Vulnerability In Acting

Vulnerability on stage is essential as an actor. It acts as an entry point for the audience into the character and the events of the play. It’s compelling and it’s honest. It’s also difficult. Over the course of my studies in college, many of the notes I’ve received in class revolve around vulnerability, more specifically, my willingness to be vulnerable on stage. It can be a beast and the feeling of vulnerability can seem ambiguous (although once you experience it, that feeling will stick with you).

I’ve put off the writing of the post for awhile, as anything I have to say on the topic heavily revolves around my own experience with it. I recognize the irony in that the writing of this post requires me to be a little bit vulnerable yet again, but here we are. As such, the content of this post is likely going to be a bit more personal and casual than my previous ramblings- but I feel that a more personal voice is the only way to tackle the subject, especially since it is a topic that I’m still actively working on and developing in. In this post, I’m going to explore some of my own grapples with vulnerability and why I think it can be so difficult.

This past year, I had to do a very emotional scene in class from Ivanov. I was able, during rehearsal, to remain somewhat open and vulnerable. However, when I found myself presenting the scene for my peers in class, I closed up and subsequently the scene suffered for it. My performance wasn’t nearly as honest or connected as it was in rehearsal. What had happened? An audience had been introduced. Being vulnerable and open can be difficult, especially when you have eyes on you. My guard went up as a defense mechanism and as a result I wasn’t letting my scene partner in, nor the audience. This is an issue for a few reasons. When I threw up my guard and locked out my partner, their intentions and tactics didn’t land on me. Subsequently, I was thrown into a frenzy of playing out the scene through rote instead of actively responding to what I was being given. My performance had become mechanical and I was forced to try and generate much of the emotional life within myself which isn’t realistically achievable.

Defense mechanisms against vulnerability can manifest in a few different ways. In my own experience, these defense mechanisms tend to take the form of self-editing and physical tension (another note I get quite often). Self-editing can take you out of the events of the scene. Instead of investing in the stakes of what is happening at the moment, what your partner is giving you, your objectives, etc- the mind drifts towards your own performance. Am I standing right? Did that sound stupid? How the hell am I going to cry three lines from now? I catch myself doing this sometimes and they aren’t productive questions. In fact, all of these questions prompted by self-editing have something in common. They’re qualifiers. They’re all concerned with right and wrong. Success and failure. Did that sound stupid implies that there is a less stupid way to deliver that line. Am I standing right implies that there is a correct and incorrect way of standing. I was recently watching Helen Mirren’s Masterclass and she opened by simply walking on stage. She goes on to explain that the act of genuinely walking as oneself can be difficult and that initially, she had found herself asking a lot of questions like should I put my hands in my pocket, would that be more casual? Or Does this seem fake? A lot of qualifier questions. She then explained further, saying that the only way to honestly walk to the chair was to throw out those questions and to keep a simple intention in mind- walk to the chair.

The problem with those qualifier questions is that they remove you from the honest circumstances of the scene and that they are so concerned with doing things correctly. The notion that there is a single ‘correct’ way of doing things is unproductive and untrue. I’ve recently begun reading Impro by Kieth Johnstone, a British pioneer of Improvisational Theatre . It was recommended to me by one of my professors and I highly suggest reading it. Somewhat early on in the book, Johnstone talks about the detriments of concerning yourself with an objective ‘right’ way of doing things. In a passage about his schooling, he writes, “I tried my best to be clever in everything I did. The damage was greatest in areas where my interests and the school’s seemed to coincide: in writing, for example (I wrote and rewrote, and lost all my fluency).” The passage is mainly concerned with the detriments of conventional education on his spontaneity and imagination but I feel it is also highly applicable to the subject of honesty and vulnerability as well because vulnerability happens in real time. It is active communication with your partner and the audience. It isn’t a cemented process. It’s living, it’s breathing, it’s spontaneous.

I also touched on physical tension earlier. When acting, it’s important to try and stay physically relaxed, employing the muscles necessary at any given time but nothing beyond that. I find that I hold an excess of tension in my neck and jaw. Excessive tension makes it difficult to think and connect. It’s a form of bracing- hardening yourself before a crash. It can be easy to underestimate the blocks that physical tension can produce and the tension can be both a symptom of the unwillingness to be vulnerable as well as a cause of the disconnect from your scene partner.

It is impossible to drop tension from our bodies entirely, lest we be jellyfish. The trick is identifying and reducing the unnecessary tension in our bodies while on stage. Additionally, I’ve come to find that the tension I hold on stage is also tension that I carry with me through life. I tend to hold an excess of tension in my neck and jaw throughout my day. Attacking that tension in my daily routine has aided in its reduction on stage. I’ve found that breathing exercises are helpful in regards to reducing this tension but I am still searching out tactics to mitigate this further.

I think one of the most formidable blocks to vulnerability is the fear of failure, which can be seen in those qualifier questions. As I continue to progress through my education, I find myself becoming increasingly confident in my own choices. Vulnerability isn’t easy, however, it is essential on stage. I hope that this post and subsequently my own exploration of vulnerability on stage could be of some use to you all and as I continue to learn and discover, I’ll undoubtedly share more. Until then- stay open, stay connected, stay honest.

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