The Preperation: Using an incomplete ‘as if’

“I know only moments, and lifetimes that are as moments. It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them too.”

Cate Blanchett, speaking to an attentive class of second graders, is saying these words. They are not her words, and this audience is not her true target. The words are a part of a manifesto written by Jean-Luc Godard on filmmaking. The audience is actually the fifty or so people gathered in canvas chairs, perched on wooden benches, or standing cross armed and listening attentively as Cate-made-teacher is projected onto a large screen delivering a Swiss director’s denouncement of narrative along side 12 other versions of herself in the Julian Rosefeldt show “Manifesto” at the Park Avenue Armory.

That quote came to me while sitting in class on Tuesday, listening to Cay discuss the danger of an incomplete use of “as if” during a preperation. Emily was onstage with Geraldine having just finished up their first run through for the day of a scene from “The Glass Menagerie”

“How do you know when you can’t use something?” Emily asks.

“My experience is that it’s a case by case call,” Cay replies. “Some people say seven years, but I think there are sometimes preparation’s that are fresh that you can use and something things that are ancient that you can’t go near.”

This territory seems both familiar and important for my own work. I remember my scene study class in Los Angeles when Chris Fields used to talk about the same subject. Attempting to prepare using an as if that was too fresh was a no go in his class. More than once I have found myself neck deep in a scene only to realize that whatever I had been working with was actually hindering rather than helping.

Sure, it doesn’t FEEL that way in the moment. It feels good, actually, to use a fresh experience over one that has been processed and integrated. The emotion in a fresh memory is so raw and visceral, so easy to access. But that’s the trap. A preparation that is being used by an actor must also be capable of growing and changing with the experience of the moment.

It seems to me that it’s about perspective more than anything. Distance from a memory allows a level of contextualizing to take place that isn’t possible when the memory is fresh. There is a clarity that comes once time has passed between the occurrence of an event that could be eventually become an as if for a preparation and the attempt to work it into something  usable.

If an actor uses an as if that is extracted from a fresh memory that they haven’t fully processed yet, then the actor risks allowing the preparation to overpower what is actually happening on stage.

“What you’re looking to do is to extract the essence.” Cay goes on to explain, “You don’t want to live in that preparation. You’re trying to turn it into something that can be extracted and plugged into the scene to give you a place to come from.”

The most recent example of this happening in my own work was during my last scene, also from the Glass Menagerie. When we began the process of working on the piece I felt as if I had tapped into something really powerful early. It came off of one of my scene partner’s lines—the line struck me in such a profound way, reminded me so deeply of a fight I had once had, that I felt there was no other memory that I could possibly use.

That feeling should have probably been a red flag. Instead of helping me to dig into the scene the memory that I was using actually set off a fight or flight response in my body which shut me down both from connecting to my partner, and ultimately, from my desire to continue working on the piece.

It did not feel good walking out of class that day. I felt that I had failed both my scene partner and myself.

Distance though, being the great provider of perspective that it is, has been helpful. I don’t think it was anyone’s fault really. I’ve learned this lesson before, but I had been out of class for so long that when my instinct led me astray, my training was slow to kick in and warn me “hey, something’s not working here.” There was a lesson to be learned, and if there is a safe place and time to learn a lesson, it is on Tuesday afternoon in a room full of friends and collaborators who have each also have plenty of learning moments in Cay’s class.

Actors go to class, actors go to class, actors go to class.