March Actor Theme: Adjusting
One of the refrains I use most in my teaching is “Notice and Adjust.” It is at the core of what we do in rehearsal and the reason why we must repeat things again and again when we work. We are looking for an even better fit, an even clearer path, an even deeper filling of a moment. When I work with beginning actors, adjusting is one of the most difficult things to do. They become attached to the first impulse and reluctant to modify it. They think that they will lose something if they make an adjustment or they imagine that it is so fragile that it will not stand up to playing with it to understand it better. They think there is something flawed in them as artists if they can’t come up with the perfect balance immediately. We’ve all been there. But once we’ve experienced the deepening of what adjustment can do for the process, we open up and begin to crave this way of playing. Looking back on our week of “noticing” will be helpful for this. In a sense, our attention to adjustment could have followed noticing immediately, but it is important to really have a practice of noticing already in the body before we jump to the next level of making adjustments. Adjustments can come from my own intuition, from a director’s note, or from something that happens by chance in the process. We need to remain open and available to whatever comes up and ready to embrace it, even if this means we must look past the immediate sting we feel when we admit that it can indeed be done better. The best adjustments are based on clear observations in our noticing of what is really going on. Unless we have an appreciation of the multiple facets of any given moment, we won’t have a clear perspective on how the best adjustments can happen. Unless I notice the facets of myself or my character, I can’t be free in my adjustments. What are my default settings that I keep settling into when I’m faced with change? Fighting or surrendering? Pushing or collapsing? Denying or commenting? Criticizing or overthinking? Dismissing or punishing? Notice what you do naturally and with each repetition try a different option, maybe even the opposite of what you would normally do. See the new possibility as a fun option. You can always go on to something else or back to what you already had before. Notice fully, adjust accordingly.
Life story: Some of the greatest advancements in science and in thinking have come from simple adjustments based on new information we receive by noticing what seems out of place. Once Copernicus allowed himself to imagine the solar system where the earth was not the center of everything as Ptolemy had thought (fourteen hundred years earlier), then suddenly the data about the movement of planets made sense. The word Eureka that we use to celebrate the moment of discovery is the Greek word for “I have fount it” It’s attributed to Archimedes who understood the concept of volume once he got into the tub and noticed the water level rising. We can never find something unless we notice what is happening. We can never allow the new experience to make adjustments for us unless we are first open to change in the first place. It also helps to remember the fun of “eureka” when we are in the grind of experiments.
I’m a big fan of Cherry Jones, not only because of her fine work but because of her openness in process. She spoke to our class in graduate school, and a while later I ran into her on the street when she was preparing for her role in “Doubt.” Of course she was working as she was walking. Nonetheless, she stopped and we had a brief conversation about work, people we had worked with, etc. I was so impressed that she took time, adjusted what she was doing to take in this new moment of our conversation. I heard a friends speak about the way her attention is totally with whomever she is speaking to at the moment. As actors we are too aware of the fact that everyone seems to have an opinion about our work. Often we spend lots of energy disregarding these opinions to protect our own, but Cherry listens. When asked why she does this so openly she quite naturally exclaimed. “Oh its all information!” What a great way to look at an adjustment. Seeing what comes to us as being “information” takes away the sting of trying something new. It’s no longer personal, it’s just new. We can take it, or leave it, but if we don’t even open ourselves to it, we deprive ourselves of new colors and textures as we continue to work on our craft.
Thomas Kuhn’s book The Nature of Scientific Revolutions examines the idea of a paradigm shift in thinking and how often our attentiveness to data that do not seem to fit our ideas will break open our thinking about the nature of what it is that we are considering. If this seems too academic for you, take a look at Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. It’s a delightful parable about how we can deal with change productively.
1. Pick three small commonplace but interesting objects and place them on your desk or windowsill in any arrangement. Does the arrangement suggest an impression to you? A title? Make one adjustment to the arrangement each day and notice how it changes the character of the arrangement.
2. Notice yourself as you compose a message or an email. What are the things that make you go back and make changes? What do you notice about yourself in that process?
3. See if you can remember the best note or adjustment that you got from an acting teacher or director. What was it about that note that made it so productive for you? Write about it. Then think of the most difficult or annoying note you ever got, and see if you can adjust your understanding of what the information was in the note now that you have a little distance from it.
4. Write random adjectives on slips of paper and put them in a hat or bowl or bag. (words like red, effervescent, gravelly, legato) Pick one and just keep it in mind the next time you go through a scene or monologue. What does that small adjustment do? What is it like when you try three or four, and then drop them all and go back to the scene without special attention to the adjustment? Has anything changed?
5. Do you like everything put away in its proper place? Find a new place for something to live in your apartment and notice what that does to you .
6. Move something slightly in your apartment or workplace and see if others notice, and if they do notice see how they react or what they do.
7. Add, subtract, or substitute one ingredient in a recipe or dish that you cook often.
Other suggestions: look at some images that are considered optical illusions and notice what happens when your eyes adjust, think of a friend and imagine doing an activity that you do regularly as if you were that person, try a dance move in reverse or read the first ten words in todays news backwards.