In Jill Bolte Taylor’s book, My Stroke of Insight, she delineates the different functions between the right and left brain:
- Comparison of this moment to the last moment
- Recognizes patterns
- Deductive reasoning
- Past and Future
- Details, details, details
- Words to describe, define, categorize and communicate
- Brain Chatter
- Home of your ego center / your identity
- Likes and dislikes
- Critical judgment and analysis
- What things look, sound, taste, smell and feel like
- "The time is now"
- Spontaneous, carefree, imaginative
- “We are all one”
- Perceives the big picture
- To walk in the shoes of another and feel their feelings
- Interprets nonverbal communication: tone of voice, facial expressions and body language
Read that list up there again and ask yourself, where does an actor need to be when performing? In their left brain? The hemisphere that understands the concepts of past and future and is the center of critical judgement and analysis? Or the right brain? The hemisphere where not only presence, spontaneity and imagination reside but also empathy? The answer is obvious, no? But guess where most actors seem to reside.
A teacher ever tell you that you’re “in your head” or that they see you acting? They are referring to the fact that you are operating from your left brain while you are performing. How do you know if you’re in your left brain? There are many symptoms, but here are some of the most common:
- You are watching and / or listening to yourself perform.
- You are criticizing your performance while you are performing.
- You are fixated on something you did in the scene or anticipating something that is coming up in the scene.
- You are thinking of your lines and blocking.
- You are trying to squeeze as much detail into your performance as possible or trying to make "clever choices".
- You are focusing on how a line should be said.
- You are focusing on how you should be performing in a certain moment.
- You are trying to produce a certain result.
- You are trying to show your homework.
- You are trying to show a character that you created.
- You are worrying about how the audience, or your teacher, is perceiving you.
The list goes on and on...
Any of these symptoms sound familiar? Well, you are not alone. I am all-too-familiar with this actor-malady. If being in your head were a sport, I would have been a gold-winning olympian. I was so consumed with trying to be a perfect actor giving a perfect performance that any note I got from a teacher just exacerbated the situation and drove me further into my head. I once had a teacher tell me that they needed to see me “think more”. I took this note, and the next time I performed the piece, I, of course, acted “thinking”. The same teacher gave me the note to make more specific choices. So, as homework, I would find really clever, arbitrary, premeditated things to do in the scene and then perform my choices, one after the other. But some of you many be asking, "What’s so wrong with this?" Well, for starters, we do not behave this way as humans!
When was the last time you tried to show that you were thinking more? Probably never. When was the last time you tried to make more specific choices when you were socializing with friends? Never! Where does thinking come from? Well, from actually thinking. Where do our specific personality traits and idiosyncrasies come from? Well, from who we are and how we go about getting what we want in life.
The trap of trying to "create" any kind of performance is that it takes you completely out of the present moment. Instead of trying to "create" anything, you must instead react to the immediate sites and sounds around you. You must see as the character sees, hear as the character hears and respond to what is being presented in front of you, right here, right now as if for the very first time! You must receive and you must listen. You must be fully present with your scene partner, take in what they are really giving you in the moment and then really respond off of that, really for real! This is the first building block of the actor craft. Without presence – true, non-acted, non-manufactured presence – you are robbing yourself of the beauty of the moment before you.
So often I see actors in their own "actor world", behaving how they think they should be behaving in a scene. Or, responding off of what they believe should be there instead of what really is there. To circle back to the drawing exercise, the reason why we are so inept at drawing a realistic face is that we are drawing a representation of a nose, eyes and mouth instead of the actual nose, eyes and mouth that we see right in front of us. So too in acting, we tend to behave how we think the character would behave in any given moment, and we then perform a representation of that behavior. We respond how we think someone would stereotypically respond in a certain moment instead of really listening and really responding off of what is given to us in that very moment!
So, the first skill an actor needs to master is LISTENING. Everything else is moot without real, genuine, in-the-moment listening. What do I really see before me? What is my scene partner doing right now? And then we go from there.