Why acting is the hardest thing I do

Hello, Internet! It’s Thursday, June 5th, and a rainy ol’ day in Grand Bank, Newfoundland.

It’s been a crazy year (and 5 days) since I came home from New Zealand (as, perhaps, witnessed by my relative absence from this blog). I acted and directed for 3 months here in Grand Bank for the 2013 season, ran a dance organization for 9 months, performed in my first musical, got paid as a musician for the first time, and the balls are rolling for a production in October (more on that later). I am the wearer of many hats: writer, producer, director, musician, storyteller, administrator, box office attendant, etc etc. But the hardest thing I do – by a wide margin – is acting. And here’s why:

Acting is not, at its core, an intellectual activity. Like everything artistic, there are components of both intellect and emotion to it, but by the time an audience sees it, the intellect should just be invisible background work. For a left-brained person like me, that’s a tough go.

Let me put it this way: you’re going on a first date with someone you’ve had a crush on for years. You want to put your best foot forward. This person makes you nervous, and you know that being nervous makes you more likely to stutter, or trip, or drop something, and that makes you even more nervous. You ask your best friend for help, and they pick out that shirt in the back of your closet that you haven’t worn since 2008. By the time you’ve got it buttoned up, your palms are sweating. You ask your friend what to do, and they give you this age-old and utterly useless advice:

“Be yourself.”

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? you scream inside your head. How could I be anyone else? and how do I MAKE THEM LIKE ME??

Acting is like that, only one step further. You are wearing clothes that are not yours. Sometimes the shoes are a size too big, or the sweater is itchy. You are saying things that somebody else told you to say. You are doing these things in front of a lot of folks (a combination of strangers and people you love, so you can’t escape whichever one scares you more), and your job – the WHOLE POINT of your job – is to be someone… who isn’t even you!

The answer to “what does that mean” can incorporate things like a new way to walk, or a new pattern of speech, but it ultimately involves making yourself vulnerable to the character’s feelings, thoughts and experiences. You – not the character, but you yourself – have to open up pieces of yourself and dig around in them, in full awareness that you’ll be doing this in front of a room full of people in the not-too-distant future. Good acting requires a tremendous amount of personal bravery, and sometimes even the complete abandonment of privacy.

This is not to say that intellect isn’t involved in the process. Actors spend hours with a script, digging into text and subtext for clues to their characters, doing the detective work that’s going to give these fictional people real dimension. But then (and this is the truly difficult part) they leave all that work behind, and spend their time on stage simply being, and trusting that the foundations they laid with their intellect will hold them up while they experience and feel and think everything as though for the first time.

In the rest of my life, nothing else holds this strange and terrifying balance of emotional honesty and bravery. Administration and producing are, of course, mostly intellectual activities. Directing has its roots in emotion, but the work is intellectual, and the director gets to step away right before the brave part – putting it in front of an audience – happens (although this particular director has been known to hide from audiences before opening performances anyway). Writing is an emotional activity, and editing, an intellectual one – but both are done in private. Writers who don’t want to see people react to their work don’t have to watch.

So, of course, it follows that acting is one of my very favourite things to do. The challenge of leaving your work behind and seeing the results, the symbiotic relationship between a performer and an enthusiastic, engaged audience, the exchange of energy between the stage and the house… they are addictive, rewarding, exhilarating and exhausting. The fact that it is difficult only makes it more exciting when it works.

All this to say – I’m delighted to be acting again. The scary, difficult things are always the most worth doing.