Green Shirt Studio

How I learned to stop worrying and trust the unknown

Andrew Gallant

Earlier this week, we got an email from a student about a scene she had just performed in class, a performance in which she discovered a new level of honesty and emotional depth in her work. Her email read: “Not sure what just happened. But thanks for that.” Embedded in this seemingly simple email is the DNA of a fundamental problem actors (and all artists) face: the struggle to give up control.

The desire to control is a seductive force. We are culturally obsessed with planning for the future, laying out career paths and giving infants college funds. The entire insurance industry is built upon our desire to foresee every outcome and protect us from the unknown. We pathologically work to eliminate any threat to our knowing what is going to happen because, if we know, then we can control. But this mindset, all of it, is death for an artist.

In every acting or improv class you’ve ever taken, you’ve heard your teacher say, “get out of your head.” I heard it every day of my own training. When I first started as an actor, I went in with the mindset that I could solve the problem of acting. I can remember my frustration and hurt as my plans crumbled because of collaborators not doing what I wanted them to do. The more the world around fought me, the deeper and deeper in my head I went. I craved the safety of my plan. I feared the unknown. And my acting sucked as a result. I’m not being hard on myself, it’s just the truth. My acting was bad and I knew it, and that put me in my head even more. Over time, my jaw and hands became more tense and my breath became shallower as my body tried to muscle through the fear I felt but tried to outwardly deny.

I see actors like this all the time in classes and on stage, actors who prefer to work impossibly hard to shut out what is going on around them or force some inorganic idea into their work rather than give up control and admit how vulnerable they actually are. Many hide behind an effortful and false veneer of fearlessness. Having been there myself as a performer, I know how empty and hollow that posturing is. The creative act is terrifying. Acting is doubly scary because you have to perform the creative act in front of others instead of behind closed doors. I’m here to tell you, you DO NOT have to deny that you are afraid, but you do need to find the courage do your work and give up control no matter how exposed and vulnerable you may feel.

So how did I do it? So how did I give up control? It’s a simple thing really. I finally noticed (with a lot of help from a lot of great teachers) the fact that I NEVER HAD CONTROL. Not once. I’d never been able to make things happen the way I had intellectually envisioned them and I was ruining my acting, my body and my voice trying to hang on to the illusion of control. When I began to understand that all the work I was doing to control my acting was wasted effort, I began to find a new path. Tension finally released and acting began to feel fun again. I began to love that, onstage, anything could happen.

It is a fundamental truth of the world: You will never be completely in control. The world is too big with too many people in it and too many variables to ever plan for everything. The more you grip, the more it slips through your fingers. Anyone who has ever been in a theatrical production knows that no two shows are the same. Theater at its core is an art of the temporary, each show a once-in-a-lifetime event. So why not learn to work in such a way that embraces the unknown?

And you do have to work. Giving up control is not permission to be lazy. In fact, I believe that you must work obsessively and tirelessly as an actor and artist. What is important is that you do the right kind of work, the kind of work that supports and nourishes the creative act rather than the kind of work that feeds the ego and fuels self-consciousness. There is a quote I love that goes something like, “We make a pot from clay, but it is the emptiness that holds water.” Our job as artists is to work in such a way that the conditions are right for inspiration and creativity to occur knowing that we cannot control creativity itself. As an actor, you personalize, you learn your lines by rote, you rehearse, you research and you work on your body and voice. That is our clay. You do all that work so that, in the moment on stage or in front of the camera, you can put all of your attention on your scene partner and get out of your own way. The right work done offstage will let you trust that you can open yourself to the creative spark of the moment.

As our student discovered and expressed in that email, when you do the right work, you can let go and magic just might happen.