Agnes, don’t try so hard

Hello Agnes –

That isn’t your name. Rather, it is the name of your character in She Kills Monsters, the play by Qui Nguyen. You were in a production of it I saw at a local college.

You have nice talent, Agnes. You’ve a clear voice, a steady body, and you seem bright. But you need to work less.

By this I mean you need to work less on emotions.

Agnes, you spent most of the show working yourself up to cry in the big emotional ending scenes. So, steadily through the performance the audience got to hear ever more audible huffing and puffing — panting, practically, and we got to watch your hands get twitchy, and we got to watch you play with your hair, and grimace and twitch during scenes while other actors were speaking, all so you could triumphantly raise your head and show your tear streaked face — streaked by real tears — a few minutes before the end.

What you were doing is called Pumping. It’s pushing on your body to amplify (or perhaps create) emotional energy. It’s a big temptation for young actors playing what appear to be emotional roles. Crying in front of an audience is a merit badge or a medal — an Iron Cross for an actor. An indicator that one has “arrived.”

It’s an awful thing to do. It’s selfish, and rude as well.

It’s selfish because it takes you out of the scenes you’re in with other actors. Your body is there, but you’re not really listening. Your attention is on your cry-o-meter, watching that needle creep up into the red. “High five! I’m almost there,” you think. Perhaps you demonstrate the level of emotions coursing through you: a couple of unscripted stutters on your next line, some shaky hand motion, some hair acting.

You’ve made the whole thing about you, and the rest of the cast, and the play itself, is there to spur you on to your big moment.

Do you not think it rude that your scene partners have to deliver their lines over your panting? That they have to deliver monologues while you jump and react and twitch and pull the focus of the audience to you? That regardless of what they do in a scene, that whatever they might give you, how you will respond is pre-determined, because what you’re doing is setting yourself up for the ending.

And isn’t it it especially rude to the audience? They didn’t come to the play to see you cry, you know. They came to see a story with ups and downs and surprises. But because you’ve redefined your role in the show, what they get to watch is you building up like a balloon. There’s no surprise: the performance is about waiting for you to pop. And during the wait they’ll have trouble hearing lines because you’re panting and puffing — the sound of air escaping from the pump. And they’ll be distracted by your hands and whatever else you’re up to.

No one wants to watch other people’s emotions. It’s embarrassing. Do you like watching people cry or yell or breakdown in real life? You don’t, do you? It’s uncomfortable. And if it goes on for a long time it gets tedious. It gets uncomfortably boring. That’s what you gave the audience last night. You made us uncomfortable, and you made us want the show to end quickly. We’re there thinking, “Please pop and get it over with.”

You didn’t give us a full experience. You didn’t give us the journey of the character as she found out the reality of her sister, because you were busy working on the ending the whole time. You didn’t give us moments of humor, or confusion — the things the character was discovering, the quirky friends, the richness of Tilly’s life, about which your character had no idea. All you gave us was a one note melody of trying to get yourself to tears. 90 minutes of you worried about the ending.

The audience wants ups and downs. The audience wants to guess at characters and their emotions and thinking. They want to unravel the play, and you, the same way your character wants to unravel Tilly. They don’t want to watch you get increasingly upset and increasingly giving away the punch at the ending. How dull. How selfish.

So, Agnes, and any other young actors reading this, think about how you function in real life. Think about how much you cover your emotions up, how much you lie about what you really feel. Think about the feelings you go out of your way to avoid expressing, to avoid feeling.

Your character works the same way, and you have to respect that basic truism of human inner life in your performance.

Ponder what the CHARACTER learns during the course of the play. That is the map of the character’s journey, that and nothing else. How the actor thinks the ending should be, how the director wants the ending to play out, that is actually a secondary concern for you. If the script is well-written, and She Kills Monsters is a killer good script, then the ending will take care of itself: It’s baked into every scene of the play without any extra spice from you.

Ask yourself this question: is the play about me feeling something, or the audience feeling something? Kiddo, they paid $10 to feel something, not for you to feel something.

I was directing a production of Amadeus, and an actor in a critical role complained about a scene one rehearsal: “I’m not feeling it,” he whined. I told him that was fine as long as the audience was feeling it, and I was sure they would.

Good lord! The nerve! 200 people in the house tonight to watch you cry?! Isn’t it a bit ridiculous when you look at it in terms of that?

So, back to work, Agnes. Don’t lose heart. You’re probably not reading this anyway. But this is good advice, and you’d be smart to take it.

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