01 August 2008

Lose Your Self


It's been a time of some frustration for me, lately. Frustration is not a particularly novel emotion on my part, I must confess. I'm something of a tense individual. (Please withhold any cries of "Understatement!" That's impolite.) My tendency is to hold energy in and rigorously control or funnel it when I let it out, which is part of why I find certain acting environments so appealing. Some because they are well served by this familiar approach, and others because they encourage me to abandon it completely, which is liberating. My natural impulse, however, is to control. Always has been, really. Any departures from that are still, no matter how incorporated they've become into my lifestyle, somewhat experimental. Some part of my mind is always thinking, Okay boss; this is great and all, and I'm learning a lot, but when do we return to terra firma here? Now, it's not that my approach hasn't rewarded me. It has. Greatly, at times. However, in the long run, it's an obsessive approach, and therefore at best limiting -- at worst, damaging.

Saturday I had my second exploit into the misty realm of acupuncture. My first was several years ago, when I volunteered as a patient of cranial acupuncture for a demonstration to be given to a class of acupuncturistas. That was pretty intense. It was supposed to treat my ETs -- mysterious medical condition, not league of other-worldly gardeners -- and it probably did, but it's always difficult to say. Qi/Chi? Meridians? Or simply reflexive muscle stimulation and a little calm attention? Whatever the function, Fiancee Megan has been reaping great rewards from acupuncture lately, and with a personal recommendation to her acupuncturalama, I went under the pin in the hopes of treating my recent struggles with ma' balls. Fine: my "pelvic floor dysfunction." But I still prefer to view it as an epic battle betwixt me, and ma' balls. Which, you know . . . might be indicative of said control issues. I am a land divided!

Recently I have had cause to observe a very interesting sequence of development in a short play I've been working on as an actor. I feel as though I've learned a lot about myself through it, which is not something I was expecting when it began. My frustration in this process can best be summed up as a difference of opinion. At first, I thought my difference of opinion was simply between me and the director, which happens all the time and is one thing. But due to various circumstances, I discovered my opinion differed from most of the other actors, and the playwright as well. I perceived the script, as it originally started, as a more naturalistic, character-driven story. Through various stages of working and some unusual factors, the concept was taken more toward farce, then amped up to screw-ball, and finally the script was pretty majorly revised to accommodate those changes in style and plant the story firmly in that genre. To put it plain, I began with one script that I liked, and it's ending with one almost entirely other. This is not the first time this has happened to me, but for one reason or another, it bothered me more this time. Whether or not it began with my own misconception of the piece, it has taken a lot of effort on my part to fulfill others' expectations.

I had been anticipating acupuncture to be a bit like a massage, in the weeks leading up to my appointment. You know, something that might at times be painful, yet ultimately relaxing. I may be a bit of a controlling obsessive (a tiny bit), but I've come to appreciate instances in which I'm expected to relax and allow things to happen to me. If I can avoid any hostile emotions, I do pretty well with that. It's a relief. Well, it turns out that acupuncture can be a bit of work. (I might've known.) Since I am treating what is essentially a self-inflicted injury, it makes poetic sense, at least, that I might have to put a little effort into treating it. The first acupuncture appointment is two hours long, so they can get the run-down on your condition, Chinese-medicine style. They could see the problem I was dealing with in my body, as I stood before them in my underwear. According to my acupuncturians, I'm all bent out of shape (no, really) in numerous subtle places. Also: I'm a liver person. This apparently means I tend to be frustrated, to rise up against challenges with a somewhat fervent and stubborn passion. They may eat ox tail, but those Chinese know something about something.

I didn't know what to expect of our premiere of an essentially new play, midway through our run. My character's opening monologue was changed pretty drastically, with some very out-of-left-field stuff, and I couldn't get effectively off-book for it in time. I could get off-book, but not effectively. So, with the playwright's permission, I took it in hand as a sort of Zuppa-del-Giorno adjunct to my performance, and largely winged it (wung it?). After all, the play had been changed significantly, and in the direction of absurdity, so maybe it would be best to go with that current and risk more, rather than less. I can improvise a monologue all day, but no one in my cast knew that, seeing as they had from me the careful development process over the previous month that I apply to a more naturalistic role. They seemed to largely take my angst over the changes to be anxiety over performing them, and I didn't try to dissuade this opinion, because my opinions of the play itself had very little to do with the job I had to do. I didn't want to get into a debate over the relative value of the play or the changes; I just wanted to get on with it. And what was the worst that would happen if I broke out my improvisatory style in performance? It tanks, and the playwright has something to consider the next time he has the impulse to revise midway through a run. So I set foot on stage that night, and wanged. Wung. What you will.

I could at first barely feel the needles the day after the performance, they were applied with such a gentle touch, and in gradual stages of difficulty. I had two practitioners working with me, and they talked to me throughout, because I admitted my curiosity and, eventually, they needed to give me instructions. The needles were being applied to my front, and the final stages were in my calves and lower abdomen. That's when they started to sear a bit through, er, my meridians, as they slid in to their work. And one of the practitioners started to see a habit of mine, of my breathing, that she thought was contributing to my pelvic difficulties. Namely, that I breathe into my stomach, expanding it, and drive the air out when I'm exerting effort, constricting my abdomen to push. It's called diaphragmatic breathing; it's something every stage actor is trained in. And, as she was raising her voice to get me to reverse this physical tendency and relax (most self-nullifying command in the English language), I realized that she was right. I constantly contract my abdomen, even unrelated to my breathing. I've been doing it since high school. Through an extreme effort, I managed to reverse, to stretch my abdomen flat and long on the inhale and "relax" it out on the exhale, and they finished my poking, covered me with a thermal blanket and left me in the room to rest and let the needles do their work.

There's a certain relaxation to giving in to a force, or forces. I quickly reached my monologue Friday night, and let 'er rip. There was no shortage of energy, certainly, because it is a thrill, however familiar, to face an audience with something less than a plan. Yet I was relaxed, because it didn't matter what happened. Win, lose or draw, I couldn't even be sure what one or the other would look like. So I did my thing . . . and it was a hit. Even I was surprised; not because I didn't expect to succeed or because I thought the new play wasn't viable, but because in all my resistance to the changes I had felt that I wouldn't be able to leave that frustration behind, that I would inevitably carry it on stage with me. Somehow I had let it go, and the audience was delighted with my performance. The whole performance went great. Was I wrong about the changes? Should I have let go from the word go, and not complicated things with my opinions, my liver-induced feelings?

Lying there in a dark room the next day, riddled with pins, I managed to let go of a little bit of what all was pent up inside. Just a couple of spurts of acknowledged helplessness. That's what prayer essentially is, you know: letting go.

Acting is a confusing business, not to mention art form. I often forget what I'm doing here. Like an Alzheimer's patient, I'll suddenly awake to the room around me and be baffled at what my purpose was in entering it. The key to it is, I want to be an actor. Not a stand-up comedian, not a circus performer, not a mime or clown, and certainly not a clerk or secretary. All those roles are very nice, and I've been lucky enough to experience them all, and have opportunities to return to them. Yet an actor is a specific person, with specific goals that surpass entertainment. Perhaps we lose sight of that as a result of the actor seeming to be anything, seeming like a compilation of roles, all adding up to a bizarre nullification of identity. The experience of this show, however fraught, has served to remind me of what it is that separates an actor from a performer. An actor dares to let all of his or her practice, and technique, and safety go, and offer the self in every aspect up to the moment, to the risk of failing to entertain, in the pursuit of truth. An actor is not a cypher for any one person or idea, but for everyone. And I want, more than any of those other things, to be an actor.

The final diagnosis of my acupuncturologisti was that I needed to give up all front-ways strength training until my issue gets resolved, that I need -- if I am to continue exercising at all -- to find a way to do it that lengthens and relaxes my abdomen. And, ultimately, I need to find a different approach to working, altogether. Because my health and work isn't about just one direction of strength, or the appearance of success. It's about the risk of being open, of allowing what will be, and of constantly discovering new ways of being and, thereby, new risks.

But I'm still doing my push-ups. Damn it.

3 comments:

Kara Tyler said...

Acupuncture is a very odd experience. I did it while pregnant with Fionna because she was breach and it totally works. You can feel it working. Personally though I didn't like it at all, a little too much reality and submission for me.

I'm sorry to hear your testes are giving you trouble; that's not at all what they're for!

Jeff Wills said...

Indeed not! I keep telling them that. "Guys: fo' reals. You're off the reservation here."

Yes, I believe in the effects of acupuncture, just not all the Chinese attribution of the causes. And it works. Hoo, boy. Just feeling acouple of the pins they applied to my calves was enough to make me a believer.

Damn it. Now I've got The Monkeys stuck in my head.

Patrick said...

Oh so much to think about here: big surprise. I am definitely doing acupuncture again. I loved it the two times I did it, but it was never this comprehensive. I will also recommend zero balancing body-work to you. I haven't done it in months, but it was making a big difference for me. I'm getting all bent out of shape again now though.