How Do I Know If I'm Being "Too Big"?

The other day, a student came to me with the following frustration: “Teachers and directors have always told me that I can never do too much, that I should always go really big and then they can reign me in. But I want to know the real answer – how do you know if you’re doing too much?”

I love this question because she’s expressing a lack of trust in her past teachers and directors and a lack of trust in herself. She’s also expressing the need for more knowledge; to not settle for what she’s always been told because something inside of her says there’s more to the story.

Yes ma’am! Trust your gut!

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the majority of actors have heard that note, that you can never do too much or be too big and it’s up to the director to reign you in. That’s nice, but what if I’m in rural Arkansas learning a monologue from Noises Off in my high school bedroom for my college auditions and the theatre program at my school is almost non-existent? Where do I go from there if I don’t have anybody to reign me in?

If we’re always waiting for someone else to help us do our job, then how much can we really accomplish? That’s not to say we shouldn’t have others help us, we absolutely should. It’s part of the creative process and I am all about collaboration. However, there are many people out there who simply don’t have anyone to help them. If that’s you, I gotchu.

To answer my student, and for those playing along at home, you will never do too much or be too big if you are:

1. Truthful to the character in the moment

2. Putting your attention on the other character(s)

Let’s dissect that a bit.

If you’re playing the truth of the scene, and the truth of what the character wants and what the play intends for them, you can’t go wrong. This requires some digging into the character and the play, asking all sort of questions.

Here’s a sampling: Who are they? Why are they here? What were their expectations of what would happen today? What’s the best case scenario for them of how this scene could go? What do they want from the other person or people in the room? What and/or who is getting in their way of getting what they want and how do they handle that? What else have they done today? Where are they coming from? Do they tell any lies to themselves or others in the scene? What do they think of themselves? How do they talk about themselves? What keeps them in the room? What has gone right for them today? What has gone wrong for them today? What if they don’t get what they want from the other person or people in the scene?

If the truth makes me go way over the top, great. Go for it. As long as it serves the character and not youthe actor. I’ll say that again for the folks in the back: the goal of your actions and behaviors must be to help the character get what they want. If these actions and behaviors are self-serving and make the actor feel good for egotistical reasons (examples: I’m such a funny person so I’m going to make them laugh! I want to show them I can do this weird voice! I want to show them I can cry!, etc.), the audience will know it and will not be on board.

For example, if I go onstage with the goal of making people laugh, I’m making that about me the actor and not the character I’m playing. If I go onstage with the goal of making the other characters (not the actors) on stage laugh because that action is rooted in the truth of my character, go for it. In rehearsal, I’ll seek to learn how this character goes about getting the other characters to laugh. That how could be very different from my own personal how. Or it might be very similar to my own how. That’s what rehearsal is for. Make sense?

Now, when it comes to rehearsal, there’s a fine line between monitoring yourself and watching yourself.

When you’re monitoring yourself, you’re sensing your body and determining in the moment, “Did that feel right? Did that feel like the character? Is that something this person would do?”. You’re receiving feedback from your body in the moment while continuing to move yourself forward getting what you want from the other person. You’re going off of your impulses and then shaping them as they come in. You’re curious about if what you did helped you get the character what they want.

When you’re watching yourself, you’re planning and judging. You’re saying, “Ok, when I say that next line, I’m going to go over there and act really angry”, while you’re saying other lines. You’re planning ahead while also trying to stay in the moment and are therefore not in the moment. You’re judging what you just did and trying to get it right. It’s an element of getting in your head.

Cool cool cool, so where do I go from here?

Dig into the script. Ask tons of questions. Find those truths. Rehearse by yourself. Do too much. Do way too much. Go big. Go weird. Just make sure it serves the character.

That’s all for today! Comment if you have any questions or observations :)

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