In the Moment? When Else Would I Be?
Updated: Apr 5, 2019
What does that mean, “Stay in the moment?” It feels like one of those annoyingly vague directions where you’re not sure exactly what they’re really asking for, so you do what you hope they mean and see if they have more notes. But it’s really a pretty simple thing, which is probably why it’s not always as easy as it sounds like it should be.
To me, it’s forgetting that you are on a stage or on a set. It’s putting yourself into the moment of the scene with whoever is there with you as completely as you can. Listening is a big part of it, more on that later, but it’s also everything else that’s happening that we need to stay connected to. Not allowing ourselves to be distracted by the brilliance of our partner, the light we see over their shoulder or the guy that just walked in front of it, or the person in the first row that just giggled when we didn’t expect it. It’s training ourselves to let that noise fall into the background and just be with our scene partner, be affected by them and what’s happening between us and nothing else (yes, I’m ignoring stagecraft for the moment, I’ll get back around to that another day).
I have to confess, I tripped over this one recently. It was day one of a scene workshop and I was doing a scene from “The Fisher King” (which I love). I was Perry, and Lydia and I were at the end of our first date, I was walking her home. Now I love comedy, and I love playing it, so nothing that happened reading a scene written for Robin Williams should have surprised me. But it did. I did my homework on this scene and I knew how important it was for Perry to make the right impression on Lydia, it was very serious business Perry was up to, a lot was at stake. So the first time the class laughed at something I said, I was caught off guard, I was so engrossed in Perry intentions I hadn’t prepared myself for people to think anything that I was saying was funny at all. When they laughed, I heard it and it jarred me for a moment, it reminded me that I was in a scene, in a comedy. That didn’t kill the scene, but it was noticeable, and I got coached for it after we finished.
My next challenge is figuring out how can I prevent this. Can I even prevent it? Or can I just prepare myself for as many possibilities as I can imagine and then hope I didn’t miss one. I think that part of the answer is in the last one, at least it fits into my understanding of the world. We do everything we can to prepare, and then we do the work and see if we missed anything so we can take notes and learn. Next time we can be better prepared, next time maybe we can avoid that particular land-mine.
Now this is an acting improviser talking, so at some point I have to start talking about how improv helps us learn to stay in the moment. As improvisers we are engaged in a direct relationship with one or more scene partners, and we are building our world as we go. We don’t usually have the luxury of knowing who our character is before the scene begins, or who we’re talking to until it’s underway. So we have to dive right into the moment as it is being created, we have to be right smack in the middle of it and not let anything distract us from that. In order for this all to work as we are creating it we have to invest ourselves in the reality we are creating and let it breathe around us. Let it be the world we’re in for as long as the scene lives.
We practice this by improvising scenes, and I don’t think it matters if it’s long form, short form, dramatic, comedic, or any game at all. I believe that even if we’re playing the alphabet game you can practice this just by hanging on to the story, by only allowing ourselves to be affected by the other player or the situation. If the audience never laughs that doesn’t mean it was a bad scene, they could be thinking about what happened well after the end of the show. But if the audience laughs and we laugh with them, we take ourselves out of the moment, and worse we drag the audience out of it with us. We destroy the moment we created that moved them to react.
Next question I think I hear is, if I’m an acting improviser why didn’t my improv practice help me? Why did I fail to stay in the moment? I’ve been thinking about this since I started this blog, and I think it has a lot to do with my approach to that scene. I mentioned earlier that I did the preparation that the workshop is teaching me to use, as an actor. Remember how I said every actor is not an improviser, when I went to an ‘acting’ workshop I forgot to bring along my improviser, that’s the most obvious mistake I made. I left my improv experience at the door, I differentiated between the two because I was using prepared lines and that just didn’t feel naturally like improv. I left the greatest part of my training and preparation for performing at the door when I went in, and I should have had it with me the entire time.
Staying in the moment is more than not breaking character after a funny line; don’t get too hung up on one aspect of it. Know your character, know the other characters, and remember what you’re after in the scene and then listen to your scene partner and react to how they are talking to you. React to their attitude, tone, look, posture; how they say the line will usually tell you more than the line will. Hang onto them, that person is important so pay attention because if you didn’t care you wouldn’t even be there.