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The experience of being in the moment is real. Many times it’s what provides the true joy in acting. Every actor who has been in the moment while performing knows this, as only then does the work become effortless, spontaneous, and utterly creative. Unfortunately, this experience is mostly accidental. Once you’ve been told how important it is to be in the moment, it immediately becomes harder to achieve, because it cannot be achieved by trying. Welcome to the actor’s Catch-22.
Many things stop us from being fully spontaneous. More than anything, anticipation keeps us from playing moment to moment; self-doubt and our inner critical voice also play a role.
When I began teaching and actors improvised in my workshops, I often found their work to be free and impulsive. When I gave the same actors a script, this sense of limitlessness disappeared. They worked too hard, struggled under self-created emotional obligations, drilled their lines by rote, and clung to “objectives” like life rafts. They made choices, created beats, worked out how to say this or that line, and varied their inflections — all in the attempt to create a foundation for consistent work. But I came to believe this process meant their work was in the moment far less than it should be, and often they themselves articulated a sense that it wasn’t working. I concluded that the way these actors were absorbing the text profoundly affected their ability to perform consistently in the moment.
Instead of memorizing by rote, I asked them, after they’d read the script a few times, to begin working on their characters by breaking down their lines — I prefer the phrase “expressed thoughts” — into the smallest moments that made sense. Usually this means simply going sentence by sentence. Then I asked them to look at what causes each moment to happen.
I believe that the use of objectives has almost unconsciously become a way to act, rather than simply being an aspect of a character’s behavior. It’s why actors believe they have failed when using objectives doesn’t work for them. It is true that by focusing on objectives, actors can successfully shift from self-consciousness about saying the words to an intention. Unfortunately, it can also limit spontaneous interaction and investing in the moment. Acting is about making discoveries that thrill and excite the imagination — and imaginative discoveries are always more profound than conscious decisions. Life is much richer than a series of objectives, much more chaotic and impulsive, and much less linear. There is a way to avoid self-consciousness about the lines that matches the impulsiveness of life: by focusing on really listening and discovering what causes you to respond moment to moment. I call these responses triggers.
Let me lay out the most basic elements of the trigger approach. The core idea is that we respond because of something someone has said or done in the immediate preceding moment. In the second type of trigger, we respond because of something we have said or done in the immediate preceding moment. In the third and fourth types, we respond because of something either another person or we have said or done earlier than the immediate preceding moment.
As you go through a scene looking for the triggers that cause your character’s response, don’t agonize over getting it right. Simply look at the content of what is being said or done, and don’t shy away from the obvious answer. If you’re unsure what is causing your character’s response, leave a question mark. Ultimately, though, you will find you are looking at the text more specifically than you have before.
While these four triggers will account for most of your interaction in a scene, there will also be times when something you or the other person says or does won’t immediately link with the response that follows. In that case, there is what I call a silent bridge: an internal thought linking two seemingly somewhat unrelated expressed thoughts or physical actions. Don’t confuse this with subtext: A silent bridge is an internal thought that exists only because of something just said or done, not subtext underlying the whole interaction.
Like objectives and beats, an overemphasis on subtext often interferes with spontaneous interaction — and many actors come to my workshops thinking subtext is more important than text. This is seductive because the actor owns the subtext; subtext is his or her creation. But text is far more important. Remember, subtext can only be what a character is aware of but not expressing. How do we know when subtext is affecting a character’s behavior? Usually when it is revealed by the text in a later scene. Just as with objectives, let subtext reveal itself to you when justified by the text; don’t load yourself up with subtext just to create an apparent (to you) rich inner life. When you begin working on a character, assume the revolutionary stance that the character literally means what he or she says and does.
Once you have explored what triggers everything your character says and does, you need to absorb the text in a way other than by rote memorization. Having learned by rote, actors feel as if they have the whole scene predigested inside themselves and then must try to pretend they don’t, which makes being in the moment harder. When working through the trigger approach, record the other character’s lines on a tape recorder or iPod. Leave a five-second gap between the other character’s lines and yours. Then press pause whenever you hit a gap.
What you do next is crucial and you mustn’t skip over it. Instead of immediately looking at the text for your response, think first about how, given your understanding of the character so far, you would respond. Don’t try to get it right; follow your impulse. Then, after you have formed a specific response in your mind, look at the text. See the difference (if any) between your response and the character’s actual response. After you’ve explored any similarities or differences, raise your eyes from the page and speak the expressed thought out loud. Go through the whole scene this way. If you have a monologue in the scene, put each expressed thought on a separate index card and work through it the same way you would with the tape.
As you go through the text a few times, you’ll find yourself moving ever closer to what the character really says. To become word perfect, you may get down to examining the difference between your choice and the author’s choice of a single word. If a given moment continues to be elusive, perhaps the trigger is wrong or not strong enough. Don’t fear the state of not knowing what’s next: Actors are mistakenly taught to know the text backward and forward as protection against going up. But often you develop your deepest insight into a character from the moments you have the hardest time absorbing. If you had learned it by rote, you would have been able to say that line whether you understood it or not. Working this way, however, you will not pass by the deep truth buried in the moments that are hardest to absorb.
Finally, find another actor to play the scene with after you feel you have internalized every moment. Hopefully, you’ll experience several things. First, there will be more available space in your head to receive what the other actor gives you, because it won’t be cluttered with unnecessary subtext or trying to keep your objective constantly in mind. Second, the way you absorbed the text will make you feel you don’t know what to say or do next until you hear the trigger. This will probably feel scary at first, but it forces you to actually listen and respond moment to moment rather than act as if you’re listening and responding. And then, perhaps, you will break out of that Catch-22 and find yourself effortlessly in the moment.
This article was written by founder and instructor Richard Seyd and published in Backstage West (August 6, 2007).