When I went to see a play a few weeks ago that was a beautiful and heartfelt piece of writing, I became deeply frustrated with some of the actors in the production. I watched as very well-respected actors, in beautiful costumes on a lavish set, talked at each other and not much else. They said the lines, at a good pace and with practiced articulation, but there was something absent.
Across the theater from me, I noticed other audience members shifting in their seats, and thumbing through their programs, clearly bored by the proceedings. A few began to nod off. On the surface, all the pieces of a great show were in place, but it all just felt thin.
As I continued to watch, growing increasingly restless, the heart of the problem became clear: The actors had no personal investment in any of it. Nothing meant anything to anyone. It was as if they were going through the motions without actually being present to any of it. It was as if they were comfortably asleep.
We are culturally obsessed with comfort. I mean, how many commercials for mattresses have you seen or heard this week? Chances are, if you spend any time at all consuming media, the answer is “more than a few.” They are everywhere. Billboards of beautiful people sleeping with satisfied smiles on their faces dot the landscape. Preoccupied with what level firmness will give us the best night’s sleep or which coat lining will keep us warmest as we wait for the train, we go about our days seeking relief from the discomforts of this life. This culture teaches us that searching for ergonomic chairs and adequately arch-supportive shoes might lead us to happiness. And we learn that those things that make us feel anything other than comfort are a barrier between us and our happiness. So we learn to value things that are easy and convenient. We learn to value detachment. And we fall asleep.
But we actors cannot be asleep, not if our work is to be any good. We must reject the notion that the things that make us uncomfortable are problems to be eliminated, and we must, right now, stop confusing our being comfortable with our being happy. The things that actually have lasting meaning in our lives are not easy and they aren’t convenient.
In classes I work with my students to find the courage to do and feel the big, difficult things that scripts demand of them. These students are sometimes hesitant to work in ways that require them to put their personal comfort on the line. Some would prefer to pretend rather than actually experience. Some confide in me that they are worried that going to uncomfortable places in their acting will harm them psychologically. Obviously, we must work in a way that is healthy and doesn’t harm us or anyone else. That should go without saying. But also have to find ways to truthfully embody characters who are going through unbelievably uncomfortable things. The good news is we can do both.
We can be healthy in our lives and also go to uncomfortable places in our work because, in spite of whatever messages we get to the contrary, comfort is not the same thing as happiness. In fact, our obsession with staying comfortable is an impediment to true happiness. Because happiness doesn’t come from our level of ease, it comes from living a life of meaning. True joy does not come to us in the form of comfort, it comes to us when we risk connecting ourselves to the world. It comes when we let the world actually mean something to us, when we dare to love. It comes when we choose to care enough about something to fight for it. And yes, sometimes when we care, we get hurt. Sometimes when we love someone, they leave us. Our dreams sometimes stay just dreams no matter how hard we work to make them real. And our lives are richer for having put ourselves on the line. The ways in which we let ourselves be open to and affected by the things in our lives that matter define us as human beings. When we actors, connected and vital, bold and vulnerable, risk devoting our whole selves to the work we do, comfort be damned, the rooms we play in become temples. The rooms we work in become places where, together, we all grow more awake.