I’d been watching a student rehearse his monologue for several minutes when it suddenly struck me how disengaged I’d become. I’ll call this student Tim. I placed my attention on what I was feeling. My eyes were tired and it was a struggle to focus, I had a dull ache at the back of my head, my mind was wandering and I couldn’t connect with anything he was saying. Was this disconnection about where I was at or was it to do with the way he was working or was it a combination of both?
I checked in: no I’d worked with a student in the previous session and had felt focused and effective so I put that to one side for the time being. I decided to ask Tim some self-reflective questions to see if I could deepen my understanding of what it was I was feeling and what indeed he might be feeling.
M. Tim, how were you feeling as you worked just then?
T. I guess I felt a little nervous and tense and I suppose right now I’m feeling a little frustrated and dissatisfied with my monologue, I’m not really in it at the moment.
M. You say you’re feeling tense. What is the source of the tension?
T. I think I’m feeling tense because I worry if I’m making the right choices and whether or not you think it’s any good.
M. What’s a “right choice”?
T. Something that works. Something that gets me in the zone. A choice that I know you’ll like.
M. What do you mean by something that works?
T. It’s when I feel strong and connected and inside what I’m doing, fighting for my objective and not worrying about my acting.
M. And why is it important to you that I like it?
T. I guess because if you like it I’ll feel like I am doing a good job and that other people might like it too.
M. OK I understand that, so let me ask you this: when you’re doing your piece, how much of your attention is on the work itself and how much of your attention is focused on watching yourself as you work? Let’s call the first part, the actor part of you and let’s call the other part of you, your watcher.
T. Putting that way I reckon about 30% is actor and 70% is watcher.
M. OK good, so how does it feel to be 30/70 split when you’re working?
T. It feels a little frustrating, incomplete and I guess dissatisfying.
M. Do you feel that the state of tension you mentioned earlier is connected to worrying about getting it right and if I like your work, and that this is related to the 30/70 split?
T. Yes I think it is.
M. Yes I think it is too. OK so what do you want to feel when you’re working? How much of the actor/watcher split do you want to have?
T. That’s simple I want to feel secure in my choices and I want to be 100% actor.
M. OK so is it possible that the energy you’re using to watch yourself is a form of self-protection, guarding against you feeling insecure? And that this energy is actually holding you back and contributing to the dissatisfaction?
T. I can see that this is possible.
M. As I understand what is happening it’s the habitual mind interpreting the situation as an occasion where you need to be protected because you may be setting yourself up for criticism. The habitual mind says that because you’re being observed you need to be more watchful and outwardly aware, like a soldier on guard at a campsite. The dissatisfaction comes because there is another part of you that deeply desires to get into the piece you’re doing and connect and commit to the action of the character, and it’s not getting that satisfaction. As you said you want to really be ‘in it’ but it ain’t happening.
Earlier you said you wanted to feel secure, engaged and deeply satisfied in your work, lets say you want to be immersed, you want an immersive experience that gets you closer to the 100% you want to feel. What do you think you need to do to achieve this? What do you need to let go and what do you need to find?
T. From what you’ve explained already I probably need to let go the need to please you and the feeling that I have to get it right all the time.
M. Yes this would be a good idea. Is it possible for you to do this?
T. Yes I suppose it is.
M. Then let’s call this a process of acknowledging something in order to be able to let it go and then naming the things you want to find. Let’s make up an exercise where you can freely go about the room expressing your thoughts and feelings spontaneously. Name out loud the things you want to let go and state your desires in finding the things you need.
T. OK. I’m letting go of my need to get it right. I’m letting go of the need to please Martin. I’m letting go of the pressure I put on myself. I’m letting go of watching myself work. I’m letting go of being so protective. Hey I feel lighter already.
M. Keep going.
T. I’m letting go of censoring myself. I’m letting go of caution. I’m letting go of listening to my words when I speak.
M. And what do you want to find? What is it you want?
T. I want to be free. I want to make strong choices. I want to feel secure, to engage, to connect to others, to see my images. I want to experience the monologue. I want to fight for what I want. I want to be immersed in the experience. Hey it feels so great to say all this out loud.
M. Good. How are you feeling?
T. Lighter. Freer. Less serious about this acting stuff.
M. Good. Now we need to go back to the monologue you’re doing. As an actor you want to feel secure when you’re working, but the character you’re playing doesn’t feel secure at all. What do you imagine the character is going through?
T. My character is afraid and desperate. He is terrified of being caught for a crime he committed and is appealing to his friend for help.
M. Is it possible for you to imagine yourself in this situation, pleading for help from a friend of yours? Can you see your friend sitting in front of you? Can you work to experience the fear of getting caught, the regret for doing a crime? Can you involve yourself ‘as if’ this were true for you right now?
T. Yes I can.
M. Are you able to work from a secure place as an actor in order to experience some of the discomfort and insecurity of the character?
T. Yes I am confident I can.
Tim proceeded to explore the monologue with different choices. He involved himself deeply in the person he saw in front of him. He did not work to get anything ‘right’ or please me in any way. He fought hard as his character to get his friend to agree to help him avoid prosecution. Tim began to explore the monologue experientially. He immersed himself in the struggle ‘as if’ he were fighting for his own life. He proceeded to make discoveries about his character and about the relationship he had with his friend. He found deeper tangible links to the situation even though he had never committed a crime. He made deep human connections to the situation and the need.
Suddenly I realised my eyes were no longer sore. The headache had gone. I was completely caught up in the story. Could this be the same piece Tim had been working on a few minutes earlier? His involvement and commitment to the piece had me completely engaged. I had started to care about the characters and was interested to know what happened next. And I realised we had both used our feelings scientifically. We had used them in such a way to determine what felt more and less satisfying. We had used our feelings as a source code to determine what needed to be de-programmed and what needed to be re-programmed.
M. How do you feel after exploring your piece with greater freedom?
T. Fantastic. I felt really connected like it was personal. I really needed his help. I saw him struggling when I confessed the crime. I saw how conflicted he was and I experienced deeper conflict myself. I made discoveries about my character. I found out things I never thought about before. I discovered how uncertain and uncomfortable he is. How he truly feels he can get away with it if only he can convince his friend to help him.
M. Yes I am very happy for you and very happy that you experienced so much freedom to immerse yourself in the piece and on top of that make deeper discoveries about situation, relationship and character. That is a real testament for going to that deeper, experiential place. I must thank you for confirming for me the value of such an organic process. One we undertake without the constraints of rightness and correctness. It is such a beautiful irony that we achieve security and engagement in our work when we trust the experience of the immersive state over the tentativeness of the protective state of watchfulness and guardedness. We make bold choices, when we personalise the need and when we engage our audience through immersion.
T. Thank you for deepening my understanding, Martin.
M. And thank you Tim for deepening mine.