Mendenhall: On the Actor’s Fear (on a Day of Triumph)

(a second posting from Theater J Associate Artist in Residence, Jennifer Mendenhall, currently appearing as The Secretary in Imagining Madoff)

“Fear Factor”

Arturo Tolentino is a young actor here in Washington. He is currently appearing in “The Country Girl” (The American Century Theatre), opening this weekend at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre 2.  Arturo sent me a message via facebook after seeing Imagining Madoff during preview week. I responded impulsively and probably overshared, but when I reread our exchange I deemed it worthy of further examination, touching as it does on stage fright and technique.

I saw you in Madoff last night. I’m really glad I went. As a young actor (career-wise) I always observe a show from a very technical aspect. Somewhat like my own personal study of the veterans of the “game.” I was intrigued by your ability to remain frozen for such a period of time and jump into character and move the story along unexpectedly… Bravo… and thank you.

.. and by the by, it was great show!

Thank you. It is truly terrifying. My heart races, my mind refuses to be corralled into paying attention, and wanders, then my stomach drops as I question whether I know which is the next speech. And, to avoid horrible aches and pains, I keep moving verrrry slightly all the time – neck rolls, spine waves, shoulder hunches… I’m glad it doesn’t draw attention. Keep this between us!

I do hope, however, that you can sometimes bring your heart into the house and not just analyse the technique. The technique is just the tool used to open the heart and mind.

wow… thank you!

* * *

I am a self-admitted theatre geek. I have always been fascinated by the mechanics of acting. An actor’s instrument is his or her body and mind. You fret the strings of your soul, daub the colors of your own imagination onto the canvas of the character, enlist the muscles of your arm or thigh to express the ideas of the playwright.

In college, I didn’t take an acting class until my third year. I thought it was incumbent on me to get an academic degree, and that kept me away from the drama department at the University of Virginia until my room mates kindly informed me that it was obvious I belonged over there.

That first class was like a drink of water in a desert. Finally I had found something that was compelling, seductive, bottomless. You tell a story to an audience using your mind and your body. How elegantly simple! How endlessly complicated and challenging! How…frightening! When it all goes right, you feel like you are flying. But one seagull in the propeller, and you come crashing down in the agonizing flames of a very public humiliation.

There is a perhaps apocryphal story about researchers wiring a jet fighter pilot and an actor on opening night to measure fear and stress levels. Guess who had the higher rating? For some people, the idea of speaking in public is more frightening than the idea of dying.

Fear is counter-productive to the creative process. Fear tightens the muscles and freezes the mind. It shuts down receptivity as the reptile portion of your brain searches desperately for a stick to beat up the monster attacking you, or a door to run through. Neither of these is an option on stage, in the instant of panic.
So how do we manage fear? Well, sex helps. Good acting has a lot in common with good love making: focus, imagination, intimacy, physical exertion, courage, vulnerability and a great sense of humor. And above all else, a desire to connect with someone else, to reach out to another mind, perhaps even to give a nod to the vastness of the human experience. And not to mind the mess.

Like a Navaho walking along a girder high above the city, an actor needs to be engaged in an activity that so completely absorbs his or her attention that looking down never happens.

Which is great, as long as you are walking.

Here we come back to Arturo’s comment and my response, and to the reason why this particular role has been a genuinely terrifying experience.

I don’t get to walk. I don’t even get to move, for long stretches of time, in between the monologues. There’s one scene between Mike Nussbaum, playing Sol Galkin, and Rick Foucheux, playing Bernie Madoff, that feels like an hour. It might be twenty minutes. I sit perfectly still, and wait for my cue to speak.  It’s like an obscene manifestation of the actor joke: “my line, my line, my line, blah blah blah, my line”.

Deb Margolin, our playwright, says of the secretary: “she’s in the hot seat”. Dan Covey, our lighting designer, took her literally and never turns the lights off. So my hands and arms are always lit. My blocking, the physical movements I repeat during each show, are whatever my hands are doing on the desk.

If I lose my place and forget my next line, or start the wrong speech, there is nothing my cast mates can do to save me. They can’t interject an impromptu line that reminds me what I am supposed to say next. They can’t even signal to me, because my back is to them and I never see them. Karen Currie, our stage manager, could take the lights off me and move on to the next cue, but that’s about it.

This. Is. Scary.

The challenge of persuading my recalcitrant, ornery mind to please pay attention and simply listen, simply stay in the moment, and trust that when the next cue arrives, I will respond correctly, has been daunting. I’ll take a sword fight and a three page speech any day, over… immobility.

Happily, things are settling down. I am more confident that I won’t make a mistake. Repetition is a godsend. The experience of listening to the conversations onstage behind me is sinking into my bones and becoming a familiar path I tread every night. The position my hands assume unthinkingly, at the end of a speech, which is held until the next, gives me a shape on the desk to contemplate while I listen to the ideas and thoughts the playwright has created. The tiny movements of my spine and feet help to relieve the tension. Finding a way to occupy my mind in service to the play by discovering tiny physical activities that root me in the story has helped to banish fear. The ebbing of fear frees me up to create. I can embrace the audience more fully. And because I have greater control, I can be more responsive.

As I wrote to Arturo, technique is a tool for opening hearts and minds. I can certainly admire a well-crafted hammer and the skill with which it is wielded, but I am more interested in walking around in the house it helped to build.
We do what we do onstage to serve the play, to invite the people we are addressing to lose themselves in our story. When it works, we all fly. It is the most exhilarating feeling.

Just watch out for that seagull.


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