My father thought for a moment. “So they are teaching you to behave on stage in a way that no one ever behaves in real life?”
“What do you mean?” asked the young woman, nonplussed.
“Nobody ever listens to a word anyone else ever says,” said my father, “and no one ever responds with complete honesty.”
The Inner Monologue
My father’s point is well taken. The point of the repetition exercise seems to me to be the stripping away of the layers of self-consciousness and social conditioning that get in the way of the actor’s awareness of his immediate and honest impulses. And of course self-awareness and the ability to feel honest responses to circumstances and stimuli are crucial skills for the actor, a step towards a truthful performance and the creation of a three-dimensional character. But they are only a step. The problem is: What do we do with that awareness and those responses? Do we act on them, spontaneously, all the time and in every scene? I don’t think so. In life, even if we are aware of our immediate response and impulse (which I believe is seldom the case), we don’t always (I might argue almost never) act upon it. Of course there are moments when what you hear or see is so triggering that you do respond immediately, in the moment, without a filter. That will be true as well for the characters you portray. But those moments are for the most part few and far between in drama, as they are in life. Yet I have watched far too many performances by actors relying to a fault on their access to that immediate impulse. They are often lauded for being inventive and spontaneous, but in general these performances are of no interest to me. They may be flamboyant and fascinating displays of a particular skill, but they don’t often resemble most human behavior or create a nuanced, complicated, layered character.
Two questions arise: First, why do we develop the skill of bringing those impulses to the fore if we’re not going to act upon them? Then, what do we do instead?
In answer to the first question, we need to know what is going on inside of our characters so that we know what is driving them. The receiving of the stimulus from the other character is what drives our own reaction. A character is rude to me or loving to me. I need to be able to feel my honest response to those behaviors. But whether I act openly and honestly in the moment depends upon a number of other factors. In response to the rude behavior my honest impulse might be to yell or to strike. But what if I am a respected member of the community and we are in a public place? Alternatively, my reaction to the loving gesture might be to hug or to kiss. But my character may have been a victim of abuse, or might recently have been rejected by another. My impulses need to be tempered. I need to feel them, and then I likely need to mask them. My reaction, the characters reaction, must be filtered through the personality of the character and the circumstances in which he finds himself. This is a topic I covered in more depth in the article Coffee Grounds, Kaleidoscopes, and Character.
Take some time to examine your own behavior. The next time you’re in a conversation, notice how many things you’re thinking that you are not saying. Observe that while you’re speaking, you’re thinking at the very least one other thing that you’re keeping to yourself. When you’re listening, thoughts and images are being triggered by what you’re hearing, and you are for the most part actively deciding to which of those triggers you will respond. Some things you hear might make you want to keep your mouth shut. Then something you hear makes you decide to speak. This is why it is so important to know your lines absolutely cold. (For an interesting discussion of this necessity and the depths to which you must go, take a look at this clip of Peter O’Toole in an interview with Charlie Rose.) If you don’t, the only thought in your head is “What’s my next line?” But what your head should be filled with is all of the thoughts that your character might be thinking as he filters through the decision process of what to say next. These thoughts are the internal monologue, and finding it is the beginning of being truly in the moment.
Turning Out and Turning In
There is an interesting exercise through which we can begin to examine the interplay between the honest response that might be expressed, and the inner response that, although felt, might be masked. I call it The Turning Exercise. It is quite simple. Once you and your scene partner are thoroughly off-book, try running through the scene once without the blocking. Instead, stand facing each other at a comfortable distance. Take a few moments to simply look at each other. Make contact and become present, but don’t start saying your lines yet. First, examine your own inner emotional stance at the beginning of the scene. Is your character open to receiving from the other character, or trying to get something from them, or ready to giving them what they want? If so, face your partner. If not, if your character’s emotional stance at the beginning of the scene is more inner-directed, caught up in their own struggle, or hiding from the other character in some way, then turn around and face away from your partner. The scene might start with you both facing each other, with one of you facing away, or with each of you with your back to the other.
The only two positions allowed to you in the exercise are facing directly towards your partner or directly away, and once you have determined your starting position through your examination of your character’s internal stance, the scene begins. As it progresses you and your partner choose to turn towards each other or away from each other, based only upon your assessment of your internal stance: Are you at that moment, either saying your line or listening to your partner, open and receiving, engaged with them? Face them. Are you instead caught up in your own internal struggle, hiding, searching for words, or engaged in an internal struggle. Turn away. None of your choices should be tied to any blocking that you may have had for the scene up until this point in your explorations. The exercise is meant only as a technique to help you ascertain your internal emotional stance vis à vis your partner. Once the exercise is completed, you return to the scene as originally blocked, although the exercise itself may lead to the discovery of some needed adjustments. It will also guide you as you explore areas for a more thoroughly imagined internal monologue, which in turn will bring to a deeper, more richly layered performance.