Performing requires a balance of a huge number of factors that can make or break your ability to communicate effectively. Breath and sound, thought and emotion, action and reaction, ease and effort. As you perform, you release energy through your nervous system into action. Finding the right balance is hugely challenging. How much energy is needed to reach your acting partner and your audience? Too much, and you appear false and pushed; too little, and you can’t be heard, and your action/reaction can’t be seen. How do you find that balance?
Imagine a tightrope walker, working her way across the rope, carefully judging each step. Better yet, imagine yourself as the tightrope walker. Visualize what you would see, but more importantly what you would feel. In imagining this myself, my attention is first drawn to the idea of focus: this is a life-or-death activity. I must pay attention to all that I can in order to stay on that line. Where does my focus lie? In my feet, and their connection to the floor; in my alignment, sensing my body in space, adjusting to the sensations around me; in the moment, in moving my feet forward, in getting to my goal at the end of the rope. I’m not thinking about what I’m going to be making for dinner. I’m tuned into this place, this time, this activity: my life depends on it. Is it hard physical work? No. But it requires all my attention.
Acting is like that: it requires all your attention. And yet, it requires a sense of ease: it’s not a tense activity, but one where you are responsive to your environment, which includes your acting partner and the audience. That sense of ease demands a certain confidence. It’s a belief that you are worthy of being seen and heard, that your goal is achievable, that you dare to share your what scares you, that you allow your body/mind to respond "truthfully" to stimulus in the moment, without judgment, without scripting. Unfortunately, we don’t always find ourselves in the place where we have that confidence. Our fears of failure lead to second guessing, to planning the moment in order to get it "right," to limiting our responses to what we imagine before we start. And what so often happens is we fall into two ways of hiding that lack of confidence: we compensate by over-energizing, or by de-energizing.
Patsy Rodenburg, one of the most influetial voice teachers in the world, has taught, written and lead workshops around this idea a great deal. She uses the terms “Bluff” and “Deny” to describe these states. Bluffing is when you push vocally, you force your way through your argument, you demand attention without earning it. It’s a great term to describe the action the actor is using in their performance. They are playing at their objective, faking their way through it by insisting that this work. Denying is when you don’t give enough to the action you’re playing, you speak to quietly, you don’t commit to the demands of the language you’re speaking. Because you don’t believe that you can do it, you either pretend you can and bluff, or you admit defeat and deny. And though Antony is lying in Julius Caesar when he says "I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,/ Action, nor utterance, nor the powers of speech/ To stir men’s blood; I only speak right on," we must embrace his idea: that in speaking “right on,” we find ways to not to bluff through wit or words, but to simply put our focus into the language for all we’re worth.
So how do we practise this ideal, of speaking “right on?” Rodenburg suggests we start simply, and feel our way through the via negativa ("to describe God by describing what He is not"), to explore the idea and sensation of Bluff and Deny, and then try to find the middle road that is neither over-doing or under-doing. Balance is that state where one is neither falling off the rope to the left, nor falling off to the right… it is a constant state of adjustment, not a single thing, but a process.
So let’s take a simple phrase, a kind of affirmation, the kind of thing that is easy to not believe in, to force it, or pull back from because we all struggle with our self-worth, just like Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley. “I am worthy.” It’s nothing magic, it’s just a simple phrase about being “good enough.” It could be very funny; it could be deadly serious: it all depends on your point of view. For the sake of this experiment, let’s play with it as being deadly serious.
Here’s the experiment: Bluff your way through the phrase “I am worthy” in as many different ways as possible. Go to extremes. This is about falling off that balance point. Then begin to find the edge: where does it become questionable whether I’m pushing or not? Can you bluff physically, vocally, intellectually, emotionally?
Now try the opposite experiment: Deny your way through the phrase “I am worthy” in as many ways as you can. How small can you go? What pulls it "off" the balance? What does truth have to do with this? Can you find the place where it’s not clear whether you’re Denying or not? What happens physically, vocally, intellectually, emotionally, as you Deny?
You might now take a passage from something you know: a monologue, a poem, a song lyric. Try to work your way through the text, neither falling to left or right, but walking the tightrope of the language. If nothing comes to mind, try working your way across this tightrope of poetry by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:
Constantly risking absurdity
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of the day
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
for what it may not be
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind. © 1958
In both Bluff and Deny, we discover symptoms that keep coming up. Signs that can be read by the audience or your scene partner that in many ways call you a liar. That announce that you’re not speaking “right on.” Many times, there are vocal signals: not enough or too much breath energy, vocal energy, pitch, melody, phrasing, breathiness, vocal press, manipulated diction, that doesn’t suit the space or the relationship. Each of us have our favourites, our habits that we go to by default, that we must overcome in order to go from where we “left off” in order to be “right on.” We must not "mistake / any thing / for what it may not be."
There is no one right way to speak“right on.” There are a million ways, each in response to the moment, the given circumstances, and your personal state-of-being. And there are infinite ways of losing that balance, and falling into bluff or deny. Sometimes the demands of a theatre require a scale that, if we were not acting but merely living “real life,” would feel as though we were bluffing. Sometimes the demands of a film scene, with the camera in a tight close-up, that would seem like denying in “real life.” But neither theatre nor film are real. They are a version of reality, shaped for the audience, filtered by the actor, the director and the crew. Truth is not a single thing, it is many things in response to the changing world around us. And speech is often about feeling out the world around us, sensing out our place in it, and speaking appropriately. We all have the tools to feel that. We must all embrace the world, and our place in it, to find that balance.
We are all worthy.