Monthly Archives: November 2013

Don’t show us. Let us find it.

I attended a screening of the new film, Nebraska, with my Canadian actor and pal Jean Brassard. What a truthful bit of film-making it is and what amazing casting! In the live chat with Bruce Dern that followed, he shared some of his wisdom:

1. Don’t push. Don’t perform. Don’t show us anything. Let us find it.
2. Always leave a piece yourself at an audition, even if you have just 2-minutes of time. They will never forget that.
3. Take risks and build a family of creators around you.
4. Go home. Because that’s how you find out who you are.

I’m inspired to explore these themes in the next few entries.

First off: “Don’t push, don’t perform, don’t show us, let us find it.” Dern was told this by a casting director at one of his earliest auditions. How very compelling and very challenging! It seems like a contradiction – telling an actor not to show something; a performer not to perform. And it is a beautiful irony. Don’t the best performances seem somehow to be “dialed in”? It’s like they come from somewhere else. Genius and raw talent manifest in this way. An artist opens up and just streams the stuff from God knows where. That actor is a pure, clean channel. For me, its been precisely in those moments when I’ve managed to step beside myself and vanish for just a little while, that something real and truthful has been invited to come in. I feel at once all there and not at all there.

The best performances I’ve seen are also highly original and individual. I don’t think of us as purely pure channels. I do sense that there is a heightened awareness, yes, and a tuning that gives way to something less self-conscious. So what is performing anyway? Webster’s says it’s “presenting something, portraying a role, demonstrating a skill, taking action, enacting, and… beginning something and carrying it through. Now this really resonates with me. To perform is to carry something through, to quiet my urge to “show” something and allow something to show itself through me, using all my faculties and resources. I get myself out of the way to clear the way for something to convey. This is the essence of performing, of being a performer. For in handing myself over, I’ve still got myself in the mix.

Returning to Dern: Not to show something and instead letting it be found – how radical is that in our time and age! Where everything is shown, put up big and boldly and loudly, screaming at us all the time…”see me, see me, see me…want me!” – in advertising, in business, in our relationships.

For a thing to be found, it has to exist. It has to be available and given in the first place. No camera can find a thing that isn’t there, that hasn’t come into the room. Showing up is that thing given. Showing up at the audition, showing up for the camera, for the viewer, showing up for the carrying out. “Show up, don’t show off” is what Dern is advising. Present, but don’t push. Carry and stay, don’t get carried away. Convey, convey, convey. The rest is up to the finders.

Next Bruce Dern said: “Always leave a piece of yourself. They will not forget that.”

Still Body, Animated Mind

What is it that’s so powerful about the performers who can command the stage in stillness? I’ve felt their confidence and comfort in their bodies. I’ve felt the force of their imagination.

In striving for this stage stillness and power in myself, I’ve watched them. And I’ve watched the video footage of my own concerts (yikes! – there is no more honest teacher). I’ve reined in my movement and gesture a lot to where they’re very minimal now and, I feel, more gratifying to me and compelling for others.

It’s an ongoing thing to bring awareness to my body and how it moves in these intimate cabaret settings of mine where everything is amplified and easily “over the top.” I use to feel I had to “do” something and move somewhere to be expressive and effective. The result was fidgeting. Gratuitous movement rooted in insecurity took away from my artistry rather than enhanced it.

For a dancer, movement is the voice. For an actor, a wide sweep of gesture may support a particular role. For us singers of the small stage whose words and tones are essential, gesture should be more sparing, and naturally conversant in support of the story, character and lyric.

A pantomimist indicates the meaning of words and emotions to his heart’s content – it’s his very art. For singers, it points to amateurism. A cover or compensation for the lack of connection to our inner life. We see it in young performers who as yet have little happening on the inside and make it “happen” on the outside. Lots of coming and going, and broad sweeping gestures and raised eyebrows and moving body parts. It’s not just the “green” ones though, it’s anyone who hasn’t yet connected their inner riches with the meaning of their songs.

In the stillness of the body, there’s no rigidity. Still as I am, I’m not frozen or stiff. The life in me, my passion, courses through my veins. My breathing is relaxed and musical. Like a plant rooted in the earth, I’m rooted on the stage. My energy goes down into the boards and back up through me. Below the stage, I’m anchored in my intention. Above it, I’m alive in my imagination and desire to reveal myself.

I may have one or both hands at my side but they’re not weighted down. I give them a little lift in the elbow. Imagining that I have invisible strings on the tops of my shoulders gives my arms the gentlest lift away from the pull of gravity. What happens? My elbows and fingers open and begin to communicate. It’s a very subtle thing. And mostly, it’s still.

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