Lee Strasberg – the man who continued the work Stanislavski initially laid out for actors – and became known to many as “the method man”, discovered the 1 thing that destroys performances has nothing to do with talent. As I have been coaching actors for almost 7 years, I have witnessed the 1 thing that destroys performances crop up again and again in actors with varying degrees of experience – from those just starting out, to those who are more seasoned.
The 1 thing that destroys performances
What is it? MENTAL TENSION, or as Lee Strasberg described it – personal issues.
I’d like to share with you a little story about an actor I was coaching a few years ago whose mental tension and personal issues were destroying her performances (and her confidence for that matter too).
She had been told by many people that she was a ‘rubbish’ actor, that she’d ‘never make it’ and ‘no drama school in their right mind would take her on because she was so wooden’. Imagine what happened? Her acting slowly but surely began to lack authenticity because hearing these awful comments over and over again, eventually led her to believing they were true.
When this young actress got up to share scenes it was heartbreaking to watch. Rather than saying the lines, she may as well have been stood on stage shouting “I am rubbish”, “I cannot act”, “I am wooden”; her acting had become extremely tense, contrived and it was clear to see these personal issues taking over. You see, whatever is going on in your mind is reflected in your body, behaviour, voice and emotions.
As she had become mentally tense, she began to laugh, which was a reaction to the nerves, she was visibly nervous (this was clear to see physically as her body began to go back to a safety mechanism – for her this was bending over for you it may be different), wasn’t listening, wasn’t working moment to moment and was pretty much inside her own head criticising every little thing she did, which stopped her creating an authentic character and stopped her connecting to her scene partner. The scene had become about her insecurities rather than the story the writer had written about.
How does mental tension destroy performances?
Listening to the mental chatter (or mind monkeys as I like to call them) leads to
- the body reacting in a flight, fight or freeze mode (this young actress froze). Some other actors may try to fight the mental tension, which leads to them “forcing” *it* and others may respond with the flight response and end up ‘calling in sick’ to classes or performances, or sitting to one side and not getting involved with their training.
- the mind becoming overwrought with the personal issues so that the actor becomes physically tense leading to unnatural body movements and physicality.
- The actor not listening & responding truthfully
- actors criticising themselves mid-performance
- losing the lines
- parroting the lines in an unnatural way
- losing clarity of expression
The audience doesn’t come to the theatre, cinema or watch TV to see actors criticising themselves because it isn’t a pleasant experience for them. As with stage combat, when someone really gets hurt, the actor may think “yes, I really got hit and ‘felt it'” but the audience instead think “I hope that actor’s ok”, which breaks the illusion for them. The same happens when an actor feeds into their critical thoughts/mind monkeys.
It doesn’t matter how talented an actor may be, no amount of talent can cover up the incessant negative mental chatter an actor chooses to listen to.
How to stop mental tension & personal issues affecting performances
- Find out what your mental weaknesses/personal issues are – write a list of them. Some actors tell me they are too afraid to write them down because they think this will make the issue bigger. What writing them down actually does is diffuse the emotional connection you have to this limiting thought. Once you have written this down ask yourself if what your mind is saying is true.
- Self – develop – actors should always be in the process of self-developing. The dictionary definition of self-development is “developing; “. You can do this in many ways, but reading a good self-development book is a great way to start. I highly recommend “The confidence Gap” by Dr. Russ Harris. I should point out that it is not your acting coach’s job to help you self-develop as we are not therapists or psychologists. Committing to self-development away from your acting training is a great way to develop a better understanding of who you are so you can not only empathise with the character’s you play, but also to improve your confidence, which in turn develops your stage & screen presence.
- Hone your relaxation – relaxation is the foundation of method acting for very good reasons. Here at StandBy Method Acting Studio no class begins scene work until each actor is mentally and physically relaxed. Our actors are encouraged to practise relaxation at home daily, and before castings. Once you get a hold of your relaxation technique, it not only stops tension taking over but actually frees up your mind so your imagination can work to its optimum, thus avoiding those pesky little mind monkey’s (self-critical thoughts) impacting your performance, and allowing you to immerse in the circumstances of the character’s life.
Maybe you knew what the 1 thing that destroys performances was before reading my blog or maybe you didn’t, either way I hope you’ve found the above tips useful. By putting these into practise you will soon find you leave your mind monkeys and personal issues at the door, allowing you to be present in your scenes and your talent to blossom.
Has this been useful?
Let me know in the comments box below, or share with an actor friend who has struggled connecting to challenging characters.
Here’s to your success!
Don’t give up, just keep learning.
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Louise O’Leary is a professional actress, method acting coach and Artistic Director of StandBy Method Acting Studio. Her mission is to help as many actors as she can launch their careers and become the best actor they can be.
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