We chat quietly.
A Recurring Topic
We chat about our characters and our motivations. We chat about our struggle to memorize lines. We praise the other actors. ("Oh, those kids. They are simply amazing.")
A frequent question: Why? Why do you act?
Why? comes in many forms. "What acting have you done?" "What shows have you been in?" "What do you like about this experience?"
Each question begs a different answer, but they all deal with a central aspect of acting: The Actor's Motivation.
The Actor's Motivation
No, not that motivation. Not the character's motivation, which is the actor's primary concern at hand.
These backstage conversations deal with the actor's motivation. Why are you acting?
I hear Why? from co-actors — and well beyond the theatre: family, friends, business colleagues, mentors, teachers, blog readers. They wonder why I invest so much time and energy in the process.
If I had a therapist, my therapist would be asking, "And how do you feel about acting?"
So that I don't repeat myself (the core mission of this blogsite), here's my answer.
Why I Am Acting
There are several reasons, none of which are my primary reason:
- The catalyst that returned me to theatre. You know this story. It was the single largest lesson I learned at Yale. It's when I rediscovered Our Town, after 25 years, at the college reunion that changed my life. I am making up for lost time.
- The joy and delight of working with such lovely, talented people. We all ogle celebrities of stage and screen. To be sure, the superstars are not accessible. But the same skills and beauty are available more broadly than you might presume. Come see Mockingbird. Look with fresh eyes at the talent on the stage. They are lovely and talented beyond measure. I get to be with them, admiring them, for approximately 100 hours.
- The energy of it all. This is a Flow moment: heightened engagement in life, the optimal experience. We each need to find what brings us into Flow and do it. You are seeing me at my most alive.
- The memorization. The worst part of this process is fast becoming the best part. Memorization can be drudgery, but the effects on my mind have been tangible. It's making me smarter, more focused, more able to pay attention to others. Memorization is strengthening my memory.
Here's The Primary Reason
I am acting because life can be so serious.
Everywhere I turn, every moment of the day, it feels like all the chips are on the table. It's as if, none of us can afford to fail:
- I cannot fail with our family's money. In this economy, a stupid — even unlucky move — would punish us, limiting our future, creating real hardship.
- I cannot fail with our children. In this world, even though the social scientists say that parents are (beyond genetics) insignificant in forming children, any failure of our children feels like a personal failure.
- I cannot fail behind the wheel. One stupid moment of inattention can be fatal. As Malcolm Gladwell writes in "Wrong Turn" in The New Yorker:
Every two miles, the average driver makes four hundred observations, forty decisions, and one mistake. Once every five hundred miles, one of those mistakes leads to a near collision, and once every sixty-one thousand miles one of those mistakes leads to a crash.
It goes on and on. Our lives seem to be a series of ultimatums (ultimati?): mess this up, lose your job; mess that up, lose your wife; mess that up, lose your health.
That's life? That's hell!
I can't always play not to lose.
I need a place where I can fail: publicly, unabashedly.
Acting is where I can fail.
This turns out to be why I act: because I can freely fail at it.
When Arnett Howard stepped out of The Odd Couple last year, he taught us all a great deal about stepping up. He accepted a risk — acting — that was beyond his comfort zone. He took a risk that no one should take off stage — not behind the wheel, not with our children. He risked failing.
He played to win. He did not play not to lose.
That motivates me. That is my primary answer to: Why?
I am playing to win. I willingly, eagerly embrace my potential failure.
You want to see someone who won't fail as Atticus?
You want a guarantee?
Watch Gregory Peck. There's no risk. He can't fail; it's recorded.
And, while we're at it: his Atticus can't really lose everything, because, well, he's The Handsome, Perfect Gregory Peck. (I'm no Gregory Peck.)
Am I being cavalier?
Don't I have a responsibility to the other actors and the audience?
I mean, the actors are relying on each other (and me) to get it right. And the audience paid good money. (We are closing in on a sell-out for opening night, thank you.)
Yes. I owe it to them, to you, and to myself to do my very best. And I have prepared earnestly to do just that.
But let us remind ourselves.
Everything in life is not life 'n' death.
As the old man said:
If I'd known it wasn't going to kill me, I wouldn't have been so freaked out all the time.
Let us place Mockingbird in proper context: this is a play. A play. Play!
So, can we not play with light hearts — even when the dramatic subject matter is injustice?
Isn't this why most golfers come to hate their game: because it ceases to be play?
Come see me fail.
(Advance tickets here. Any unsold tickets will be offered at the door for pay what you want.)
My goal: to fail so subtly that you don't notice. That you — and I — remain in the moment.
But, holy cow: if I fail brilliantly, what is truly lost? Will my acting career be over? Maybe!