As I sit here on a pile of rocks on the Mad River (and listening to a family swim and play in the nearby water) I am attempting to synthesize my first week of training. My time with Dell’Arte International has been a reflection on past training, a frustrating realization that I am aging and it is harder to move with my weight (though definitely possible), and a reawakening on the type of theatre I aim to make as director, performer, writer, and a fanatic of classical and new works. What has stuck with me the most is the belief and commitment we must make as artists in the work we do. It has to be authentic, come from a place of discovery, and be viscerally alive. Never walk in “knowing” how theatre is done and how a character will act. The stage is not a place for indication, or hinting, or attempting, it is a place of going to the brink of a cliff and diving off, of exploring the unknown, and setting the equilibrium of the performer and thus the audience, off balance. It is alive.
Four words that have been spoken with extent and fervent belief this week: believe, behave, become, behold. That as an actor, we have to believe we are the character, behave as the character, become the character, and behold the magnitude and life of that character. And all at once. These four words have reminded me of a few attitudes or ideas that I aim to help lift performers out of.
First off, you have to believe that what you are doing is real. This is simple and complicated. If you know any children younger than you, watch them as they play. They commit to a vivid world that stretches from the jungles of the Amazon, to a city in the clouds, to a real life school that is all composed of chairs, blankets, and a spoon. And yet, they believe—they live these realities.
Theatre cannot portray reality as is. It does not matter if you are trying your hardest to present realistic scenarios, live as the character day in and day out, or give us a real set true to every detail in life on the stage. We can aim for it, but never accomplish that. This conundrum has been alluded to for centuries of theatrical theory and exemplified in such writing as The Paradox of Acting by Denis Diderot. This is our pitfall and our challenge. And this challenge shouldn’t be a disappointment but a call to arms by every performer who should scream, “I will become that which I am not.”
So often I have worked with students, from the very young to adult, who struggle with this idea of belief. They allow their fears of the unknown, their fears of bullying, of mockery, of messing up, of not succeeding, of not getting the assignment “right” to take them over. So they go through classes, productions, and life with a sense of hesitation and reserve. I do not punish you for being who you are, I’ve been there and do go there at times. But I challenge you to believe in the work you do, that you want to do, and the games and scenes you play as performers.
Go For It
So here you are. You are in a classroom about to give a speech, backstage about to step out, you’re about to speak—What do you do?
I posed this scenario to our interns this summer: You are on the edge of a cliff and you jump off. One of two things is possible: you fly or you fall. If you fly, great. This is not exciting to watch on stage. The story is over and we can go home. But if you fall, fall with zeal and abandon. Yes, it’ll hurt, there might be bumps, but in this falling you will learn. And in this falling, we watch you learn, we empathize with your struggle, we cheer for you. Falling does not equal failure. Falling equals risk. Falling equals drama.
In the moment before you speak or before you move, you come face to face with yourself. With all the demons that exist in your mind that have been imposed upon you by your peers, by your society, by yourself. You can either choose to listen to them and walk out with fear and trepidation and perform to a rote pattern. Or you can perform with abandon, fervor, surprise, and living on the edge. Even the shyest character should have the possibility of risk and the unknown.
Every time you walk onstage, you should live in a place that anything might happen. Yes, you have rehearsed for weeks. You have memorized words. There are places where the lights must go. But you have to believe that anything could change at any moment.
Don’t hesitate, don’t think, just go.
And Stick the Landing
Wherever you land, that’s where you are. Or as we have said this week: “You rise where you stand.”You made a bold character choice, you have thrown your body into a new position in a game, you spoke in a way you never have before. Own it. That’s where you are and that’s what you meant to do. Do not back down. Do not apologize. This idea of “stick the landing” comes to me after working with one of my favorite teaching artist friends. My friend Sara and I were teaching a comedy camp and working on an exercise we dubbed “Silly Walks” with a group of 3rd-5th graders. In this exercise, we encourage students to go for it, to risk it all, to put themselves out there. At the end, like a gymnast, you stick the landing. That no matter if you did not like it, messed up, or embarrassed yourself, you said, “Here I am and I did that and I am me.” I want to see artists, performers, designers, poets, and painters, to believe in the work they do. Don’t judge a game for its ridiculous nature. Go for it. This is your one chance. If you wait until the show, you have lost that opportunity. You perform what you rehearse. And was it risky and full of life? Then say yes. Let’s all agree to stand tall and be who we are. Stick it.
You are about to walk onstage. What do you do? Go.