I’m in the theatre, sitting in my director’s chair, and listening to yet another actor go on and on about the troubles of their day, or what someone said, or how she can’t focus, and I look at the clock. Already, 15 valuable minutes of rehearsal time have been dithered away. I push down my feelings of annoyance, and refocus my attention. What is this actor really telling me?
She’s anxious. She’s in a state of dread. She cannot focus until I find a way to help her manage that dread. So I take a page from my father, an Army sergeant. “Do you want to bail?”
That stops her in her tracks. She blinks, and breathes in. I sit and watch.
It is a good question. And it serves my purpose. It focuses her on the one thing she can do to manage her anxiety – either do the work, or bail out.
Her good sense prevails. “No, I don’t want to bail.”
“Good,” I say. “Then let’s figure out how to get you working again.”
She opens her mouth to resume the litany of things she is worried about, but she’s no longer driven by such an excess of energy. Now she can actually cooperate as I guide her through that thicket of fears and dreads.
“I don’t want to let you down,” she says.
I remind her that letting me down has nothing to do with it – and that she can’t let me down anyway. My job is to direct; it’s not complicated by emotional attachment.
She doesn’t want to let the writer down. That’s a more valid concern. But it’s not the real issue.
She doesn’t want to let herself down. But she’s already doing that. By allowing anxiety to get in between her and the work, she has hamstrung herself. She cannot work in this anxious state.
“Do it on book,” I say. “Just keep the pages on the table, and use them if you need them.” This is a favorite technique of mine. Most actors really don’t want to perform on book if they’re supposed to have it memorized. But they can’t memorize effectively while they are anxious. It’s a double-edged sword.
By offering them the freedom to keep the script, I remove the anxiety, and make them able to do what they really want to do.
Within an hour, she’s performing at a high level, and it turns out that she has the first half of the script almost memorized. And she is finally back in her body, and able to hear me.
“Are you gloating in this speech? What does a gloating body look like?”
“Do you feel sad? What does that do to your legs, your arms, your face?”
The end of the rehearsal comes, and she’s back in the groove. I praise her – for the good work, for letting go of her fears, for naming them.
And I ask her, “Now, what are you making important?” It’s a question I learned from my acting teacher, Carol Fox Prescott.
The answer should be, “To behave truthfully in my imaginary circumstance, to enjoy myself, and to breathe.”
If as actors, writers or directors, we are able to do that, then we have done our work.