Acting and the Paradox of Perfection

This article was originally published on April 5, 2019 in The Creativity Post. https://www.creativitypost.com/arts/acting-and-the-paradox-of-perfectionhttps-www.creativitypost.com-index.php-cms-actions-entries-shareentry-entryid-22019-locale-en_us

Lights up to reveal a typical dormitory room set. Julian bangs on the door from backstage. His scene partner crosses from the bed to open it, finding him in a pose that on the other actors had been funny, engaging, and charming. But Julian is all tension and indicated choices. As he forcefully stumbles onto the stage, Julian makes a show of slurring his words, because all drunks flop around and slur, right? He’s going out of his way to show me he has done his homework. He is literally clenching his fists and trying to force an angry emotion. He might as well be performing in a vacuum. Despite periodically looking toward his scene partner, he hasn’t listened or reacted truthfully to anything she’s given him—at all. He’s delivering meticulously rehearsed, canned line readings, with exacting emphasis and absolutely no thought process or connection to the moment. And I die a little inside.

Julian is not the stereotypical self-consumed actor. Julian is not a ham. Julian is humble, dedicated, and earnest. He is always fully present and listens with his head, as well as his heart—when he’s in the classroom. He goes out of his way to be kind and helpful. He is as quick to offer a supportive comment to another student as he is to help move a heavy set piece or troubleshoot a sound problem. But right now, onstage, Julian is a terrible actor, and my heart breaks for him.

As compassionately as I can, I give him truthful feedback, and he is crestfallen. He worked so hard to prepare, he wants it so much, he can’t understand why he’s not getting it right, and therein lies the problem. There is no right in acting. Acting can be specific, informed, emotionally connected, transcendent, moving, evocative, and a host of other descriptive adjectives. But it’s not something you get right. Great acting is this beautiful alchemical marriage of the technical and the organic. In order to give ourselves over to the story, to willingly suspend our disbelief as an audience, we need to forget that we’re watching an actor. We want to feel confident enough in their ability to do their job that we can forget it’s a job. We want to be swept away in the story. Really great acting is just a little bit dangerous because we can’t see what’s coming next. The last thing we want to see in a performance – is an actor showing his work.

But just like Meg, Sarah, Kurt, Noah, Lauren, Alisha, Cooper, and so many others I’ve worked with before him, Julian is a perfectionist. He approaches acting with the same exacting mindset he’s used to excel in every other area of his life. The problem is that perfectionism doesn’t work here, and Julian doesn’t trust that he’s enough.

He comes to my office after class, seeking guidance, or maybe a magic pill. His frustration is rolling off him in waves and he is clearly on the brink of an emotional breakdown.

“I just don’t understand… I—I see everybody else up there… and they’re having these great moments,” he struggles to articulate his thoughts politely. “… And I—I, well I just don’t understand…”

I finish for him, “…Why they’re having breakthroughs when you’ve worked so much harder than they have?”

His face is transformed with relief as he squeaks out “How did you know?”

I know because it’s like looking through a time portal at myself at his age. I know that comparison is the thief of joy. And I know the madness of trying to force myself into a perfect performance and it is a feeling I remember in vexing, visceral detail. It is a self-defeating, murderous approach that will only smother an otherwise beautiful moment on stage.

Art is a slippery, mercurial thing. It is sensitive and can be fragile in its creation. It must, in many ways, be formed delicately. An artist cannot afford to handle their performance like Steinbeck’s Lennie with his beloved rabbits. Lennie had good intentions, but gripped his precious rabbit too tightly, ultimately crushing the tender object of his affection. And just like Lennie with his rabbits, Julian has his fingernails so deeply embedded in his acting choices that he squeezes the life out of every potential moment of truth in his scene. This is a dangerous practice that never results in a beautiful rendering of life. It has dire consequences in performance. And we would do well to prevent our characterizations from meeting a similar fate as the well-meaning, but destructive Lennie.

Mastering technique and artistry can be a lifelong journey that demands a light touch. It takes years of deliberate practice—which is to say, a systematic, purposeful approach to building a skill that demands focused attention, as opposed to mindless repetition. We must train ourselves to work moment-to-moment, finding specificity, connection, and technical precision in execution. Simple repetition only serves to engrain mediocrity when it comes to the performing arts. This part—the technique and the way to rehearse to achieve it—can be taught.

What’s quite a bit more unruly is the organic aspect of performance. Yes, it requires a certain degree of raw talent, but many a talented actor has been stymied by the relentless pursuit of perfection. Creating a wonderful performance demands an element of surrender, which requires trust, and trust can be terrifying to a perfectionist. Because what happens if I trust myself and find that I am not enough? Then perhaps I may discover that I am human. Curses!

Now we’re getting somewhere.

If I had to define the purpose of art, I suppose I would say that it is a mirror we hold up to ourselves to reflect our humanity—the good, the bad, the beautiful, the profane, and everything in between. It is our foibles as well as our greatness that illuminate the human condition. And unfortunately, our tendencies towards perfectionism can surgically remove the inherent messiness that makes us three-dimensional beings. Flattening out this complexity means we’re creating something less than human, and that is ultimately unsatisfying. Real life is not airbrushed, and the mirror cannot accurately reflect our stories if we insist on gazing at it through a Snapchat filter.

How does one teach surrender? This is my challenge with Julian. It has long been, and continues to be a challenge for me too. Like so many worthwhile pursuits in life, surrender, it turns out, is a process–a process which requires trust and vulnerability.

My acting mentor, Lesly Kahn, used a wonderful metaphor for this process that I now share with my students (and with anyone else who will listen, because it applies to so many aspects of life). Imagine two very different realms: the Land of Mediocrity and the Land of Brilliance. Most of us tend to reside in the Land of Mediocrity where it is comfortable and safe. It’s not very exciting. The food is bland and the amenities are lackluster, but we need not worry about falling on our faces and humiliating ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong, most of us would love to live in the Land of Brilliance. We’ve been planning and saving and daydreaming about it for years, but we don’t know how to get there. We can’t take a bus or a plane, or drive there. We certainly can’t teleport there. Part of the problem is that there is a fearsome abyss between these two lands. The path to the Land of Brilliance is treacherous and riddled with obstacles. It is scary and stinky. It reeks with potential failure at every turn. It seems next to impossible to traverse this petrifying no man’s land, but the only way to get past it, is to go through it. It demands we embark on our own Joseph Campbell-esque, hero’s journey. To reach the Land of Brilliance, we must crawl on our bellies and elbows through the Field of Suckage. It won’t be easy. We will fall on our faces in the muck. We will blindly bump into walls and, like a dollar store wind-up toy, we will back up and continue to bump into the same walls. However, if we are truly courageous travelers, we will navigate the Field of Suckage many times, all the while notating its pitfalls on an ever-evolving map. But this map doesn’t exist until we create it. We are the cartographers of our own experience and we must plot and refine the map throughout our travails. There is but one way to undertake this perilous journey, and it begins with a barbaric yawp and the battle cry, “DARE TO SUCK!”

Easy peasy, right?

Listen, at the end of the day, we don’t need Julian to get it right. We need him to get it real. Obviously, this can be a tall order. There’s no easy or obvious formula to be mastered, and asking a perfectionist to embrace the mystery of this process requires them to practice two terribly uncomfortable endeavors. For one, the perfectionist must learn to share the weight of their performance with their partner, in a process of give and take. Secondly,  it also asks them to relinquish a tightly-held grip on self-regulation; which has likely taken years of dedication and perseverance to develop.

You, dear reader, may be thinking, “But Julian already sucked.” And you’re right. He was, indeed, terrible. He strong-armed his way through a stilted performance. Nevertheless, there are explicit differences between the approach he took and the one I’m advocating, which primarily has to do with the self-regulation piece. I’m not suggesting he toss the baby out with the bathwater, though.  Daring to suck requires us to do the work of preparation. That part is absolutely necessary. However, once we’ve done our actor’s homework and it’s time for performance, we have to release our grip, throw the work away, step into faith, and live in the scene. We trust that the preparation we’ve done will inform our truthful reactions in the moment. Then, as the genius Ms. Kahn decreed, we “listen, have a thought about whatever was just said or done, and respond”—over and over, trusting that the prep work will inform our choices, sharing the dance with our partner(s) until the scene is complete. Sort of like life.

I believe Julian is up to the challenge. The good news is he doesn’t have to do it alone. He will have guides and fellow travelers. That is, if he decides to be vulnerable enough to accept our assistance. I think he will; his heart is in it. He can battle with his head along the way. He doesn’t have to have it all figured out just yet. He simply has to embrace the mystery, step into the abyss, and dare to suck.

*All names have been changed.

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