When I was a high school student, I sang on the worship band for a college ministry at Lehigh University. Being younger than everyone else in the group, combined with crippling self-consciousness, made it very difficult for me to find my voice, both literally and figuratively. The worship leader encouraged me by showing me two words he wrote on the palm of his hand each week before leading: only human.
Only human. That’s true of us as performers and of those who come and watch us perform. It can be very hard to remember that we’re all only human when you are onstage and before you is a sea of darkened faces which strike you with terror and fear that they will judge you, and judge your performance lacking.
Last month’s blog post “The actor and the ego” talked about the dangers of pride. This post will deal with the alter-ego: self-consciousness. Being self-focused, whether it is with your own glory or your own deficiency, is a sure way to suck the life out of your performance. Actors who are self-conscious have trouble portraying characters who have any chance of embarrassing themselves— which puts them in quite a quandary, as the majority of theatrical characters are written in the extreme. Actors must realize that every character has the potential to expose and embarrass, and the actor must be comfortable with that. There are no safe characters.
Freeing actors to embrace who they truly are— and not worry about making mistakes or agonize over the fact they aren’t as talented as that other person— is something that Meisner emphasizes a great deal. The power of a freed actor is beautiful; once he can forget about the need to protect himself, he is able to give to their partners and audience members. Isn’t that similar to real life? It is the men and women who are confident but not cocky, who aren’t obsessed with themselves but aren’t self-deprecating, who are the most mesmerizing people to be around, whose freedom is contagious. Being with them creates a desire to drop the mask of conformity.
This is perhaps the most difficult skill for some actors to master; it certainly has been one of the most difficult for me. What if I look foolish? What if people don’t like my performance? What if this costume makes me look ugly? What if I make a mistake? These are the unspoken questions written across my students’ faces as they cling to the back wall of the stage and whisper out the lines, terrified that anyone might actually see and hear them, convinced that the audience has the power to assign value and worth to them as individuals.
There are different ways to boost ones’ confidence, but my preferred method is to change the foundation. When I find myself struggling to justify myself through my own efforts, or others opinion of my talent, I stress myself out. I forget that the people who watch me on stage and the people I interact with off stage are only human: precious, valuable, dignified humans, but only human. I forget that they don't have the power to define who I am. In those times, I have to force myself to drop the comparison game and to remember I have already been declared enough because of what Christ has done. When I place my identity in Him and not in my performance or reviews it frees me to be relaxed and comfortable while I act: the perfect ingredients for a meaningful performance.
It’s tricky for actors to walk the tightrope of contented humility on and off stage, but it’s worth fighting for because losing self-consciousness is the best way to free them to focus on their partners. I hope that as my students learn how to balance on that tightrope of the stage, they will learn to apply that to their lives off the stage as well, always living with Christ as their foundation for identity, value, and confidence.
A quote from the diabolical Screwtape untangles this issue of avoiding pride and low self-esteem beautifully:
“You must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character… By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools… The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the, fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long-term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbours as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbours. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.”