Staying True To The Moment

Ah. That ever-popular advice again, “be in the moment”.

“But how?” you ask.

Being in the moment truly is one of the most elusive feats an actor can accomplish. It is also one of the most gratifying experiences you can have, when you enter that zone of complete and effortless creativity, expressiveness and spontaneity.

When you are in the moment, it is as if your performance has taken a life on its own. Words and responses pour out of you, uninhibited. It is the peak of your performance. After the show, you sit down and marvel at how you had eased into the scene. You are stoked, but you have no idea how you did it. It worries you. You try to recreate the same sensations again but you fail. The beauty (and curse) of being in the moment is that it cannot be established by trying.

It was Lee Strasberg who once said this about acting: “[we] can have conscious preparation but [we] have unconscious results.” And indeed, to be in the moment, you have to stop trying to presuppose the audience’s responses. You must also leave your emotional baggage, self-doubt and obsessive critical voice at the door. All of these prevent you from unconsciously playing from moment to moment. Act on your impulse – and on this, our improv teacher Arnauld Pierre has some great advice in the following video:

Actors who work with a script often feel an emotional obligation to work on the material, to analyze lines and deconstruct the plot. They become preoccupied with their lines and lose their sense of freedom, consequently stunting and limiting their performance. To counter this, Richard Seyd, actor, director and founder of Seydways Acting Studio came up with some methods to help actors work on being in the moment:

  1. Do not memorize your lines by rote. Instead, read the script sentence by sentence and look at what causes each moment to happen.
  2. Do not be too preoccupied with finding objectives such that you fail to respond instinctively to moments.
  3. Focusing too much on the subtext interferes with the spontaneity of the work. The text should be more important than the subtext. Trust that the character literally means what he says or does.
  4. Know what triggers your character’s responses. The trigger can come in four forms:
    • Something another character has said/done in the immediate preceding moment
    • Something your character has said/done in the immediate preceding moment
    • Something another character has said/done earlier than the preceding moment
    • Something your character has said/done earlier than the preceding moment

To foster genuine responses, Seyd suggests memorizing lines with the help of a voice recorder: First record the lines of the other characters. During playback, pause the recording between every line and monitor your own response to the line without referencing the script. Once you have a response in mind, look at the script and identify the differences and similarities between your response and the character’s actual response. Then, read your character’s lines out loud. Explore every scene the same way. After a few tries, you will find yourself getting closer to the lines in the text. Even if it doesn’t turn out that way, you will still find that the gaps in understanding provides the greatest insights into your character.  

It’s important to actively listen in order to respond intuitively and play moment by moment. After all, acting is, in Syed’s words, “about making discoveries that thrill and excite the imagination – and imaginative discoveries are always more profound than conscious decision.”

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