What “Getting it Right” Should Mean for Your Acting
March 3rd, 2018

You know that nightmare in which you show up to school in your underwear? Most of us have dreamt it, but as an actor, I’ve lived it.

When I started acting, I developed a belief that “right” meant something solid, the best choice, one that could be repeated night after night. If I got the laughs, then I must have gotten it right! That’s often the barometer for such acting.

Unfortunately, that focus on getting it right nearly ended my career before it began.

I was cast in three consecutive productions during my first summer at a regional theatre. I was 22 and I knew that I had to have my best foot forward for this first step into a professional company. Three days into rehearsal, it became clear that my “right” was incredibly wrong. Within days, my dream of living as an actor had gone from more likely than ever to more than likely never.

Thankfully this was an apprenticeship, so my directors and other mentors at the theatre were ready with wisdom and tools to help me succeed. It was slow going at first. I spent the entire rehearsal period for the second production learning about those tools and how they operate.

These were concepts that you hope to learn early because you can spend an entire lifetime exploring them—things like being available to the moment, really listening, refusing to repeat or imitate and going instead for creation every time. “Wanting something to be the same is putting your comfort first,” shared the director of my first show, John Hardy. “Sameness and rightness are not the same thing. Right is what works that day.”

The most applicable lesson I learned at this time was boiled down to four words: run to the fear. Being present and available to the moment instead of deciding on a “right” way to do it is hard because it’s so terrifying; it requires a vulnerability that most of us haven’t allowed since around the age of five. Since then, years of conformity have been layered upon us, shaping us as individuals and limiting our reactions to that which we deem appropriate. Shedding that is scary—run to the fear.

Then came the final showdown. Our third production of the summer was my last opportunity to show these professionals that I was capable of growing, that I could do this thing. I went in ready to give it everything I had. Less than a minute into the first scene, my director called hold and gave me one of the most impactful acting notes of my life: “I relieve you of the responsibility to show me anything.”

Those words set me free. I had permission to shed any preconceived idea about this character, the moment, or the “right” way for him to respond. We went back to the beginning of the scene and tried it again. This time, we kept going.

Everything was going great. Two weeks later, I was watching from the door of our rehearsal hall as the last box of props was carried out to the theatre for tech, and it hit me: I wasn’t ready! I had spent all of my time refusing to set anything—which choice was right?!

My director, Katy Brown, was nearby and saw the panic flash across my face. “We’re going into tech tomorrow,” I said, “but I haven’t set anything!”

With a grin, she replied, “Exactly.”

We opened two days later and I made the trust-fall of my life. I felt naked, unprepared. I was deep in the throws of the in-your-underwear-on-the-school-bus dream. The curtain speech ended, the lights faded, and I walked onto a dark stage. When the lights came up, I had no choice but to do what I had rehearsed: I listened, I allowed, and I responded.

It worked. It wasn’t the greatest performance of my life (though it may have been up to that point, given what I was doing before), but I was on the right path and that’s what mattered.

“Getting it right” isn’t about making fun acting choices and cementing them for 3-5 months; it’s about listening, opening all five senses and your very soul to the world of the play. It’s about sticking your nerve out in the open, un-shrouded, and allowing yourself to be affected by what’s happening in the moment.

It’s a terrifying experience, like you’re teetering on the edge of a cliff. As it turns out, that’s what “getting it right” feels like; and eventually, it starts to feel good.

Run to the fear my friends, and don’t look back!