What acting taught me
“What do you want? And how you gonna get it?”
His resonant southern drawl echoed off the black bleachers. I peaked from under my knee, through a forest of gangly limbs to see him, our teacher, pointing a wandering finger that singled us each out as he pivoted around the warm-up circle.
He had a kind face creased with smile lines, but keen eyes that could cut you into a thousand pieces if he willed. Especially if you hadn’t worked on your scene. And he knew. Somehow he always knew.
I knew better than to think Acting would be an easy A, and it wasn’t. There were scenes and monologues to be memorized, blocking to be done, the ever exasperating task of trying to schedule a rehearsal with your resistant scene-mate. Trying to make college students commit is like herding cats. And I lump my old-self into that feline condemnation.
And then there was character analysis.
What do you want? How are you going to get it?
Depending on who you talk to, the heart of a dynamic scene is dependent on objectives (what you want) and tactics (how you go about getting it). For instance, take Romeo and Juliet. Romeo wants to be with Juliet forever (objective). He does this by sneaking around a lot and being an angsty teenager (tactic). The interesting bit comes in when the objectives of two characters come into clash. Por ejempla: Tybalt wants the security Romeo’s complete loyalty to the family (objective) and he threatens and manipulates Romeo to secure it (tactics). These conflicts in objectives and tactics lead to love, death, destruction, and some of the most iconic monologues in the western cannon.
Please forgive my incredibly simplistic analysis of Romeo and Juliet, but you get the idea.
So, before working on a scene we would evaluate what our character wanted (objective) and how they went about getting it (tactic).
The second week, we sat and read our objectives and tactics.
“... her objective is to get the family to go on vacation. Her tactic is to sweet talk.”
“... he wants to convince her to come back to him. He does this by asking her.”
The teacher nodded, chin tilted slightly to the right, lips inscrutably pursed, arms crossed tight across his chest.
“Alright” the teacher said, making the word feel like it had 5 syllables instead of two. We continued around the circle like this till the final student’s answer.
“She wants to move out of her family home. She will do this by telling her family.”
The circle had been completed. The teacher withheld a transitional nod to the next activity for a significant millisecond, and then we shuffled about to begin our first runs of the scenes.
We did our bully best, and stumbled our way through our first scenes in the class, every chest filling with a bit of pride at the fact they hadn’t completely forgotten their lines.
Finally, the teacher stood.
“That was good. You all worked hard, and I could tell. But, oh bless your hearts. You’re embarrassed to tell the truth. You don’t want to believe your characters have ugly or selfish feelings. I know you have them; you’re human. But you’re afraid to admit it. You must learn to be honest. I will make you angry in this class, but please know I love all my students.”
And so we labored at learning to be honest on stage.
One particular week stood out to me. It was a monologue week, and one of the students, a dark haired sullen senior who always wore tank tops, was doing a monologue from All My Sons (Miller, 1947). If you know the play, it is not a happy or easy story.
The student performed his monologue: a confrontation from son to father. He had chops. He sauntered onstage with a palpable presence that made everything he said sound authoritative. All things considered, he did well. Well enough to everyone (at least me) get a little nervous. I jotted some emotional notes in the margins of my monologue, hoping it would magically make my performance better.
He sighed when he finished the monologue. It had involved a lot of yelling. His work, he thought, was through. He all but dusted off his shoulder.
“I don’t believe you.”
The teach said with a raised eyebrow.
All 6’2 of the student’s tan, muscular body tensed. He crossed his arms and rocked back on his heels.
“Really?” said the student.
“You didn’t mean it.”
Said the teacher.
A flash of hot anger passed through the student’s thickly lashed eyes.
“It didn’t matter to you, did it?” said the teacher, as he stood. He walked onto the performing space, directly in front of the student, crossing his arms in challenge. He stared clean into the student’s eyes.
“I bet you didn’t even work on it.”
You could cut the air with a knife. As an audience and classroom, we sat in awkward silence, not knowing what to do. Students began to cast worried and judgmental looks at the teacher: surely this was a bit far. Somewhere in the back of our minds lurked the fear: I’m next.
“Try it again with me standing here.”
The student said nothing. He looked like he could sock the teacher right in the mouth. His tight lips began to turn white.
He gave the monologue. Unlike the first go, he didn’t yell very much, but hatred pulsed in every syllable. At moments he lashed out, and then pulled himself back in, seemingly to gain composure. He spit the final words out like a sip of cheap, sour wine.
The showdown was over. He sat down.
“That was excellent. That was honest.” said the teacher. “Will you forgive me?”
And so the teacher allowed himself to be hated to teach us to be honest.
For the record, I don't advocate antagonizing people to reveal their true emotions. That would be unethical and unkind. But the teacher did warn us, and he was always careful, always supportive, and always apologized.
With each week, we delved into another character’s world, seeking to understand their emotional landscape, desires, faults, and delights, and to be honest.
And as I did this, I became more self aware. As I worked through a character whose goal was to escape, and their tactic to wound, I began to search my own heart and realize that sometimes, though I’m ashamed to admit it, perhaps I do that. Or perhaps I worked as a character whose goal is to endear and her tactic is to amuse. I would laugh at myself and think, oh yes. Silly, strutting me. I do that too.
It was not that acting brought out strong emotions in me, but rather that it allowed me to admit them. I began to have a more realistic view of my own motivations and of myself. And it made me realize I'm not always as innocent, strong, or dreadful as my inner monologue can make me at various times.
Acting makes you look human nature square in the face. It brings a deeper awareness of the wrestling wills, emotions and attitudes that color our lives. You begin to admit to yourself how much self-conscious silliness, quiet manipulation, presiding grief, or ever present latent anger can rule the way we live our lives and connect with eachother.
And sometimes it reveals something in you. Sometimes you play a sad character and come to realize that its you weeping on stage, not the character. Sometimes, you find playing a charming character unlocks a vibrant confidence you didn’t know you had. Sometimes a bitter anger comes sputtering out at your acting coach, and you think to yourself where on earth did that come from.
Search me, Oh God, and know my anxious thoughts.
Acting helped me take the log out of my own eye. As I became more aware of my own little foibles, my compassion and tolerance grew for others.
Acting made me more honest about my humanity, and less afraid of it.
“I want to talk to you about something today. Very important.”
Said the teacher. Unified in sleep deprivation and underprepared scenes, we breathed a collective sigh of relief, and sat in a cross legged circle. The teacher stood before us with his hands pleadingly clasped. He stood in the way only someone keenly aware of the communicativeness of their bodies can stand, straining yet steady.
“God has given you a whole pallet of colors to paint with. Your emotions can be as varied and beautiful as the blue of raining sky, or the red of a hot fire, or the green of a calm field. You can paint beautiful pictures with your feelings on stage. But, sometimes we are afraid. We paint only with a happy yellow, or a friendly pink; and those are beautiful. But, I want you to know this: God made your pallet of emotions. He knows every inch of the canvas of your soul. He is not surprised by the red hot anger, or the green jealousy, or the deep blue despair. He knows our broken little sinful hearts.”
This last phrase was strung out in a southern sweetness. He closed his eyes and beat his hands gently against his chest. He looked like he was remembering something. Maybe something that hurt a little.
“He loves you. Oh he loves you so much. So never be afraid to paint with all your colors. You will never be rejected by Him.”
I used to think the characters of the Bible were object lessons. As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to see them more as characters in a play; conflicting wills, deep sadness, pulsing joy, ugly sins, fearsome faith, all laid bare on the ancient pages. God spared no colors in the inspiration of His holy story, so why should we?
I thought I would learn to act that semester, but more than anything, I learned to see myself more clearly. I see now the teacher was not only teaching us to be actors, he was teaching us to be human in all its glorious complication. He was not only teaching us to be honest about characters in a play, but about ourselves.
I once heard a pastor say, “what cannot be said, cannot be moved past.”
Hiding the objectives, tactics, and emotions we carry about in life doesn’t make us more godly, it just makes us exhausted. Not every objective, tactic, or emotion is good and healthy, but nothing can be healed that is buried, locked, unknown and inaccessible in your soul. When we are not honest, we do not allow ourselves to be fully known. When we pray Search me, Oh God, often it is us who are surprised by what we find. God is never surprised by us. We must learn to tell the truth, especially to God. Only then can we know how very much we are embraced.
And that, my friends, is what I learned through acting.
To paint with my whole pallet.
To be more honest.
To be more compassionate.
To be known.
To be human.