Relaxation: My ‘Present’ Frontier
May 23rd, 2012

Relaxation has become my new favorite challenge. A little over a week ago, I went on as the understudy to Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities at Barter. I had no rehearsal with the cast, except 30 minutes prior to half-hour for the blocking of a scene in which I was suffocated and carried away.

The challenge with which I presented myself: don’t assume any of that means anything; be present, listen, experience the events that unfold around me. It’s so easy to label a performance as “opening night” or “tech” or “never done this before.” That mode of thinking gives an actor more opportunities to get inside his head and ruin any connection that the other characters might have made with his character, and convinces him that it’s fine because (as his unsettled subconscious dutifully reminds him) “this night is clearly different from the others…don’t worry.” Instead, I came up with a through-line for my character–I am not that man (referring to Darnay’s wicked father and uncle)–and set out into no-man’s land.

Early in the show, I came upon a scene in which I had no lines, but stood on stage in silence for about ten minutes (I was the defendant in a trial). These are the moments in which I’m usually able to fall the deepest into a character’s thought’s because nothing’s necessarily required of the actor but TO BE there. In this blissful moment of exploration, something alarmed me and caused actor-Sean-Michael to show up.

Actor-me realized that I was far more physically tense than I remembered Nick being when I watched from the wings. I was hunched forward a little, shoulders tensed, gripping the rail in front of me and tightening my jaw. The next thoughts were Darnay’s: “They’ll think I’m guilty if I’m tense like this, I should relax. But not too much, they might think I’m not concerned…why am I thinking about this? My life is at stake here for crimes that I didn’t commit!”

Handy thing happened there (which I didn’t realize until just now)… Darnay was in front of an audience at that point (the court and the jury), as was actor-me. I think that may have helped with my beginning to hand over the problem. That moment made Darnay conscious enough of his posture and tension that he remembered to release it in several later moments.


I spoke with another actor. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to say anything given the circumstances, but do you have any notes? Is there anything you’ve noticed in the first act that I can work on?”

Sure enough he replied, “You seem a little tense.”

That instant, I changed my through-line to I’m a better person than that guy (less confrontational) and–even though it was sometimes the actor-me doing it–constantly sought to keep the physical tension out. The coolest experience I’ve ever felt on stage happened because of that.

During the final courtroom scene, I went relaxed to the max. At the end, my death sentence was read out. At first, nothing happened; I was still while the sentence repeated itself in my head. I was facing the direction of the woman responsible, but couldn’t bring my eyes up to meet hers. Then something happened to me, physically. The deepest, core part of me seized up and an unsteady breath stuttered out. The railing took a little more of my weight as the sudden shifting of my guts seemed to pull energy out of me from within. I experienced, completely unexpected, a real, visceral response to the realization of my pending execution.

That shudder inside of me, the seeming upward-pull of my guts, is something I’ve felt in the past during extreme moments. I never expected it to come out of nowhere, on stage, in the middle of a scene. What I felt was very real, and it was physically subtle enough that if I had been riddled with physical tension at that moment, if my abs were tightened up with nerves, it would have been impossible for me to experience that moment with as much physical truth as I did.

That isolated little moment is a more eye-opening revelation than any I’ve experienced. When people talk about being physically available to a character, I now have a far better definition for what they mean. This lesson is my newest shiny-red bike, and I can’t wait to learn how to ride it.