Living The Act
Studying Acting to Face Life
written by: Viviana Benfenati
The day finally came when you decided to sign up for a theater workshop. You sure were pondering around it for a lot longer than you’d like to admit, but you decided to go for it in the end. ‘Because I’m not afraid to try new things’, is the answer you will give people when asked, with a bloated chest and a grin overflowing with confidence (even though the truth is you did it to finally shut the hell out of those rambling voices in your head, cramming your brain in full pop-corn mode with reasons why you were not made for this).
Everyone is going to be proud and happy for you. It is, after all, a big step most people don’t ever dare to take. “Whenever some self-conscious bastard wanker dares to scoff at whatever you do onstage, go give them your text and dare them to come stand up here and do the same”, a very wise professor once told me.
When asked about how this decision will be fruitful for you, however, there are many obvious answers. The first thing you are going to hear is your mom going about how this definitely will boost your self-confidence and help you be more sociable. It is true, indeed; letting go of a few notches of shyness is one of the outcomes.
If you feel like your arms and legs turn to stone whenever you have to perform any activity, other than breathing, in public, then you got another bell ringing in favor of dabbling in acting. Even if you only do it just once, performing onstage will surely be an excellent therapy towards climbing several steps up the ladder of perkiness.
Acting workshops are hotbeds for outstanding communicators as well. You will learn how to better express yourself in every way, from the tone of your voice to the language of your body, and how to speak at the top of your lungs without words.
But, is that all? Is that everything that big, black box with a heavy red curtain and an audience you pray to be friendly hold for you? Are there other benefits of standing there?
Truth is, acting will do a lot more for you than you are aware of.
Human interaction is as vital for every person as the air we breathe. There is absolutely no way to move forward in life and grow without relationships (of every kind). And, in turn, it is impossible to establish any successful relationship without empathy.
Standing in the shoes of others is not just an essential skill, but a magical one. It is the skill that opens locked doors, accomplishes broader smiles, moves the heaviest mountains and warms the coldest of hearts. That safe, warm space we all need to feel like ourselves again amidst the many challenges of life lies in empathy; a skill all of us carry inside.
There are not many other ways in which you can develop this personal asset as much as with acting. Throughout our lives we can study many things and acquire countless skills, but it is in acting you will truly learn how to feel. You will experience what it is like to be deeply submerged in a feeling. How do feelings work? We certainly experience an avalanche of emotions while powering through our daily routines, but rarely do we dedicate time to stop and really understand how we feel and why.
The most powerful step towards developing empathy, however, happens the moment when we get to put emotion into practice. That is, by portraying others, which is precisely what acting is about: mastering the art of genuinely feeling like another person without going through the same things, just by deeply understanding emotion. In this discipline of art ‘standing in the shoes of others’ has a completely different meaning, which you will discover throughout your workshop.
You will also learn things about yourself that you were not aware of. As deeply as we can get to understand emotions, we all know those bitches can be very treacherous sometimes. During acting class (depending on countless factors like our mood, our tiredness or how particularly challenging our interactions with people were that day) it is not always easy to feel in a certain way in a given moment. Going even further, sometimes we can’t even understand why our character feels the way he does.
You cannot feel something you don’t relate to, right? Wrong. Onstage you can. Whenever you feel like you can’t connect with your character, it is time for introspection.
Just as the artist has a toolkit (filled with paint tubes of different kinds and brushes of every shape), so does the actor. Everyone has a personal toolkit, but it is one of emotions. Inside your toolkit you treasure a collection of memories. But not just any memory; only those that have triggered in you strong, true emotions. What happened in the past that has made you truly angry? What made you sad? What memory can you recall to have made you really, out-of-your-mind, room-without-a-roof happy? You got it? Well, now comes the really hard question: why?
Imagination plays a crucial role in your toolkit as well. If I ask you to be scared right now, like really scared, what would you think about? What could happen in your life to make you truly scared? What are you most afraid of?
By answering all of these questions -yes, you can recreate those emotions whenever you need them during the scene- but you will also get to know yourself deeply. What are your true motors, the things you like the most, those things that make you feel powerful and strong? What is it that makes your hairs stand and your legs shake? What were those moments when you had the chance to be your true, real self? Those times when you could see yourself without the need of a mirror. Those moments that ignite in you the thunderbolt of happiness, and those that make you sail down the deep river of silent melancholy.
Who are you? can be one of life’s most difficult questions, but acting sure brings you pretty close to finding out.
Another great benefit, which I myself are putting into practice every day, is learning to live the moment. Living for the present instead of moving through life at the mercy of the outcome. Concentrating on being.
When the lights are on, the theater is full and the silence that followed the third call queued you onstage, there is no room -or time- for worrying. You cannot worry about real life because that no longer exists. Not even you exist. You are your character, and your life now develops in that world surrounded by black walls. Your whole attention, your energy, and all of your senses are focused on what that character is going through. The only thing that matters is that very moment, in which you need to be real. For as long as the play lasts, what the audience says or what the director is thinking doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is existing there and being true.
The same happens in life. Sometimes we worry so much about the future that we forget there is a present moment waiting for us to exist in it. The best training on how to push the mute button on those voices of despair and fully commit to enjoying the present is found onstage.
And saving the best for last, my favorite benefit: living your own truth.
Finding the truth behind the character is one of the things I enjoy the most about the acting world. That is, understanding what does the character want and why.
One of life’s cardinal rules is that things never happen as we expect. Our actions can be criticized, judged, misunderstood; our plans frustrated, our speeches interrupted, our intentions misinterpreted. People change. They leave. They can be unpredictable. This leaves us many times facing the enigma of not knowing what to do beforehand. And, more often than not, we tend to act the way we guess will prevent these unwanted -yet possible- outcomes.
We all know these thoughts can be important, nonetheless, for they prepare us to face life, anticipating and, indeed, preventing undesired results. However, in the world of acting -just like there is no room for worrying- there is no room for preventing either. Altering the outcome is by no means a possibility in the reality you are portraying. You know what is going to happen; the lines your character will say are written on the script, and the events are already immortalized, whether you like them or not. The only thing to do when you cannot change your character’s reaction is, therefore, to understand it.
Only when we find ourselves without the temptation (or need) of adapting our behavior to ‘what others will think’ or to ‘what we believe people will do in return’ the clouds clear on what we really want to do. What do you really want to say? What do you really want to happen? And, most importantly -again- why?
Acting allows us to see past how we are going to look and understanding how we are truly feeling in this present moment. I began writing about empathy as the skill that allows us to understand feelings. The first person who we owe empathy is ourselves; I like to call this self-empathy.
As striking as it sounds, sometimes we forget about obvious things, like our right to dislike something, our right to be upset, to feel tired, to need a break, to say no, to listen to others’ opinions and still stand for what we believe in, to take someone out of our lives, to draw the line. This is what self-empathy is for, the answering button on the call our inner voice makes to ourselves.
Understanding takes off masks and labels, it strips us of those fake characters we all have sometimes adopted (pun intended). The need to fit in or stand out, the desire to adopt some pose to feel more important, wanting to get someone’s attention, or stubbornly attempting to keep someone by our sides, are some examples of situations that force us to adopt some characters in order to achieve a desired result… while mindlessly betraying our true essence.
In self-empathy we find a space for looking inside and listening. Do I really feel happy in this relationship? Do I really want this friendship to continue? Do I really want to go to that place? Do I really want to say yes? It is the unmistakable road to discovering our true authenticity.
If we weren’t afraid of the relentlessly staring eyes of people, who would we become? How would this change us and the way we define ourselves? In the script we find a written contract that allows characters to react and express themselves the way they do. In real life we don’t have that, but finding our true reasons and motivations is how we can learn to write our own scripts.
The roads we travel while studying acting are broad and their end line is never at sight. Many people can read this article and add endless other benefits, based on their personal experiences. The important thing is that this road doesn’t end in ourselves. Knowing who we are, being true, understanding our feelings, focusing on the beauty every present moment has to offer us makes us stronger, in an individual level, to face life’s many challenges. But they also grant us with the tools to achieve assertive interactions with others.
I think and then I act, is how the saying goes. But before acting, I would like to add I understand. It is by understanding our feelings that we can better control our thoughts and, therefore, our relationships with others.
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