One of the things I love most about acting – about continuing to learn acting – is all the really weird exercises you get to do. Pretend you are a tree. Take the first breath ever taken by any human being on earth. Explore.
Kidding! I actually still think those are weird most of the time. Good weird, but still. No, what I love is when I’m listening or working or reading and I come to that place where I realize that some thing that makes for great acting comes out to be true in life itself. So (stealing the idea shamelessly from Bird By Bird), Life Lesson from Acting, Number One: Stop being so scared.
There’s something every actor is scared of. It could be anything – doing something silly, raising their voice and really yelling out, having to touch someone else. It all comes down to the fear that you’re going to look like a fool. And Everyone Will Know. Whatever the thing is, you bump up against them at the funniest times – we’ll be rolling right along in a rehearsal, and then suddenly, inexplicably, an oddness comes over the actor. Their movements become jerky, their voice forced. You think, when did the zombies come in? I must have missed their cue.
I’m not saying this to point a finger at anyone – my inner zombie kicks in at the possibility of anything remotely improvisational (Nothing like the dude, who would prefer to go on stage with only a character, costume, and exit line). I want to know my lines, and everyone else’s. I mean, isn’t being in the moment so much more fun when I know which moment is coming next? And the one after that, and the one after that…and scene! But I digress.
Last week I spent my evenings directing the skits for our Vacation Bible School. The skits are – well, they’re skits. For children. At VBS. They are better than they used to be, but still corny, heavy-handed, and fraught with difficulties. Every year when I first read the script, I think really? Really one of the main characters has to be a frog? Oh no, wait, not a real frog – a frog puppet? That another character has to carry around all week and who’s voice has to be performed offstage and who has to be hooked up to fishing line mid-skit on day three so he can fly across the stage? Really? I’m usually not in the best of moods after that read-through.
But then I get a cast. Some people who are willing to wear ridiculous outfits and memorize a new skit every night to perform the next day with gusto. This year I cast a guy as a pirate, a college age kid who has been with me on the VBS train for several years now. The pirate was kind of the leader, and I knew this guy could do it. Except at the last minute he couldn’t, because he found out that he couldn’t be there one night. Surprisingly enough, there was another character that only had to be onstage the first and last night, so, I switched him with the guy playing that part. A guy I didn’t really know as well. And that guy became the lead.
And here’s the great part – he took that pirate part and ran with it. He growled and arr’ed and even sang in a pirate voice while wearing a teacup costume (I’m totally NOT LYING about those scripts). He and the rest of the cast turned those skits into something interesting and funny. Not the easiest thing to do in front of a room full of screaming kids, slightly overwhelmed adults, and yes, even some of their own high-school and college aged peers. But they? Weren’t scared.
Here’s the deal: when you’re scared, and you don’t push past it, the thing you’re scared of…happens. I don’t mean your worst fear happens, I mean that you look foolish. All the things you do to protect yourself – well, they send out signals to everyone else. They may not know exactly what those signals are, but they know something is wrong. The zombies are coming…
But if you can get past it, if you can not be afraid, if you can push past the things that feel foolish and somehow embrace it all – well then, even the laughter is with you, and we’re all cheering along.