A life in theatre has many joys and challenges. Ideally, if we play our cards right and keep our ears sharp, we are able to find directors, writers, peers who challenge and inspire us, whom we trust and who trust us. Creative artists who make us brave to do something truly new each and every time.
The practicalities of that can be trickier. As actors, we get cast based on ways of working that we already do, in projects that we then need to work relatively quickly on (four weeks of ready-set-go!), and frequently with people who don’t know us, who may not appreciate when we start taking risks that don’t offer immediate and obvious results.
Which is fine. And then a few of these happen in succession, at varying intervals, and a year or two goes by, and one show and the next start feeling the same, a little. We avoid working in ways that are uncomfortable or that require more time or that don’t yield sure results (there’s no time! they won’t rehire me!), and don’t pay as much care to making sure we keep expanding as artists. And the weakest parts of our craft are completely avoided—there’s no time to expose those and deal with them, so we muscle through the best we can.
Taking Tyler Polumsky’s Creating a Character class was a great gift for me. It gave me a chance to take purely physical work—work which I freely admit is not my strongest suit—and give it time and attention. On some days it felt wonderfully free and redemptive: “Hey, look, I’m working in ways that are really opening me up!” and on some others I would hear my loudest, meanest critic shouting in my ear the whole
time, and be half a second from walking out the door, I’d be so frustrated. But I’d stay.
Sometimes improving is being the worst one in the class. Sometimes improving is letting yourself be mediocre for a while. Sometimes being “the class’ worst” is your personal best. Sometimes you fail, your ego bruises, and you need to go home, pat yourself on the back, sleep on it, reassess, bring it back. (Swearing a lot helps, too.) Sometimes you surprise yourself and do something awesome.
Working on your weaknesses—be it verse for one, physical for another,imagination for yet another, concentration for yet another—can be ego-busting business. It’s also where a lot of one’s vulnerabilities sit. It’s also where it’s most easy to mine for gold, since it’s the territory most left unexplored. Who knows what artist lies inside us, uncultivated because we can’t get past the topsoil to the good stuff down deep?
I leave Tyler’s class with a new understanding of fundamentals I already had, and excitement to approach material with new, risky ways of working. I feel less shy about exploring roles in more physical ways. I created things that didn’t exist before. I fought ten rounds with my critic and lived to tell the tale. I also met some great new peers, which was alone worth the price of admission. And even though that critic’s voice tried to shout me down: