Sunday, 21 April 2013

On believing in yourself...

I have always been a singer first and an actor second.  I started developing my musicianship and my singing technique long before I started to act on stage.  I took piano lessons and sang in choirs, and later on I began private voice lessons.  But I never took acting classes or joined a drama club.  In the course of my singing career, acting was something that just kind of happened to me.  It was like those parents that teach their kids to swim by throwing them into a pool.  At one point someone just plopped me on a stage and said "act".

I suppose some people would respond to this approach well.  They would act naturally, using their intuition.  But not me.  My response was more like this...

Uhhh... what?
I'm not the kind of person who listens to their intuition.  I like to learn things methodically.  I like to know exactly how I'm doing something, and why.  So when I was told to act, without any tools or method, without any guidance or technique, I got scared.  I didn't understand what to do.  I guess I saw that there was no one right answer and that kind of freaked me out.

As I continued my singing education, I never felt confident about my acting.  I thought some lucky people were just naturals at it, and I wasn't one of them.  People were always telling me that my acting was a weak spot.  And so I kept telling myself the same deadly words. 

"I can't."

These insidious words stayed with me all the time.  Eventually, they were what caused me to shy away from opera and pursue concert singing instead.  By singing in concerts, I could avoid the scary prospect of running around onstage, doing all kinds of crazy things and acting all kinds of crazy emotions.  I could essentially isolate my technique and musicianship and just be a "singing head".

Park and bark - sounds pretty good to me!
Eventually it dawned on me that nobody makes an entire career singing concerts anymore, and I began seriously pursuing opera.  But by this point it was too late.  I already had a firm idea fixed into my head: I can't act.  And so, even now that I am in an opera studio, this idea holds me back every day.

It's not that I don't try to act.  Of course I know it's something I have to do.  But I never do it with any amount of conviction.  I never take risks.  I never really go for it.  And it shows.  I'm always being told that I wasn't expressive enough, I didn't go far enough, I didn't make it big enough.  It frustrates me to no end.  I want so much to be that powerful actor that gives the audience goosebumps.  But what really happens is that I try just hard enough so that I can tell myself I'm trying.  I'm too afraid to really do it.  I'm too afraid to take the plunge.

This week we did some sessions with a fantastic Belgian director, and he saw right through me.  He knew there was a step to be taken and I didn't dare to take it.  He asked me about my background, and I explained it to him.  I told him how I had worked in an office and sung in concerts, and I hadn't had much experience in opera.  I told him that acting was still very new to me.  I told him I wasn't a natural like some people were.  I told him that nobody had ever properly taught me how to act.

Basically, I told him a load of excuses.  And he dismissed them all.

This director told me a difficult truth.  A truth that's always been somewhere, tickling at the back of my mind.  A truth I've always brushed away, because I didn't want to believe it, because I couldn't bear facing it, because I couldn't stand thinking about what it implied.  The difficult truth is this: nobody can teach me to act.  It's just something that I do.  And either I do it or I don't.

In fact, the difference between acting and not acting lies in two very powerful words.

"I can".

President Obama's advice on acting.
The director told me it was very simple - either I go for it all the way, or I never dare and I never learn to act.  After this moment of truth, he asked me to sing Prince Orlovsky's aria, and to go as far with it as I could.

For those of you who don't know, Prince Orlovsky is the host of the big party in Die Fledermaus.  He's a very strange man, and a complete alcoholic.  In his aria, he explains that if his guests don't keep up with his drinking he will throw them out the door.  So basically I had to act drunk and aggressive, and make my imaginary guests feel as uncomfortable as possible.

I had a long table and some chairs to work with.  And as a starting point - this is just a starting point, mind you - the director told me to try prowling around on top of the table like a lion.

Prince Orlovsky meets the Lion King.
Normally I would freeze up in this situation.  I hate doing crazy things like this.  I always feel like I'm going to "do it wrong" and end up looking stupid.  But this time was different.  This time I told myself "I can".  I gave myself permission to act as stupid and weird and drunk as I could possibly imagine.

I prowled around like a lion on top of the table.  I swiped at imaginary guests with my paws.  I took off my shoes and threw them away.  I rolled around in a drunken stupor.

I stopped worrying about doing things right and lived in the moment.  And you know what?  It was pretty good fun.

In retrospect, I think it was the first time that I really acted.

Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Stage.
All this time, I have been trying to act, but at the same time I've been saying to myself, "I can't".  I can't, I can't, I can't.  These may seem like only words, but they are actually extremely dangerous weapons.  If you say the words "I can't" to yourself enough times, the words turn into a belief.  As the belief strengthens, it turns into the type of action - or lack of action - which reinforces itself.  The more you tell yourself "I can't", the more true those words become.

The words you say to yourself are incredibly powerful.  They have a strong influence on how you think and act.  If you turn "I can't" into "I can", eventually you will start to think and act like someone who can.  But only you have the power to make this change.

When I gave up singing and went into arts administration, I remember that a small part of me hoped that someone would try to stop me.  A small part of me wanted someone to say "no, you are a really good singer and you can't give up".  But nobody did this for me.  Nobody told me I should keep pursuing singing.  That was something I had to figure out on my own.

When it comes down to it, there is only so much encouragement and motivation that you can expect from your friends, your teachers, and your mentors.  When it comes down to it, you have to be the ones who believes in yourself.  You have to be the one who says "I can".  Once you say that, and really believe it, you will be amazed by just how true it is.

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