As an actor, I love being onstage. If I could manage it, I’d spend all of my acting-related time onstage. I despise rehearsals. The only thing I hate worse than rehearsing is sucking onstage. So, I rehearse and try to forget that the Jim Butcher novels will be picked over by the time I get to Half-Price Books tonight. It’s not exactly cutting off my ear or cultivating a heroin addiction, but it’s suffering of a sort.
I’ve just survived six weeks of rehearsal, and before diving into the eight-week show I started wondering about things. I did not wonder why I spent time practicing old skills I’d already mastered, and I did not wonder why I practiced new skills until my corpse could execute them, like frog’s legs jumping in a frying pan. That all made sense. But I did wonder why rehearsal, which is so good for me, feels nothing like performing in the show.
Well, everybody knows that you’ve got to train, practice, learn, get educated, and so on. I could find about 100 billion quotes on the subject, and only 110 billion humans have ever been born. But once you’ve trained to do a thing, you then have to do it for real, unless you’re my cousin Dave, who gets by just fine living over his mom’s garage and playing X-Box. The real world is a tricky place when it comes to doing things. Different things work in different ways.
For example, let’s take something I learned and then did in the real world: digging ditches. Effective ditch digging requires a surprising amount of learning, at least if you want to be able to stand up at the end of the day. I admit that learning to dig a ditch when I was 12 years old took a lot less time than learning the alphabet when I was five, but I still had to concentrate on what I was learning. Once I mastered the skills and started digging for real, the experience was different. I had to pay a certain amount of attention to not smash a toe, but my brain had plenty of time to think about football and that car I was saving up to buy in five years. So ditch digging = low learning curve, low analytical requirements, and high potential for daydreaming.
Let’s jump forward a disturbing number of years to another thing I learned and did for real: statistics.
(To digress, it may seem odd to you that I can like acting and statistics at the same time. Yet I like all the math, and perhaps that does reveal psychological issues. You may sometimes hear physicists mocking sociologists about not being real scientists. How can you call sociology a real science when it studies people, who are appallingly random compared to, say, quarks? On the other hand, how can you call physics a real science when it studies quarks, which are appallingly random compared to the number 4? Mathematics is the only true science, and you can imagine what the mathematician in me thinks of the actor in me. I have a superiority complex and an inferiority complex about having it.)
I studied statistics for a moderately long time. During that period I probably could have learned to dig ditches about two thousand times. I found it sometimes challenging, and for a while I thought I’d be happy to die if I never had to hear about Bayes’ Theorem again. Eventually I applied these skills in the real world, and just like in ditch digging the experience then changed. I didn’t need to worry about smashing a toe with a poorly wielded normal distribution. But I had crammed a lot of statistics knowledge into my brain, and now I had to solve real problems by releasing that knowledge, as if I were the world’s most anal-retentive graffiti artist. I had to concentrate on the mechanics of it. It just wasn’t possible for me to calculate an analysis of variance and daydream about my girlfriend at the same time, and I’m not sure that would have been a compliment to her anyway. So statistics = high learning curve, high analytical requirements, and low potential for daydreaming.
So let’s get back to this acting thing. It does not take long to become a bad actor. Any four-year-old trying to hide a broken vase will prove my point. It takes hard, thoughtful training in acting techniques to turn you into an actor that people like to imagine killing, and with more hard work you can make audiences merely hate you. With more exhausting effort you can develop the skill to make audiences first unaware of your existence, then be indifferent to you, and then find you inoffensive. After an amount of training equal to several doctorates in ditch digging, you can at last entertain people, or at least remind them of someone they once liked. That’s how it worked for me, anyway. I’ve seen other people skip straight from vase-hiding to entertaining people in just the time it took me to learn the alphabet.
But when I get to the real world, audiences don’t like it if I bumble around looking for my mark. They get confused if I dither over my character’s motivation, especially when his motivation should be to say the damned words that the author put down on the damned paper. Maybe I’ve mastered the individual techniques, but I can’t be thinking about techniques while I perform, because the audience wants more than a collection of successfully-executed techniques. That’s something they could get by putting the script and an acting book together in a blender. So acting = high learning curve (at least for us remedial types), low analytical requirements (no one cares which hand I use to hold Yorik’s skull), and high potential for daydreaming. And that’s the trick for me—daydream potential is my tool for making something happen that’s fun, unexpected, unexplained, and won’t make the audience imagine killing me.
So as I ride towards opening day, I do so on the back of my new acting mantra:
“At rehearsal, think about work. At work, think about magic.”
And I can always fall back on statistics. Or ditch digging.