One thing I need to get past at college is my negativity. And cynicism. And self-consciousness. And sarcasm. And all my other related, deeply ingrained “talents” as I like to think of them. Since I started taking acting classes I’ve known these things can cause problems and the more I do, the more I appreciate how much they can hold me back. Thankfully I’m also occasionally managing to get past them, briefly.
This isn’t to say that I need to be all happy-clappy and grinny and open to everything. But while actually rehearsing, performing, etc, the kind of constant internal judging of myself (and others) really gets in the way. Of course, there are always going to be things that teachers, students and other actors are going to say or do that are complete nonsense and there’s no sense in losing my (hopefully) good judgement about this. But once I’ve made the decision to go ahead and do whatever it is I have to do, the line of internal questioning dialogue that runs, “This is stupid isn’t it? Would I do this? No, I wouldn’t do this. What if my friends could see me now!?” is keeping to much of me in the character.
This self-consciousness, and the questioning of everything, has probably become more ingrained over the years, as I’ve become ever more cynical about the world. So fighting against it is tricky, like trying not to think of an elephant, but last term I began to notice a couple of times when I could simply trust in the teachers, in my fellow students, and in myself, and get on with it. Briefly I could let go and do the task at hand as well as I could without thinking about it. I could question everything later, afterwards.
It’s not just a case of getting rid of self-consciousness. I’ve noticed how much these habits can get into a character and hold me back from really getting involved in a situation. For example, there was an exercise last term where two people did an improvisation, a man and a woman, who had been a couple but then split up and one was now going round to the other’s house to collect belongings. I took the role of the person going to the other’s house, and it went OK, but afterwards Steph, the teacher, pointed out that I (or possibly both of us involved, I forget) had been very sarcastic. While there was obviously mutual antipathy, much of our dialogue had been sarcasm — “Sure, take all of the books, fine!” or whatever.
My first thought was that this is realistic. I certainly use sarcasm a lot in conversation, as do so many people I know that saying the opposite of what one means is a normal way to communicate. But in a situation like this it’s a defence mechanism. And in using that defence in the improvisation I, or we, were preventing ourselves from connecting with the underlying emotions and really letting go. Had we said what we felt, rather than sarcastically saying the opposite, we’d have had more conflict.
If we were to develop the scene further maybe we’d end up with the characters being sarcastic again, but we’d hopefully have got to that point via exposing ourselves to the characters’ real feelings. Then, having had the arguments, and realised what the feelings were, we could, as the characters, attempt to hide them with sarcasm. Hopefully some of the deeper emotions would then be apparent to the audience through the restrained veneer of sarcasm.
I don’t want to dispense with all these layers of disdain that I’ve carefully crafted to protect me from the world over the years, and turn into someone who jumps for joy at the dumbest things. I tend to find eternally happy, optimistic and excitable people somehow untrustworthy, like, for example, relentlessly smiling and pushy born-again Christians. But there’s a danger that cynicism can become all-pervasive until nothing is good, there’s no point in trying anything, and that we’re all screwed in every pursuit. I need to fight against this and, while retaining decent critical faculties, embrace some optimism and just do stuff — try now, judge (me, you, them) later. A difficult balance but one worth trying to reach.