The Hardest Thing I’ve Done…

I trace the droplet of sweat from the center of my forehead and down the end of my nose to where it hits the floor. It gathers on my back, just below the waistband of my pants. My knees lock like twigs about to snap. I know I’m supposed to be doing something, but for the life of me I can’t grasp exactly what that is. I open my mouth to speak but the only thing that comes out is a dull, “uuuuhhhhh…”

Standing in front of an audience, my body betrays me.

Acting is one of the hardest things I’ve done– you have to memorize copious amounts of text, develop a repeatable score of actions, engage your inner life, eradicate psychophysical blocks, strip away habits, peel off your life masks, take criticism from the director (and eventually the audience), and then do it all again.

Sometime during my 3rdor 4th year of college, I went from a student who mostly did tech but occasionally accepted acting roles to a student who only wanted to direct and nothing else. In fact, I developed a serious block about performing in front of an audience.  Though, I’m not sure which came first– the block or my decree that I would never (at least with any seriousness) step foot onstage again.

 

***

In December, I applied for the Leadership U[niversity] Grant offered by Theatre Communications Group to early-career theatre practitioners. The grant would have paid for me to study for a year-and-a-half with a mentor. I chose Michael Fields, the Producing Artistic Director of the venerable Dell’Arte Company in Blue Lake, California.

The grant was such a potential life-changer (read: $50,000 and a cross-country move) that, for the first time since starting Heads Up, Kyle and I didn’t do any long-range planning. When I received the letter stating, “we regret to inform you…” I felt rudderless. I had no idea how I would steer the boat or, for that matter, where I was headed.

I asked Michael his opinion and, with much consideration, he passed my information to Joe Krienke, the director of admissions for Dell’Arte’s MFA/Professional Training Program.

On Tuesday, I spoke to Joe. Based on our extensive conversation, he believed Kyle and I should apply to be a part of the PTP. The deadline for the most recent round of applications was on Friday, but if we could have everything signed, sealed and delivered by the following week, we would still be considered. This meant we each had a little over a week to write a Statement of Purpose, gather 3 letters of recommendation, update our CVs (or, in Kyle’s case, create one) and devise, rehearse and film a 5-minute solo performance as an audition.

It took Kyle and me two days to decide Dell’Arte was right for us. The PTP is yearlong training program for physical theatre. More specifically, it is based around the precept of the Actor-Creator and everyone who is accepted is expected to act.

I haven’t acted in 2 years. My last “role” was as a college professor in a 10-minute scene for a beginning directing class. I had only performed the role to work with my best friend who was moving to Florida in the spring.

Since that time, the closest I have come to acting was in a couple of compositions during my SITI Company training (Anne Bogart said I have a wonderful awkward energy) and in a series of etudes for Advanced Voice and Movement.  However, even in creating my final piece for AVM, I choked.

I remember working with Kyle in the rehearsal hall and coming up empty handed. I got in my own way, labeling all of my work “stupid.”

But that was a year ago.

 

As I stated in my essay Do or Do Not. There is No Try. our company’s training has been honing our ability to do– not just onstage, but in everyday life. Instead of balking at the proposition, I dove into it headfirst. I even found it easy to say “yes, and” while building the performance.

The “yes, and” mentality spread into my personal life. At one point, I went to the park and was doing cartwheels and handstands off a picnic table. I was playing more and seizing the moment. Things I would have previous ignored began to jump out at me and catch my attention.

This opening of my awareness fed right back into the work on the piece. As I rehearsed I realized I was able to notice technical aspects of my performance that, in my previous acting experience, I had never been able to bring into my awareness as I was performing with a higher level of mindfulness as I was doing it. The wakefulness allowed me to go deeper into the performance to find finer details and, for the first time ever, associations. These details meant I could play within the form I had created.

I also became aware of habits (specifically in use of tempo, pacing and topography) in my work, as a performer and creator. Now that I’m able to articulate those tendencies, I can begin to change them.

However, the most fascinating thing to come out of the work was realization I had grown. My audition piece was similar to my final from AMV, just a much better version. I asked Kyle what he thought this meant. He said, “I think you have a story to tell. And I think you’re getting more articulate at telling it.”

Watching our auditions, I am plagued with thoughts that I could have done better. But I am proud what we managed to accomplish in such a short amount of time. Our pieces might prevent us from getting into the program, though I’m not sure it matters. This experience has invigorated us to continue training and developing our own pieces. If they don’t want to teach us– we’ll teach ourselves.

And, maybe, my proclamation that I will “never act again” isn’t so cut and dry.

***

Update: We got in!

-Benjamin Rexroad
Managing Artistic Director

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