On August 2nd, 2015, my scene partner and I began our first rehearsal for a scene we’re putting up in class. We met at a neutral midway point since we both live far away from each other. And “neutral” meaning no coffee shops and no restaurants. Somewhere where we could sit down with minimal to no distraction and start digging into our scene work.
We settled on a small park that was inhabited by a handful of people. It was a very quiet park and we both knew this was a perfect setting for our first rehearsal. We sat on the lawn and became really excited to start working together on this powerful scene. We pulled out our scripts and before we even read one line, we talked about the movie: Our observations; our relationship to each other as these characters; where in the movie this scene took place so that we understood the magnitude of the event and evaluation of what was going on; questions that I had; questions that she had; we talked about how to effectively rehearse and what today’s rehearsal would encompass.
Everything was going great! We were quickly getting on the same page. We were bouncing ideas off of each other. We were very “yes, and…” Meaning that we were building upon our ideas: “Yes, that’s great and how about…”, “Yes, and I can bring this…”, “Yes, and if I do this, then…”
Again, everything was going GREAT…
…Until we read the scene for the first time.
OH MY FUCKING GOD! I WAS SO AWFUL. As soon as I started saying my first line, I was like, “I should quit acting right now. Who the fuck am I kidding? I’m terrible! I can’t act.” That’s right. I said it. I’m a terrible actor and I can’t act. I should just move to Hawaii and open up a surfboard shop by the beach (LOL Does this sound familiar, DawnMarie?) As I continued saying each of my lines in the scene, I could hear discordant piano chords gradually getting louder in my head. Each off-key, jarring chord made my body twitch and jump. My head kept cringing more and more to the left. I could hear missiles getting closer to hitting their target (the target, by the way, was me!) I could hear nails scratching against the chalkboard.
Even WORSE, I could see all of fellow Vassar grad Meryl Streep’s 18 Oscar nominations flashing before my eyes. My eyes crossed. My vision got blurry. I may have even slapped myself to snap out of it and become present again. My scene partner–thinking I was making an inspired, bold choice in the moment–slapped herself as well. I looked up at her and saw Meryl Streep sitting across from me, pointing and laughing hard, while she was surrounded by her 3 Oscars, 8 Golden Globes, 2 SAG Awards, 2 Primetime Emmys and countless other awards. And just when I was about to lose my mind, we finished reading the scene.
Depleted, exhausted and shaking, I looked up at my scene partner and said, “That was really cool. Let’s read it again.”
What I just described is an interesting phenomena that occurs 80% of the time when I first pick up a script for scene study class or sides for an audition. The first read through is so horrendous and I always question my abilities as an actor. Does anyone else experience this? If so, I’d love to know why it happens to you too. And look, I’ll be honest, Meryl Streep has never laughed at me, but I’ve heard and experienced those discordant piano chords. I think part of it has to do with starting from scratch. I’m picking up a script again for the first time and embarking on a brand new, unknown journey. I’m starting with a clean, blank slate that I now have to start filling in and piecing together bit by bit. It’s that first step into the unknown that is the worst.
Bottom line: Can I build another scene from scratch again and deliver a fully-realized performance? (Even though I have delivered fully-realized performances countless times before.) Will this finally be the scene where people discover that I can’t act? That I am a sham artist? That I am a fake?
However, by the second read through of the script or the audition sides, I feel better (That’s how I felt when my scene partner and I read through the scene again.) I got through and survived the first read. I got it out of my system and no longer felt this expectation to deliver an Oscar-winning performance. I am now open to actually receiving what’s on the page. And then I read the script or audition sides a third time. And then I read it again. And again. And again. Each time, I gain more understanding of what’s happening. I know which questions to ask. The picture comes into focus more and more.
I believe another reason for this phenomena is that I want to know and have all the answers right away. Instead, I have to remind myself that part of the journey with rehearsing a scene or preparing for an audition is the willingness to have patience and not know the answers right away. To trust that by doing the work, the answers will eventually come. The “ah ha” moments will hit me along the way.
And like I mentioned earlier, this phenomena doesn’t always happen. There is that remaining 20% where I immediately connect with a new scene and I know exactly what’s going on and how to play it. Interestingly enough, however, whenever I have to do a cold reading at an audition (where the casting director gives you the sides on the spot and you have a few minutes to look them over), I DON’T experience this phenomena. With cold reads, I put no pressure or expectation on myself because it’s a COLD read. I know that they know that the performance I’m delivering is based upon the few minutes I’ve spent with the sides. I have a few minutes tops to figure out what’s going on in the scene, what’s the relationship between my character and the other character(s) in the scene and to make one or two strong choices that supports the story.
My scene partner and I have had more rehearsals since our initial one and I am having fun with the process. I am gaining more clarity and certainty with the scene and with my character. I am honoring my genius and instincts. The unknown is no longer an issue and doesn’t scare me anymore. I am piecing together the wardrobe of my character and have taken my character public on two occasions so far. By taking the character public and interacting with people, I’m enhancing my belief as this character. If the public believes who I am, then my belief is enhanced as well.
We are exploring subtext. We are figuring out WHY we are saying each line. We are looking at the chapters in the scene (a new chapter occurs when there’s a dynamic shift in the scene). We are looking at our relationship. What makes this night different from other nights? What’s the moment before? What is this moment about over here? Why do I turn off the music? I bonded with my scene partner’s child this past Monday for a few hours because in this scene, I’m arguing with my sister about the way she’s raising her child (my nephew). I need a nephew. I need to have a real kid that I can connect with and fall in love with and fight for. My scene partner and I even took a picture with him so that I can frame it and make it part of our set (Specifics equals belief) We had another great rehearsal today where we connected to what the scene was about!
So our rehearsal process is progressing beautifully.
What allows me to build confidence in my work is a set of solid training tools which helps me to create and construct things from scratch. To take words on a page and bring them to life. Tools are vital. Without them, you’re fucked. You’re kind of hoping and praying that you’ll get lucky and deliver a great performance. And let’s say you DO deliver a great, solid performance. Great! But you have no idea how you did that. How you got there. So, when you’re asked to repeat it either by an acting teacher, a casting director or a film director on set, you’re fucked because you don’t know how to repeat that experience or moment. You were just winging it. I’m glad I have tools to work with to help me understand how I got there and how to repeat a performance. I have structure that helps me be free and play within it. I’ve done the work. Now I can go play.
So whatever your acting training is or wherever you currently study, use those tools to embark on the journey of the unknown and into the known.
And yes, I CAN act. See you soon, Meryl Streep.