Magic without insecurity

There is real magic in this world, and it happens in the theatre. It can happen in an instant, and if you blink you might miss it. Its effect however, will still resonate with you. It is something that we actors – most, if not all of us – are searching for our whole lives. It is  captivating to an audience, and has the power to make time stand still for the briefest of moments. As actors, we find it, and lose it, and begin the search again. It has been described many times, but it’s hard to define in words for it is difficult to understand. Also, like most things which are difficult to understand, it brings with it its own stigmas and naysayers, making it harder to come by. It is however, a thing of great importance.

The point at which an actor crosses the threshold between the self conscious and the unconscious mind, something rare and powerful takes place. By giving into the moment, and releasing all sense of ego and insecurity, the actor offers the audience a glimpse of true magic. The effects of which can be validated by the shiver that wraps itself around your spine, the hairs that stir on the back of your neck, or the squeeze of a hand indicating “yes, I felt it too!”. The actor plays a vital role in our society, for it is the actor (and I use the term to describe both male and female actors) who is endowed with this awe-inspiring  ability to create these shared moments in time. By relinquishing insecurity, and allowing the character to truly be, an actor invites the audience to witness something pure and honest. We actors, if we do our job right, are capable of showing an audience glimpses of themselves. This ability is not easy to come by. It is something that drama schools across the world try and teach to their students; drama schools that is, that teach the core principles as laid down by Konstantin Stanislavski. And yet, Stanislavski’s writings are difficult to absorb. Even in the classroom, it can be hard for a student to understand what exactly is meant by “the ego” for it is a difficult thing to pin down. How can you understand what is meant by your conscious ego, when the word ego itself can mean so many things: self-esteem, self-importance, self-worth, self-respect, self-conceit, self-image, self-confidence. For me, based on my upbringing and cultural background, my interpretation of the word ego, was someone who displays an outward appearance of arrogance. So when my teachers referred to the ego, or when I read about it, I knew that I had to “let go”, but I wasn’t sure how, or of exactly what. The more I focused on my ego, the more I became self-conscious about it.

If the idea of the ego works for you as an actor, wonderful! Keep it! If not however, then perhaps like me, it’s not so much your ego that is standing in your way, but rather your self-consciousness, and your insecurities.

The very nature of our work (as actors) forces us to show sides of ourselves that most people keep buried beneath the surface. We find ourselves in situations where we have to come face to face with our own insecurities. During Stanislavski’s lifetime, personal issues and taboos were even more clandestine than they are today. Society kept most things of a personal nature under lock and key. However, the dawn of the internet and the rise of social media, has given people the freedom to shed more and more of their insecurities, and to talk more openly and freely about their thoughts and feelings. Theatre by its very nature, moves with society, and so if society is evolving… so too should our methods of training and rehearsing actors for the stage. In a world full of egos, how do you let go of yours? Is it even possible? Is that really what we should be focusing on?

We all battle with insecurity, every day. For me, this is no more true than when I am completely alone with my own thoughts. In these moments, I am my own worst enemy. Something takes hold, a glimpse from the past when someone fired a disapproving look in my direction, and suddenly the whole event plays over again in my head. The positive remembrances of the situation are lost, swallowed up in a fleeting moment in which one person’s disapproval is adopted by another. A pact is made about you, both behind your back and in full view, that what you are doing is ridiculous. What’s worse moreover, is that we are all guilty of it. Every single one of us. You, me, our friends and family. At one point or another we have all been guilty of putting someone down, because they have done something –  perhaps wonderful – which confronted us with certain insecurities we have about ourselves. This can be devastating enough when it happens in our day to day lives, but in the theatre, this is a cancer!

The moment one actor shows a glimpse of disapproval or contempt towards another, insecurity sets in, which is then difficult to overcome. One instance of harsh or unwarranted critique can ruin relationships, and I have witnessed how one reaction gone unchecked, can lead to a breakdown of the whole rehearsal process. Bad enough is when the cast unknowingly sabotage each other, much worse however, is when this kind of atmosphere is triggered by the director. When the director is the saboteur of trust within a group (whether they are aware of it or not) it leads to one thing and one thing only; a half-hearted recital of a learned text, by a troupe of actors who want nothing more than to get to the bar after the performance, and a director who has lost the respect of their actors.

The role of the director is still something I am trying to figure out, for it seems to change from one production to the next; the same I suppose could be said of the actor. One thing however remains constant, and that is the responsibility to get the very best out of your actors. A director who is battling too much with their own insecurities, and takes those insecurities out on the cast, will have a very hard time of it. That is not to say that they are are not allowed to feel insecure, for I have already established that we all have insecurities. Yet the director who wishes to get the very best performances from their actors, has to be both aware of their own personal insecurities, and be able to take action when they arise, in order to minimise their effect on the group. Better still, is to be aware of your actors’ insecurities, so as to avoid unwittingly pushing the wrong buttons.

Our insecurities are inherent within us, there is no real getting away from them. They are a part of us. They contribute to the very nature of our existence. They help make us who we are. It is therefore the job of those around us, to offer support and encouragement. The job of everyone in theatre should be, to make those around them as comfortable as possible, so as to nurture an environment of trust and acceptance. If we can establish this kind of atmosphere in the rehearsal room, then we cultivate an environment in which magic can happen!

Unfortunately however, this is all too often not the case. The theatre is a place where hearts are worn on sleeves, and individuals open themselves up to criticism. It is our job not to criticise, or at least not to engage in negative criticism. In other words, critique should first adopt a nature of trying to understand what we don’t see, and then to offer guidance and advice.

As practitioners of theatre, we have a choice. It is not always easy, but a choice it is none the less. We can either lay aside our own insecurities, and push ourselves to be accepting of everything that we are not… or we can criticise our friends and colleagues for being different, and thus, lay waste to everything it is we are trying to accomplish with our art.

Regardless of your role in the theatre, whether you are the executive producer or the usher standing at the front door, you all have a vital part to play in the nurturing of these moments in which we can all come together at one moment in time, to share in something truly marvellous. We need the theatre, and we need it to be collaborative. Social media is showing the whole world that collaboration opens the door to truly wonderful possibilities, and theatre is no different.

I have heard it said on many an occasion that theatre is not a democracy… why? Mine is!

Alan Burgon