Acting is like…
There is a way that acting is always like whatever you happen to be doing at the time.
For instance, yesterday I was polishing an old brass bed and so I was thinking that acting is like polishing that bed.
For one thing, I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I’d just pull a little Brasso out of the cabinet, wipe the thing down and be done. Thirty minutes. Tops. So I put the solution on a rag and wiped — AND THE RAG TURNED BLACK BUT THE BED LOOKED THE SAME. (All caps should be translated as the beginning stage of panic — the moment when the brass polisher — or actor —begins to realize that this will not be nearly as simple or easy as he thought.)
My first reaction was, naturally, “There has to be an easier way.” And so I stopped rubbing and spent the next hour or two (in this order) going to Home Depot, consulting the internet, and going to the grocery store. By the time I was done, I had four bottles of Brasso, two bottles of toilet bowl cleaner (you can consult the internet yourself if you want an explanation of this), a package of 24 shop terrycloth shop towels, heavy rubber gloves and four boxes of steel wool. Actors will recognize this stage. You begin the work and nothing seems to be happening, and so you stop the work and go looking around for inspiration, hoping for something that will ease and speed your journey to the heart of things.
Excitedly, I went back to work on the bed, applying my new solution and imagining the shiny and beautiful result. And the rag turned black and the bed still looked the same! I put more solution on the cloth and rubbed longer and harder — I mean I rubbed really hard — and this time the rag turned black and the bed looked a little less black — but still a long way from anything you’d recognize as brass. Now, this might sound like progress to you, but to the brass polisher it sounds like, “Oh my god, this is going to be a lot harder than I thought and it’s going to take forever — and I don’t have forever!” The equivalent actor’s voice is, “Ok, maybe I finally got that one little bit sort of right, but it’s not there yet and what then am I going to do about the rest of the damned thing?”
If you have worked with Director Trull, this is when you recall his speech about acting being blue collar work. The real stuff is not in your head but in your body. And you find the real stuff by getting out of your head and on your feet and doing the thing over and over and over and over. Sort of like you polish a bed by rubbing and rubbing and rubbing and rubbing. Acting and bed polishing are blue collar work.
That’s not to say that the time in your head doesn’t pay off. At some point, it occurred to me to put the Brasso on the steel wool, which was something I’d bought as a result of my research. That actually did make it a little easier to remove the tarnish. It was still hard work, but parts of the bed did begin to look like brass again. The sweat was not optional, but there was hope too.
Likewise, in the middle of the hard work of rehearsing something from the head work — the “table work,” actors call it — may suddenly and unexpectedly cause everything to make sense in a new way. But it happens later, when you’re sweating and on your feet. Not at the table.
Instead of wiping for thirty minutes, I rubbed and rubbed and rubbed for four hours, stopping not because the bed was perfectly polished — far from it — but because I’d run out of time. This is really what “opening night” means to actors. It is not the night that the play is ready to be perfectly played. It is the night that they have run out of time and so the play has to be imperfectly played, shiny in some spots and still needing elbow grease in others.
You don’t have to look closely at my bed to see it’s exactly the same with bed polishing. I rubbed and rubbed and rubbed and then I ran out of time.
And so acting is like whatever the actor happens to be doing at the time. For me, yesterday acting was like polishing a brass bed. My wife, who has been really sick this week, finally scored some antibiotics yesterday — and so I’m hopeful that soon acting will be like having sex.
It’s still a kind of bed work, I suppose, and I figure there’s a way the stuff about rubbing and rubbing and rubbing might still apply. I’ll just need to reconsider the business about stopping because you run out of time.
Let me think…