Friday, December 11, 2009

15 minutes a day

I didn't actually read this book, but someone explained the principle to me -- that accomplishing a little something everyday can add up to a lot -- and I embraced it, in writing my dissertation on Thomas Bernhard in German studies at Stanford, and I found it to very effective. The biggest enemy of the writer (I'll get to actors in a moment) is procrastination. The magnitude of the task at hand just feels so great, that you just don't want to start. This procrastination persists over time, and then guilt starts to set in, which in turn compounds the procrastination, and creates a vicious cycle. By telling yourself that you ONLY need to write fifteen minutes a day, and NOTHING MORE if you don't feel like it, you eliminate the difficulty with facing the daunting magnitude of taking on the whole project at once. By only needing to take on a little bit at a time, the fear factor is greatly diminished.

But there are other substantial benefits to the fifteen minutes a day plan: by staying connected, if only in a relatively small way, to the project at hand, the mind stays engaged with the project, so that when you are doing other things, washing your hair, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, a part of your mind will be chewing on the problem, even if it is not in the foreground of your mind. You will find that when you return to your writing the next day, things that may have seemed intractable or puzzling the previous day will have sorted themselves out. I used to experience this all the time when I worked as a software engineer: I would puzzle over some bug for hours, finally give up and go home, and then, over the weekend, while I was eating a hot dog or cutting my toenails, the answer would come to me, like a bolt from the blue. The thing that had eluded me was suddenly visible, and the bug dissolved before my eyes. By exposing yourself to your work on a daily basis, you keep the unconscious mind churning, and you maximize the likelihood that it will spit a solution out into your lap.

This is an extremely valuable principle for actors. I require my acting students to meet once per week to rehearse. Some of them meet more than that, but that is the minimum. Some of them end up meeting the day of class and rehearsing before the class starts. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, it sometimes means that the student is leaving the scene alone for the whole week and then taking it up only when he comes to rehearse it. He doesn't make a conscious decision to do this, but life happens, way leads on to way, and before he knows it, a week has passed and he has not thought about the scene. In that time, the scene has morphed into a foreign, unfriendly entity; the warm glow of familiarity has not been allowed to grow through repeated exposures.

Even the actor who does little outside of rehearsal but meets her partner midway through the seven days between classes to rehearse is better off, for she is re-exposed to her work every three days or so, between rehearsing and coming to class. But the best case scenario is that the actor does some work on the scene each day, even if only fifteen minutes worth. You'd be surprised at how much you can accomplish in fifteen minutes of focused work, and that does tend to accumulate quickly as the days and weeks pass. Plus, you get the enormous added benefit of staying close to your work, so that your comfort with it grows, it begins to appear less demanding and menacing, and your mind continues to chew on the problems even as you are occupied with other things.

WHAT TO DO in those fifteen minutes depends on the actor and the process she is exploring or embracing in her work. I present a framework in my class for developing a role based on the training I encountered at the Yale School of Drama, but it is certainly not the only possible framework. That is not really at issue here. What is at issue is the actor developing the discipline to stay close to his work. This, in the end, probably makes as much difference as the precise kind of work that is done in those fifteen minutes. There is a quote that is ascribed to Aristotle incorrectly; it is actually from a man named Will Durant, who was paraphrasing Aristotle : "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Sustained excellence over time depends as much on the way the actor approaches his or her task as it does on what she actually achieves in any given performance situation. Slow and steady, and all that.

This principle dovetails nicely with the principle of units initiated by Stanislavsky, today commonly referred to as "beats." Acting students everywhere are taught to break down the scene into beats, but the justification for doing so is not often explained. In the "Units and Objectives" chapter in An Actor Prepares, Stanislavsky famously used the metaphor of a large cooked turkey that needed to carved up into manageable, bite-sized portions in order to be consumed. The only way to accomplish a monumental task (like embodying a role) was to break it down into smaller ones. He wasn't taking about the rate at which these tasks are tackled, as I am in this article, but the underlying principle is the same: what seems impossible becomes possible when broken down into its constituent parts.

I will note that I do not think classes that offer the actor the chance to "come and work every day of the week" necessarily addresses the issue I am confronting here, and that is because it is imperative that the actor to develop the ability to work on his role without supervision. The input of teachers and coaches is invaluable, but an actor who relies completely on them will be in trouble when facing a difficult or incompetent director. The actor needs to make friends with working by herself, and develop confidence in her ability to do so. I am not saying it is a bad thing for an actor to go to a class every day, but doing that does nothing to bring the actor to develop creative self-reliance. Wittgenstein used a metaphor of a ladder which can be thrown away once you have climbed it to describe the role of philosophy. An actor might look at ther training ins a similar light: ultimately, she wants to reach a vantage point where she can do her work with or without the help of well-wishers and sherpas. That is the source of true creative strength.

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