Not long ago, I sat down with the parents of one of my students to discuss the possibility of their daughter—a long time student of mine who is determinedly talented—going to college for theater. We talked for over two hours regarding the different concerns that they had about thrusting their daughter into the theatrical environment. One concern that I didn’t anticipate addressing was the concern of ego.
Egocentric and actor are practically synonymous in today’s culture, largely due to the glorification of crazy actors and actresses, especially Disney girls gone bad. News anchors spend nearly the same amount of time “reporting” on Miley Cyrus’ newest indecency as they spend informing American’s about the atrocities that are being violated against our fellowman across our nation and the world.
Last month, Charlie Sandian of Maggie Flanigan Studio talked about the ego and theater in an excellent article called “A Crisis in American Acting”. He states, “I believe that the American actor is lazy. The thousands and thousands of twenty something’s who flock to LA or New York, pursue not art, but fame and celebrity.”
We’ve experienced a few instances in Players of the Stage’s history where children have backed out of a show, simply because they didn’t have a large enough part, and the parents feared their child’s talent was being wasted. Explanations of how the student would benefit from being involved in a show regardless of the size of a role weren’t always sufficient to keep the students involved. Those times are always sad and frustrating: frustrating because we’ve already spent time with the student and will now need to go back to adjust for his or her absence; sad because of the message it gives to the student – you deserve to be the lead.
One of the reasons I love the Meisner Method is because he trains the actor to pay more attention to your scene partners than yourself. When I first read Larry Silverberg’s Workbook One, it struck me how its similar to the call that Christ places on His followers to consider one another more important than yourself. I believe that acting can help us to develop the virtues of humility and of loving others more than ourselves.
In The Sanford Mesiner Approach Workbook One, Larry Silverberg gives a wonderful solution to this issue by exposing the root and offering a solution. “As opposed to most acting class improvisations where everyone is in their head thinking of the next clever thing to say, in this [Meisner] improvisation you not only must not be thinking, you are continually given what to say by your partner, so there is nothing to think about!”
One of the most noticeable traps that egocentric actors get caught in is the test of improvisation exercises. Before we start an exercise, I review a few simple rules for improvisation with my students. One: No violence. Two: Don’t try to be comical. Three: Don’t all talk at once. Four: Don’t contradict your scene partners. Nearly every group of students, even our experienced ones—and occasionally even myself— succumbs to the trap of “the next clever thing” which is really an attempt at self glorification.
Silverberg also stresses the impact that being focused on our own glory has in performances. “Many actors only act when they are talking. When they are not talking, they are waiting for their next opportunity to do some more great talking.” In short, they are bored when another person has the spotlight, so they pout in indifference until they can be the focus of attention again.
An egocentric actor is a bad actor. An inflated sense of their own importance and talent prevents them from listening and talking with their scene partners, which prevents them from living truthfully on stage. When most people dream about acting, they think about the glory and the fame they might attain. They don’t think about the beauty and power of the interactions that are happening on stage.
Again, this is why I love Meisner. His approach teaches actors that they must get over themselves and focus of the other actors on stage with them. But the approach is also balanced and doesn’t encourage a posture of false humility. Larry Silverberg promises his readers that as they give up control and focus on their partner they will discover who they really are, or as he puts it “the we, we don’t know.”
It’s that dichotomy found in Christianity that we are only truly free when we submit ourselves to God. C.S. Lewis expounded upon it best through his devilish character, Screwtape:
“When He talks of their losing their selves, He means only abandoning the clamour of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.”
When actors are consumed with their glory and their fame, they lose the power they have to create life on stage and communicate truth with an audience. Being a great actor and a great person requires the same virtue – “not looking merely after your own interests, but also the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:4)