I often get asked the question, “What should I do the moment before I go onstage or before the director calls ACTION.”
I’ll answer that by telling you what I learned from playing scrabble with John Malkovich.
The first time I made any real money as an actor was after I got cast in a Broadway play called, I’m Not Rappaport, by Herb Gardner. The play became a hit and won the Tony Award for best play. As a result, I did over 750 performances. Great learning experience.
Rappaport ran at the Booth Theatre on West 45th Street. Next door at The Plymouth Theatre, a stunning production of Lanford Wilson’s Burn This was playing. John Malkovich played Pale in one of the most dangerous and alive stage performances I’ve ever witnessed. At the time I was dating one of the actresses in that production. Years later we had a kid together. But that’s another story. I’m back.
Anyway, there was a nice gap of time after my Rappaport performance was complete and before my curtain call. That’s when I popped backstage to the Plymouth for a start and stop game of scrabble with Malkovich and the Burn This cast. As is customary in all Broadway shows, what is happening onstage is simulcast thru backstage speakers so the actors know when their cues to enter are coming up. This allows for backstage scrabble with no missed entrances.
Here’s what blew me away. Malkovich, who is a killer scrabble player by the way, would lay down six of his seven tiles, score double word points, stand up and shoot himself on stage. Plus he had to be completely drunk in the scene. ( The first time I saw him play that scene from the audience side, I said to myself, that guy must be drinking backstage. It was that believable.)
Contrary to my early acting school training, I saw no preparation. No backstage breathing. No reviewing his circumstances. No imagining. He just popped down the scrabble pieces and flew on stage for some kick-ass-rock-and-roll-impulsive-fucking-acting.
I started to wonder if all that preparation I was doing was actually serving me. It started to feel like a bizarre ritual that ultimately kept me separate from the experience of being with whoever I was working with.
As I started working in film, I discovered how unnecessary it all was. When I worked with Molly Shannon on Year Of The Dog, we would talk about raising kids just barely pausing before Mike White called action. If nothing else, it prevented us from adopting a rigid idea of how things should play out before they even started and it forced us to continue to talk to one another and let the scene unfold.
It does need to be said that, of course, Malkovich rehearsed the play with the brilliant director, Marshall Mason, guiding the process. So John always knew what ballpark he was shooting into. And Molly and I rehearsed with the insightful Mike White as well.
But here’s what’s interesting…
So often when actors start out in Committed Impulse class I see them preparing, focusing, and doing some kind of acting breathing that they learned in acting school. But unfortunately what many of them are doing is killing off their aliveness.
Bottom line: a lot of preparation is often designed to kill off nervousness. But if you kill off nervousness – you kill off everything else that is truthful. We can’t selectively edit ourselves. And, don’t forget, nervousness is awesome.
So here’s my suggestion to you. Once you’ve explored within a rehearsal process (whether it be by yourself prepping for an audition, or with fellow actors in a rehearsal room), and opened the doors of possibility, the next step is to toss it all to the wind, trust that it’s in you, and then just play. A bounding leap of faith into the delicious unknown is where your true creativity flourishes.
The result: irresistible you.
And, if you must prepare, let your preparation be designed to invite discovery and surprise.
I suspect for some this may be disturbing, for others a sense of relief. Let me know your thoughts. And I wish you an awesome day!