Without the foggiest notion of what acting was truly about and armed in my own personal cape of blissful ignorance, it was high gear all the way, until the money ran out. What I was fortunate enough to have had was a series of teachers with the magic ability to convey a message here or there that managed to make it through my extremely thick cranium.
Each of us has our own special button that is often difficult to uncover, especially at a young age, and even more difficult when the button is part of the male makeup.
There’s an old saying, “a penny for your thoughts.” When I was a young guy that was a common question. I can remember being out on a blind date and having that question asked of me. I happen to be a person who doesn’t have any qualms about sharing what might be going on in my head. In this particular instance it wasn’t a good idea or the correct thing to do under the circumstances. Nevertheless, my (still blind) date asked and I said, “This wasn’t a good idea for either of us, was it?”
What followed was my first real experience with a very uncomfortable extended silence and a distinct change of climate. What she did for the balance of the evening is commonly referred to as “the cold shoulder.”
Years later, as I stood alone, stage center with a group of my workshop colleagues seated as the audience before me, I recaptured that “cold shoulder” moment and relived the question: “A penny for your thoughts.”
Our instructor had called upon me to, without words, portray a man experiencing an uncomfortable two minute period of silence, then upon her command, display a completely comfortable presence, while remaining alone, center stage.
I was able to become comfortable by reflecting upon feeling the relief after dropping my blind date off at home at the end of the evening.
It even included what I felt was a very cool thing that happened during my questioning following the two minutes. One of the students asked me what I was thinking about during the comfortable presence moments that brought the hint of a smile to my face.
Our teacher pointed out that often times reflection can stimulate memories that allow for more than one single attitude. It’s kind of like walking and smiling at the same time. That two-fold display of a cultivated attitude drawn from our memory bank opened up one of the most powerful sourcing tools that an actor must be able to call on.
Reflection upon one single moment can stimulate any number of feelings, either sequentially, or in an untold number of bizarre or surreal sequences. All are slices of life. Almost all happenings may easily be referenced from our vast memory bank. All (usually, that is) with one dominant exception. That exception is our own personal memories of physical pain. Nature has provided the human animal with a turn off that enables us to forget severe physical pain. The condition is an automatic one.
(Certainly there are people who can vividly reflect on physical pain, but they are the exception.)
So now the question comes up, what to do when the scene calls for our actor to show suffering being caused by severe mental or physical pain?
At first, our actor may struggle with his or her memory bank. They easily recall the twisted and broken leg suffered during a high school football game, or gymnastics. While they may recall the circumstances, the scene they are playing lacks the genuine truth that he or she was striving to deliver.
Our actor requests the teacher’s help. The teacher responds with, “We’ll discuss it again tomorrow.” Our teacher then hands out the homework assignment. It requires each of us to view the movie, “Brian’s Song.” The next day our teacher asks that same actor to recount the scene he had struggled with the previous day, but this time to think about the travail that occurred for Brian Piccolo when he discovered, as an athlete at the top of his career, that he was sick with an incurable and life-ending illness.
The result was our actor being able to reflect on Brian’s predicament. What came forth was a beautifully truthful slice of life. Our actor had reflected through the eyes of another.
And finally, that leads us to the question of how do we, as actors, develop the skill of being able to reflect through the eyes of another. My answer to that one is contained in my favorite word: Empathy. Understanding, awareness, being sensitive, and feeling and experiencing the thoughts of others without becoming subjective. And while it is my favorite word, it has become my fervent belief that it is also the most important tool an actor has within his arsenal.
Were it possible to make all the luck in the world happen for each of you, as opposed to it being merely a sincere salutation, then I would choose to say to all of you, “All the luck in your world. The world you have been able to choose and genuinely embrace for yourself!”