When I was a young actor, I struggled mightily with this problem. I worked very hard in class. I rehearsed diligently. I wrote page after page in my journal on my assigned character’s objectives, back story, environment, and inner life. I did copious research on the world in which he lived, and engaged in a minute analysis of the text. I was as thorough as possible in my preparation, only to be disappointed at how my work was received in class. Time and time again, I was praised by my teacher for my understanding of the text and the character, for the intelligence of the choices I made and the ideas I illustrated. But she would conclude her critique by saying that she could tell that I knew what was coming next, that the scene wasn’t alive, that I wasn’t in the moment.
My frustration grew and grew until finally I decided to rebel. Disheartened by my teacher’s continued criticism, I decided that I would show her. I would put the scene up, and I wouldn’t do anything. I would throw out everything that I had worked on in this scene I had rehearsed so completely with my partner. I would make my entrance, sit down on the couch, say my lines, listen to my partner, and do nothing else.
When we presented in class, as the scene began I was angry and nervous, and I can hardly remember what happened. I became confused as the scene progressed, and was sure that I was shaking like a leaf. But then something started to happen. Because I was listening to my partner, I started to respond, to do things I had not planned. I’m not talking about changing the blocking, or messing up the lines, or any type of action or behavior radically out of place in the scene. The feeling I had was more akin to one I remembered from being in a ski race, when I would be going too fast to think about the upcoming gate, but was instead forced to respond by instinct, bypassing my thinking brain, trusting my body and … something else.
When the scene was over, I waited for the onslaught. There were a few moments of silence, and then my teacher asked, as she always did, what I had to say about the scene. I told her it was awful.
“Because it was completely out of control.” (Remember, there was no shouting, no crazy blocking, nothing out of the ordinary for the simple scene we were working on.
She nodded. “And it was the best work you’ve ever done.”
“But it was so uncomfortable,” I said.
At this, Uta’s face broke into a joyful smile. “Oh, my dear boy, who ever told you that you were supposed to be comfortable?” And that was that. My breakthrough. The moment where I finally learned my own balance as an actor, and the training wheels could start to come off.
BUT HOW DO YOU DO IT? HOW DO YOU STAY IN THE MOMENT WHEN YOU KNOW WHAT IS COMING?
I hear the urgency of those questions all the time, because this is not something that can be explained technically. Teachers have to cajole, push, almost trick their students into it, much the same way a parent has to tell a child that he is not going to let go of the bicycle. Then one day, the child looks back, and realizes that she is free. But certainly there are steps you can take to pursue this goal.
One thing you can do is find a class to which you can commit, and a teacher you can trust. The process of learning this takes time, more for some than for others. Find someone whose work you admire, who will be able to tell you when you are on target and when you are missing the mark. Who can take away your training wheels. Who knows your personality, habits and tricks well enough to call you out when you are relying on them. A teacher who can identify for you the moments where you responded truthfully, as opposed to the moments where you were stuck to your plan, where you were weighed down by your own idea of what you were going to play, of how you were going to respond. Over time, just as when you were learning to ride a bicycle, you will start to feel when you have your balance, in your heart and in your body, more than in your intellect.
Next, you have to exercise discipline, and do the hard work of preparation. The pursuit of being in the moment is not an excuse to simply walk into a scene without doing all of the analysis and research that the scene deserves. Being in the moment does not mean you rely only on your own feelings and impulses, unguided by all of the influences of a script. Story, circumstances, style, history, and atmosphere are part and parcel of the text, and must be rigorously explored. But once we have done all of that work, we have to let it go, and let the scene happen. We have to know everything we can possibly know about our character — his time, life, history, desires, goals — right up to the moment when the scene begins, and then walk out on stage or before the camera and let that knowledge be the sea into which we dive as we allow ourselves to experience a particular incarnation of that performance, that take.
Finally, you have to allow yourself to return to an innocent belief in possibility. Do you remember the sense of play, the freedom of imagination, that you had as a child as you played with dolls or action figures, as you made up scenarios with your friends on the block or in the back yard? For most of us, the ability to imaginatively immerse ourselves in that type of play died as we grew up. Fantasy play ceased to feel real. Yet there is one environment where it still lives for most of us, and that is in the watching of films, plays, and television shows. It stays alive even when we have seen the piece before. Think of when you watch Casablanca for the umpteenth time. Don’t you really think as you are watching it that this time, maybe this time, Ilsa will stay with Rick? That hope comes to life subliminally, and you allow yourself to be in the moment as you watch the film. Of course, if someone were to pause the picture and ask you, you would say, “Of course she goes with Laszlo, you idiot. Put the movie back on.” But sitting there in the dark, you allow yourself to believe. The same is true with Romeo and Juliet — maybe tonight the messenger will get there in time — or Rocky — maybe this time he’ll be able to knock out Apollo Creed.
When you allow yourself to have this trust and sense of play, the story will be told. You don’t have to chart each moment and carve it in stone. If you are sitting in a place of openness and receptivity, you are incapable of not responding. If you have done the work to attune yourself to the character and you are holding yourself in that space, your honest responses will necessarily be in character. Willy Loman will always drive off the road, Tom Wingfield will always leave home, Matt Freidman and Sally Tally will always kiss. How much more compelling can the evening be if the possibility of a different ending is kept open until the last moment, if both actor and audience truly believe that this time, something else might happen.