Let me ask you this: Do you think there’s a big difference with Want and Need?

Tom:  Maybe not a big difference, but a difference nonetheless.  I think much of the play is about Wants, but as the play progresses, I think those Wants turn to Needs.  The stakes get higher.  The urgency increases.  Does that make sense?

Austin:  Complete sense!  Something that I think about with Wants and Needs comes back to The Actor and the Target – a Want is something you can take or leave, but a Need is something you can’t live without.  

Tom:  I love that!  Well played, my friend.

Austin:  And I think that goes nicely with what you’re saying.  At some point within the story, that Want shifts to a clear and definite NEED!  And that always drives the urgency.

Tom:  That’s a great way of putting it.  And it makes me go back to the second part of your original question: how does all this work for the actor within the context of their technique?  And I think one of the answers is that it teaches the actor to be ACTIVE on stage.  As audience members, we pay to see a story, and story implies a series of events, and a series of events implies THINGS HAPPENING.  So actors must DO things.  And not by themselves, but with and to the other characters on stage.  And that all begins...

Austin:  …with Wants and Needs. 

Tom:  Exactly.

Austin:  Do you ever think those Wants and Needs or even Objectives can change during the rehearsal process?  

Tom:  Absolutely.  I go back to Uta Hagen, who claimed that the entire purpose of a rehearsal process is to discover the most appropriate Objectives.  I love that notion!  So yes, you try one thing one night, and you try something different the next, and something different the night after that, until you and the director land on those Objectives and Tactics that make the most sense, that are the most engaging, the most surprising, the most interesting, etc.  So some might be original Objectives, but some might very well be entirely new, discovered during the rehearsal process.

Austin:  I love that idea of discovery!  

Tom:  I know, right?

Austin:  So have you ever experienced trying to force an Objective that didn’t seem to jive with the story?  

Tom:  Many times!

Austin:  So what do you do?

Tom:  That’s the value of a director, that he/she can give you feedback and say, “Whatever you’re playing might be interesting, but it’s not really serving this particular moment of the play.”  I experience this a lot – as an actor, a teacher, and a director.  And you know what?  That’s a good thing!  I love it when actors try Objectives that don’t work with the story, because it implies they’re making STRONG CHOICES, and then we can figure things out from there.  The important thing is that actors go for it: they make a strong choice and commit to it and don’t waffle in between choices.  How about you?  Have you experienced this?

Austin:  Oh yes!  I’ve actually FELT when an Objective wasn’t working.  Even if it was fulfilled, something about it felt forced.  I’ve also seen this with actors in class and rehearsals.  And like you, I think this is WHAT the process is all about!  I think it’s important for actors to make choices and try things.  I think they HAVE to be an active and creative part of the process.  If not, then they’re just pawns in the director’s vision.  

Tom:  You’re preaching to the choir there, my friend.

Austin:  Of course, the job is to work in service of that vision or the playwright’s vision, THE STORY, but the actor has to come into the process with a point of view and that starts with Objectives and Wants and Needs and Tasks! 

Tom:  I love what you’re saying, and it implies the best of what theatre can be: a true collaboration between artists.  

Austin:  Amen.

Tom:  And there’s something else you say I want to point up, because it’s rather brilliant.  In talking about how the actor is working in rehearsal, you say that the actor is “active.”  That’s golden.  For some actors, rehearsals are about learning lines and blocking, and of course it needs to be so much more than that.  It’s about the best way to tell the story, and that means finding the best Objectives to keep the character active during the course of the play.  And that implies the ACTOR being active during the rehearsal process, finding those Objectives.

Austin:  And I think some actors forget the power that a strong Objective choice can make in the whole process.  A strong, clearly defined objective can inform how you move or the blocking that you the ACTOR discover in rehearsal. 

Tom:  I like that.  But there’s another side to this coin we should probably address as well - and that is the temptation to SHOW the Objective to the audience.  This can be deadly.  Personally, I think as audience members, all we need to know is that the character is striving for something.  I don’t need to know necessarily what it is, and I definitely don’t want it spelled out.  So here the actor spends all this time finding the most appropriate Objective to play, but they have to be careful not to make it obvious, because in fact, they probably don’t want the other characters on stage to know what it is.  Right?  Telegraphing = bad, don’t you agree?

Austin:  I do.  I don’t think it’s very interesting to watch an Objective that is being telegraphed versus fought for.  However, I do think it’s important for actors to articulate that Objective for themselves so they can remind themselves what it is, especially if they ever find they’re off track.  There’s nothing worse than thinking you know what you want and not being able to say what it is, and then THAT is what the audience sees!  

Tom:  Very true.  It does no good if you ask an actor what they want and they reply, “I’ve got it written down.”  Then it does become - just as you say - a kind of thesis.  It needs to be in their heads so they can actively play it.

Austin:  But you brought up something interesting about the other characters knowing what your character’s Objective is.  Now this is very different than actors knowing, right?

Tom:  Yes and no.  I think definitely as characters you may not know what other characters want.  That’s pretty much how we spend our lives, right?  Trying to figure out what the people around us want from us.  As for actors knowing or not knowing what the other actors are striving for, in most cases they probably will know, just because they’re in the room when the conversations are happening between director and actors.  But I don’t know that other actors HAVE to know what you’re fighting for.  Do you?

Austin:  I think it doesn’t have to be public knowledge at all.  Sometimes it’s nice if it’s the actor’s little secret – but they have to know THEIR secret!  In fact, I remember a teacher once saying to me in class, “Don’t tell them what you want.  Make them do it.”  

Tom:  That’s fantastic advice.

Austin:  I really think there’s something personal about the Objective.  Sure, there’s nothing wrong with talking about it or other actors knowing what you’ve chosen, but it’s what YOU are going after that counts.

Tom:  Absolutely!  And my only final word on this subject is the reminder that Objectives - or Intentions or Needs or Tasks or Wants or Motivations - need to be directed to other people on stage.  It does no good to “want world peace” if it doesn’t lead to active behavior on stage.  Although please don’t think I’m against world peace; I’m actually for it.

Austin:  Well, I’m excited you want world peace, but if I had to watch two hours of you sitting in a room just “wanting” it and doing nothing to get it ... that wouldn’t be very interesting.

Tom:  Aha!  Now you’ve given me a challenge!  Actually, you’re right, it would be deadly.  So to sum up, even though we use some different terminology now and again, I actually love that we do.  And I think we’re on the same page that this is pretty important stuff - maybe the most important stuff about an actor’s technique.

Austin:  Right!  Actors play characters and characters serve a function.  We have to remember that when we’re out there discovering Objectives!  It’s very important stuff!

Tom:  Well said, and a good place to end.  Good lunch, my friend.

Austin:  Good lunch indeed.

Monday, December 2, 2013

What is it to be present?

Tom:  You and I have talked a lot about being present, and all acting teachers do.  They say Be present, live in the moment, live in the now.  But… how do we make that happen?  And how can we tell when we actually ARE in the present?

Austin:  Man, this is such a seemingly simple conversation to have – be present! – but there is so much going on in an actor’s mind at any given moment that this is way more complicated than it appears.  

Tom:  I agree.

Austin:  But I’m not sure there is a cut-and-dried explanation for how to do this.  

Tom:  I was afraid you were going to say that.

Austin:  Sure you can and SHOULD be focused on your objectives, focused on fulfilling tasks, listening to your scene partners, and focusing outside yourself, but this is all while doing an activity that you most likely have put hundreds of hours of rehearsal into so you’re repeating history, so to speak.  You have to be present in an event that has already occurred.  And yet hasn’t!

Tom:  I like what you’re getting at: that the best way to live in the moment - even though you’re saying lines you’ve said hundreds of times - is to put the focus outside of yourself.  Why do you think that helps?

Austin:  I think because giving yourself a task to do – something that can actually be fulfilled and completed – keeps your mind busy doing what it can naturally do.  We live our lives problem-solving, and most of that is done in real time.  We don’t have time to THINK about something other than finishing the task.  

Tom:  I like that.

Austin:  But I also think there are personal complications which could be addressed as to why putting focus off ourselves is important.  Do you agree?

Tom:  I do.  It’s like if we “find” the other person, we “lose” ourselves.  In a sense, we’re tricking ourselves.  Sure, there’s an audience, and yes, we’ve rehearsed this thing to death, but if we put our focus on someone or something other than ourselves, then yes, we do seem to become more present.  It’s all a great trick, isn’t it?

Austin:  A MASSIVE trick!  I love that you used the word “find,” because great acting relies so much on making discoveries.

Tom:  Finding something.

Austin:  Right.

Tom:  But then I come to the question: how can you tell if you’re present or not?  And the second part of that question, what if you don’t think you are, but the audience thinks you are?  (And vice versa?)

Austin:  Wow!  You aren’t pulling any punches with the questions today, are you?

Tom:  I blame it on the chicken chili.

Austin:  First off, I want to bring up something about the actor who doesn’t believe in technique because they want it to be all organic and “in the moment.”  They believe working that way—without technique—is “real” or “present.”  It’s like that great breakthrough in rehearsal when everything fires at once and we all want to get that again so we believe the only way to do that is to wing it. 

Tom:  Deadly.

Austin:  I know, right?  And what happens the next time?  Do you change everything all over again so you can wing it and make that magic happen?  

Tom:  I love that you bring up trying to re-create the magic of a previous rehearsal or performance, because we all experience that, and it’s dangerous.  My own opinion is that we shouldn’t copy, we shouldn’t imitate, we shouldn’t replicate, we shouldn’t re-create, but we can make adjustments.  

Austin:  Yes.

Tom:  Our intentions will probably be the same, but maybe we tweak the tactic.  Or maybe we just pay attention to what the scene partner is giving us and it happens to be slightly different than the night before.  And THAT will create our own life that is different and unique … and present.

Austin:  Exactly!  I like to think of it as breathing new life in an existing choice.

Tom:  I like it! 

Austin:  And as for knowing if I’m being present or not, I think it goes in ebbs and flows.  I mean, we have to remember our lines and our blocking and why we’re out there in the first place, and most of this is – or should be – second-hand because of all the rehearsal.  But if I’m focused on what I want and if I’m getting through to the other person, then I feel there.  It’s when I flub a line and start kicking myself I know I’m no longer in the moment.  I’m in the past.

Tom:  That’s really true.  However, sometimes you see a play that’s entirely too slick and not “present” at all, and the only real moment is when actors go up on lines and then you see a real exchange between human beings on stage.  Funny how it can go both ways like that.

Austin:  Oh it totally can!!  But that’s why we have to accept that anything can happen, and our ability to deal with it (i.e., living in the moment) is how we can make those adjustments.

Tom:  Exactly.

Austin:  I like what you said about not replicating a performance.  And I think this is were laziness creeps in.  It’s easy to rest on your work and rehearsal and just coast through night after night.  And we all know and have worked with these actors – and, sadly, BEEN that actor – but what is thrilling about a performance is sending that new action or intention at every moment you’re acting.  THAT is what makes one night different from the next.  Even if on the outside it looks the same.  It can’t be because it wasn’t.  It was something new.

Tom:  I love that!  And there have been those times when it IS difficult to be present and alive.  I did 350 performances of a play once and there were nights - not gonna lie - when I struggled with it being in the now.  It was tough.  And then someone would get sick and an understudy would go on who wasn’t totally prepared, and man oh man, everyone’s focus went up a notch and the play just took off.

Austin:  Because it forces you to get off yourself and it forces you to work for something and that is living in the now.  Actively pursuing something.

Tom:  The word “actively” is huge there.  Love that.  You used the word “past” a little earlier and that reminds me of a book we’ve talked about before, THE ACTOR AND THE TARGET, and a quote he has in there about living in the now.  It’s something like, “The past is about regrets, the future is about anxiety, so live in the now.”  That’s it, you know.  On stage, we just can’t allow ourselves to go either backwards or forwards - we just have to be present.

Austin:  So happy you mentioned that book!  I have to say, Declan Donnelan’s whole chapter about fear and the present is spot on!  I love that he talks about the present as a gift—a PRESENT!  That the past can never be reclaimed and the future can never be known so all we have is now.  Great advice for living, to boot!!  But so crucial for the actor.  What are some traps you’ve encountered where this becomes difficult?

Tom:  We’ve kind of touched on one: living in the past.  Trying to re-create a particularly good performance.  There was a show once where one night things just HAPPENED.  Emotional, honest, true connection -- all of it.  And the next night I wasn’t as present, but I tried to force it.  And the next night I forced even more.  And the next night even more.  And finally my director took me aside and we went for a walk and he said I was working too hard and I didn’t need to, and actually, what I was doing before the breakthrough night was pretty good in itself.  That gave me so much freedom that it ALLOWED me to relax and not force, and good things started happening again.  I’m so thankful I had a sensitive director who pointed out to me what I was doing and taught me that lesson in a respectful (and gentle) manner.

Austin:  You were lucky.

Tom:  Tell me about it. 

Austin:  And what a huge discovery about yourself and your work.

Tom:  It’s true.  And as for the future, well, in any audition where I’m thinking about the RESULT, my focus is completely screwed up.  Instead of thinking about pursuing intentions, my focus is on, “If I get this job, then I’ll….”  You know?

Austin:  Don’t I!!  I really love your story about the breakthrough because I’m fascinated with the desire to FEEL the discovered sensation over and over again.  Can I ask you, was your forceful work just that, to re-feel that moment, or was it that the sensation of discovery actually felt NEW?

Tom:  Good question.  Tough question.  I think the former.  This all happened when I was right out of college and I’d never really experienced emotion on stage, and I must say it surprised me, and it felt good.  You know, it felt like I was ACTING.  And so I wanted that feeling again, probably entirely for selfish reasons.  Yes, I thought it served the play, but if I’m honest, I was probably less concerned with serving the play and more concerned with showing off that I could access emotion on stage.

Austin:  I wouldn’t feel bad about being selfish.  I think that’s natural, and I know I feel that way from time to time.  If I’m honest, I think that sensation of feeling is one of the things that draws me back every time.  But what’s great is when we learn to have faith in all the other work so that we don’t NEED to feel that feeling to KNOW we are working ... and truthfully acting!

Tom:  It’s true.  And it’s why I gravitate more toward the word “personalization” than “emotion,” because it implies more truthful acting more often.  How about you?  What are some moments when you’ve found yourself really present?  And moments when you’ve found it difficult?  

Austin:  I was trying to dodge this one, but you came back around!!! 

(Austin shakes his fists at the heavens.)

Tom:  Gotcha!

Austin:  You know, I’ve honestly only felt TRUE presence a couple of times on stage.  I know that sounds odd and almost embarrassing, but I find it to be something elusive.  That isn’t to say I don’t feel in the moment or truthful on stage, but I had a moment once that transcended something.  I was doing a show and there was a moment when I was buttoning up my shirt on stage.  It was a Pinter play so there was much more going on than me just buttoning up my shirt, but there was something about that moment where – as an actor – I was right there.  I could feel my fellow actors.  I could feel the audience with me.  And I could feel that I was fulfilling what the character was there to do and it was all happening in the now.  Talk about addictive!  Maybe it was just how everything fell into place.  Maybe I had some exceptional focus that night.  Maybe I was actually not thinking about anything other than what I was there to do and THAT is what presence feels like, but it was an amazing sensation and one that I chase every performance.  And right there I’m admitting to living in the past!!

Tom:  That is gospel, my friend.  And what a great story.  No, I don’t think you’re living in the past - not at all.  Because you’re chasing a kind of perfection.  That’s not living in the past; that’s present.  You’re not re-creating, you’re using new text, new characters, and you’re chasing.  That’s awesome!!  But this all makes me think this is far more difficult than we give it credit for.  If you’re saying you’ve only achieved it a few times (I don’t believe you, by the way, because I know you’re an amazing actor), but then why don’t we feel it MOST of the time?  It should be simple, right?  Putting our focus on someone or something?  What prevents it?  Are we getting in our way?  Living in the past or the future?  What?

Austin:  I think you just said it all!  There are SO many variables.  First off, I’ve said it before, but our egos and that NEED to please drive so many of us OUT of the present.  There are also our colleagues messing with us, or our own impressions derailing us.  Plus, any number of external forces that can knock us out of the moment.  I’ve seen many an actor actually FEEL something and that discovery kicks them out of the present.  So I think you are spot on to say this IS difficult and takes MUCHO hard work!

Tom:  Amen.  And maybe it’s as you said: there are times we just need to button the shirt.