“Mammals are born with two instinctive fears; sudden loud noises, and fear of falling.”
What does this have to do with acting? I found myself asking this question when Cay brought it up this last week.
“When a child is born their immediate instinct is to grasp anything near them. Grasping is the natural reacting to falling, a fear ingrained in us from our time spent living in trees. Actors like to grasp two things: moments and preparation.”
Moments seems easier to understand. For anyone trained in Meisner repetition this will sound familiar because it is exactly the habits that repetition is supposed to take out of us. In repetition you react in the moment, instinctually, and then let it go just as fast and move onto the next. Holding the same moment over and over in a repetition exercise is death. It becomes boring to watch, and boring to do.
The preparation is perhaps a little more difficult to understand. Cay explained it like this.
“Before a scene you prepare. You ground yourself in your preparation, and then you walk onstage and you let it go. You listen to your partner, react, and trust that you prepared deeply enough that it is still there. But you have to let go. Actors have a tendency to grab the preparation and hang on, but you have to just trust that it’s there and go!”
“It’s like snowboarding, right?” asked Migina. “Like switching edges, and in the moment you’re not on an edge you don’t have control. But you can’t try to grab it back or you fall. You just have to ride it.”
“Exactly!” said Cay. “Or like the first time you rode downhill on a bicycle. Letting go is a learned skill, one necessary to be a truthful actor.”
And let’s face it, it’s a lot more fun to let go onstage. All of my best memories come from performances where I stepped off stage or off camera and felt like “Woah, where the hell did THAT come from?”
I recently got to see the difference between these two an actor grasping and not grasping in two Broadway productions. The first was Ethan Hawk’s Macbeth at Lincoln Center. I saw it with my classmate, Annie, and when we walked out we were trying to figure out what went wrong with the show. Certainly the actors seemed emotional. They had choices. But the show wasn’t engaging, and hard to follow even for Annie who just appeared in a small stage version in Long Island City.
The second was Mark Rylance’s Richard II with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and it quickly revealed what Macbeth had been missing. Rylance and his fellow actors were incredible to watch. He worked off the reactions of the audience, of the fellow actors, of the props and costumes in the space. He was having FUN, and the audience was having fun with him. It made him interesting, and detestable, and a blast to watch.
The actors of the RSC had broken themselves of that human instinct to grasp and hold on. They had learned to let go. They were riding the snowboard, and when they hit the edge they were just going with it.