Why are we obsessed with doing things perfectly or “right?”
Why do we believe there’s some magic formula to creating or acting or life itself?
As maverick filmmaker, John Cassavetes said, “It is all surprise and discovery and deep feeling. It is all vulnerability and creativity and mutability. It is all heart and hammering and purpose. It is a constant forge.”
Amen. That’s not perfection, that’s figuring it all out while doing it.
Maybe we’ve grown up with the need to have perfect answers for everything. We’ve been taught that if we can wrestle something to the ground and apply left-brain logic to the most perplexing of questions, we’ll feel safe or be in control. Even if the answers ultimately don’t provide long-term proof to that which we seek, or even maybe go deep enough, it’s as if, when we reduce things to their most basic, we feel satisfied.
And maybe that’s also our species’ propensity to not dig deeper. If someone says the world is flat, it must be so.
I don’t know about you, but oftentimes (pretty much everyday) when I think I “understand” life, I’m thrown a curveball that makes everything I thought I believed put into question.
And maybe that’s good. Maybe without those riddles and enigmas, mysteries and contradictions, life and its philosophies would become dogmatic. And that’s dangerous—to adhere to principles so rigidly that we have no flexibility for other interpretations, leads to a non-evolving life.
The thing about acting is that it follows these same vicissitudes of life because…well…acting is life.
So we have to allow it to live and breathe in these margins where the answers you’re looking for can’t be satisfied by pat, rote, one-plus-one-equals-two explanations.
I know this can be maddening because human beings like the answers for things now. We don’t understand process—or rather, we’d rather avoid process and just cut straight to the finish line and get the victory prize. We forget that the real victory is the process!
I was teaching in London recently and someone asked, “If I don’t use ‘sense memory’ in my work, where does that allow for catharsis in the actor’s process?”
At first I thought it was 1980 and I was being interviewed by James Lipton. I literally did a double take, partly because I didn’t understand the question and partly because the question itself started with a false premise. It’s all sense memory. Science has proven that we carry within us atomic bits of everything that have come before us in the universe. At a personal level we emotionally carry everything we need within us. It’s all autobiography. Our bodies have been imprinted with everything (pain, trauma, sadness, joy, love) and all these things are swirling about constantly—for every human being, not just actors. I don’t call it sense memory. I just call it who we are. It’s called being human.
Where is catharsis in the actor’s process?
Being alive is catharsis—waking up every day, facing your fears, having to go to work when you’d rather chuck it all and go on vacation, giving a homeless man a dollar, getting a divorce, taking a shower, going to the grocery store, saying hello to a stranger being rejected, planting a flower, taking a piss, moving to a new city, letting someone go, crying, laughing, smiling, shouting, breathing.
It’s all catharsis. We need to stop separating acting into some alien subset that adheres to different rules than life. It doesn’t.
And maybe with that realization right there we’ll breathe a little more easily into being OK without having perfect answers for things that are weirdly imperfect. And trusting that engaging in a process will reveal things to us in more profound ways we could have ever imagined (or reduced to one way of experiencing). Maybe then we’ll realize it’s all “surprise and discovery and deep feeling.” Indeed it is a constant forge.