The Work : You Stuck?
This May Be Why.
I just had the second of two coaching sessions with an actor I’ve known for a while and love and respect quite a lot. She is—in fact—one of the most beautiful actors with whom I’ve shared a stage.
She came to me to work on an audition for a lab of a new Broadway musical, what will probably be a massive and splashy project with some very fancy names attached.
Working on the sides for the audition she seemed…
Not really herself.
Which was odd to me since I thought the character she was going in for was a really good match for her particular box of crayons.
And I said as much.
We did some solid work, but—at the end of the session—we were both a little stuck.
We agreed to meet again, the next day.
When she came back for her second session, she started by saying,
“I was talking to my boyfriend about it and how I was feeling like such a bad actor—“
(she’s a brilliant actor)
“—and that I just couldn’t figure out what they wanted.”
We locked eyes.
We both laughed at that seemingly unavoidable trap.
"And that’s the problem,” she continued, exasperated, “I’m still trying to figure out what they want.”
Well, of course, she is.
Because she’s trying to get hired.
Aren’t we all?
Listen, our task is not to guess what they want. For one thing, that’s impossible.
And—while we’re at it—our task is not to make the material better.
Our task is not to make the character more interesting, or deep-er, of funny-er, or true-er.
Our task is to tell a really good story. And—here’s the tricky bit—to find that really good story on that page, in the material we’ve been given.
Sometimes it’s right there in our faces on the first read.
Sometimes we have to go digging.
Sometimes we have to work on it, walk away from it, and work on it some more.
But it’s there.
I promise you.
What’s that, you say? How can I make that promise? The writing is bad? The words aren’t helping? There’s nothing there?
Remember A/B scenes from acting school? You know, open scenes? Contentless scenes?
I’ve seen some pretty riveting storytelling come out of those exercises and that writing is deliberately like… Oakland, California.
“...what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.”
—Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Biography
And while I’m throwing quotes around, here’s this little gem cited in Robert Cohen’s Acting Power.
"Acting doesn't have anything to do with listening to the words. We never really listen, in general conversation, to what another person is saying. We LISTEN TO WHAT THEY MEAN. And what they mean is often quite apart from the words. When you see a scene between two actors that really comes off you can be damned sure they're not listening to each other ‑‑ they're feeling what the other person is trying to get at.”
(though “but” really sounds more like a warning and this is a warning, so…)
BUT, as you go digging and searching and sometimes beating your head against a wall trying to knock loose a story, remember this:
You’ll know it when you find it because it will elicit a spark of response within you.
You know how it is when you do luck out and you open that PDF on your phone on the A train and reverse-pinch the screen so you can read the sides and the words and the world and the character just make all kinds of sense?
For me, those moments come in the form of, “I know this guy!”
“I know this guy!” comes in lots of flavors:
I am this guy!
I was this guy!
I want to be this guy!
I dated this guy!
This guy is my mother! My teacher! My boss! The director of that reading I did three years ago!
You get the idea.
Yeah. Enjoy those. Those are the fun ones right out of the gate. They’re so close and so real you can touch them.
The other ones?
You just have to do the work to get closer to them or bring them closer to you. And the only way you’ll know you’re succeeding is when you immediately respond just as you would to an “I know this guy!”
When you respond. That’s my point. If you’re searching for their response? The response of people you’re not even in the room with yet?
You’re gonna feel stuck.
Because you can’t do it!
You can’t because you’re not in the room with them and even if you were you’re not a mindreader and at least a small fraction of your lizard brain knows that and keeps hissing “you can’t do this,” and YOU FEEL STUCK.
That’s the true north on your compass that will point you in the direction of good work, honest work, and—most importantly—your work. Work that no one on earth will be able to compete with or replicate because they are not you.
And if they tried to be you, they, too, would be stuck.
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Christopher Gurr is an American theatre artist and educator known for playing a wide range of roles on Broadway and across the U.S. as well as the more readily accessible reaches of Canada.
Native Southerner, Midwest educated, with chapters in Northern California and southern Appalachia he currently makes his home in New York City.