Letting Go of “Acting School Mentality”
Let’s talk about acting school, shall we?
It’s a subject that everyone in the business has an opinion about, whether or not they themselves have gone. I, myself (having been to several), could go on for hours about my various and varying feelings and thoughts on the matter (and have done), and maybe I will at some point in this blog, but for now, I just want to talk about one element. I call it “Acting School Mentality”.
If I had to distill “Acting School Mentality” down to a short definition, it would be “constant evaluation”. It is, essentially, asking yourself “How am I doing?” while you’re doing something. It is at once constructive and destructive. Let me back up a little, and talk about a concept of which I am a big fan. It’s called The Four Stages of Learning (I didn’t make these up, and I’m not sure who did. They were told to me by my teacher Gary Logan.)
The Four Stages of Learning are as follows:
1. Unconscious Incompetence
2. Conscious Incompetence
3. Conscious Competence
4. Unconscious Competence
1. You don’t know how to do something, but you don’t even know that you don’t know it. (You’ve never heard of yodeling.)
2. You now know a bit about the thing, but you still don’t really know how to do it. (You suck at yodeling.)
3. You’re getting it now, but you’re still really focusing on it and it’s effortful. (You’re pretty good at yodeling, but you have to concentrate on it.)
4. You’re good at it, and you don’t even have to think about HOW you’re doing it. (You are one sweet yodeler and you can do it in your sleep.)
Most of the time in acting school is spent at Stage 2 and 3. If you arrive at a Stage 3, your teachers will make sure they knock you back to a Stage 2 (the “breaking you down” process, you hear so much about, so you can learn new stuff). If all goes well, just about everyone will leave acting school in Stage 3 (some unfortunate folks will leave at 2’s… but that’s probably largely in their heads). Make no mistake, I did not say Stage 4. I said you will leave at a Stage 3. You’ll want to be at Stage 4, because you’ll feel in your heart and bones that Stage 4 is where really great acting happens… but you’ll be at a Stage 3.
WHY!!?!? After investing years upon YEARS of your life studying every detail of this art can you possibly only be at a Level 3?? Simple. It’s because you just spent years upon years studying it. You have developed habits of judging yourself and defense mechanisms for being constantly evaluated, and unless you know a really great hypnotist, it’s going to take some time for you brain to accept that you don’t need that stuff anymore. Not really. It helped you survive school, learn, and develop new skills; that’s fantastic, but those same devices are liable to hinder you once you’re out of school.
Notice the difference between Stage 3 and Stage 4. It’s just adding “Un”. The competence is already there (congratulations!!), now you just have to stop thinking about it so much (be less-conscious). You’ve got to trust yourself. Trust that you know what you’re doing. Trust that you know how to perform. Trust that after all these years you have some things dialed-in and you’re going to do them more or less automatically, without pushing. You need to get the hell out of your own way in order to let yourself make discoveries. This is especially true during performance.
When you are performing, if you’re constantly thinking “How am I doing?”, or “How was that moment?”, or “What is this audience thinking of me?” you’re dead in the water, because that is about as far from thinking the thoughts of the character as you can be. Your character isn’t concerned about what the audience is thinking of him/her, because the audience doesn’t exist in your character’s world (probably). Better to focus on what he/she wants, and how to get it (but that’s a whole other discussion).
This isn’t to say that you should never evaluate yourself, I’m just saying that evaluation has its time and place. For instance, I think it has a valuable place in the rehearsal process. You’ve got to try different things and see how they work, especially when blocking and working through scenes, but I use this word of caution: if you don’t turn off your inner judge, then you can’t fully commit to the moment, and if you’re not fully committed to the moment, it’s hard to tell whether or not it really works. It’s a double-edged sword.
My advice is to use the inner judge much more sparingly than you think you should, and to use it off-stage or BETWEEN takes, not during. Shelve it as much as you can when you are running scenes, doing run-throughs, and certainly in performance. If something really didn’t work, when you come off stage (or after the director says cut), you’ll almost certainly remember it, then you’ll think about a way to make it work better. But when you are out there, TRUST YOURSELF AND COMMIT! Do your homework, then come in there trusting that you did it, and leap. And if you didn’t do your homework (which you really should have) it’s too late now anyway, so don’t waste energy/focus berating yourself. If you have to bullshit, then COMMIT to that bullshit, and don’t put yourself in that position next time.
I offer this final thought about Acting School Mentality, and it’s good news. When you are in school, you are constantly performing for your faculty and peers. The faculty, specifically (but your peers, too, to a lesser degree) are actively evaluating you every time you are onstage. That’s simply the nature of the beast. After years of that, though, it’s easy to forget that audiences out in the real world don’t work that way. The vast majority of your audience members are just normal people who want to hear a story, see a show, be transported in some way. You aren’t under a microscope, and they aren’t looking for your flaws; it’s quite the opposite, actually. They’re trying NOT to see the actors, they just want to see the characters, and they are willing to overlook your little mistakes in order to uphold their belief in the imaginary circumstances. Once you start accepting that, the audience is no longer a hostile entity; they are a source of light and love, and you are free to truly play. That’s when art happens.
-Brent Rose 8.27.09 4.31am