By Craig Wallace
The ability to calm and focus the mind is essential to an actor’s success, in an audition and in a performance. I see how neglected this discipline is when I’m teaching. I’ve found that problems arise for an actor not so much from lack of understanding, but from the lack of focus and concentration it takes to apply what is being taught and follow it all the way through the process.
It used to surprise me when I saw actors struggling to sustain concentration for a 90-second reading. But when you consider that we’re living in a time of chronic technological and social overload, it’s actually no surprise at all. We have so much information coming at us from so many different directions and devices that our ability to stay with a thought or a feeling for more than a nanosecond has been seriously compromised. Frankly, our minds are in chaos.
One of the simplest and most effective ways to move from chaos to clarity is through a meditation practice. Meditation is a very big part of my life, and I have had a dedicated daily practice for the past fifteen years. Recently I’ve become intrigued and inspired by all of the different ways mindfulness meditation is being used to improve people’s quality of life. In fact, some of the largest corporations in the world, as well as hospitals, universities, governments and even the army have implemented mindfulness programs to improve focus, concentration, and clarity.
With so many different individuals and groups reaping the benefits of mindfulness meditation, it only seemed fair that there should be a dedicated practice designed to meet the needs of the auditioning actor. So, with the help of two of my teachers, I did just that and The Meditation for Actors Class was born!
The practice we created helps actors regain control of their wild, distracted minds. It strengthens concentration and establishes a stable inner environment that allows the actor to explore their emotional life safely, deeply, and kindly. This practice also develops and refines the ability to focus and fully live in each moment and makes space in the mind, body, and heart to breathe, to listen, and to create. In fact, the applications of meditation to the acting process are seemingly endless.
I have been very inspired by the depth, clarity, specificity, and strength that meditation has brought to the work of the actors who have taken this class. Callbacks and bookings are on the rise, and rooms that used to intimidate are now being handled with control and presence. These actors are living proof that sometimes the most effective technologies aren’t the newest, but the ones that have been tried and true around for 2600 years or so!
Now, let’s continue on this beautiful and powerful journey.
When actors call me to ask for help on an audition, I ask what they’ve done with the piece so far. Many times the answer goes something like this: “I looked at it really quickly on my iPhone in the car then called my agent to get more information. Then I read it again and sent a couple of texts to people who know the casting director. Then I called you.” This type of response makes me cringe.
If you allow yourself to read the material for the first time with a scattered and unfocused mind then you have chosen to put that frantic mind in charge of making your creative and technical decisions. It’s like getting on a bus knowing the driver is on crack.
Your entire audition can be made or broken by what happens during the first few minutes you spend with the sides. You only get one shot at reading a piece for the first time, and if your mind is agitated you’ve wasted a golden opportunity to take the material in with emotional openness and mental calm.
Here’s a healthier thing to do before you read your sides for the first time. Find a quiet place to be and sit. Don’t look at the material. Don’t read the breakdown. Don’t call anybody. Just sit. It’s time to get mindful.
One of the primary benefits of mindfulness mediation is increased focus. This is achieved by putting your attention on one object and keeping it there. The breath is a common object of attention in meditation, as it’s always with you and it’s portable.
Sit on the floor – preferably on a cushion or pillow with your legs crossed if front of you and your knees lower than your hips. Sit straight, but not rigid with hands in your lap or resting on your thighs. You can also meditate sitting in a chair keeping both feet firmly planted on the floor. Here is a link to help you out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6ksgvCECcI
Now, close your eyes and take three deep breaths to get you started. Let your body settle and let your mind relax, breathe normally, and focus on just the in breath and the out breath. (You can label the breaths as “in” and “out” if that helps.) See if you can feel the breath going in and out at the tip of the nostrils and put all of your focus on that spot and on the sensation of the breathe traveling in and out of the tip of your nose. When your mind wanders – and it will – just come back to the breath, labeling in and out and focusing on the sensation of the breath at the tip of the nose. If you are new to meditation, start with five minutes. That will seem like an eternity so don’t worry and don’t try to overachieve. Meditation is not a contest.
Right before the time is up, take three more deep breaths, again noting the in breath and the out breath and the sensation at the tip of the nostrils. Open your eyes and sit for a moment to reorient yourself. Get up slowly, stretch, take one more deep breath, and NOW pick up the sides and do your first read though.
You will find that your mind is relaxed, focused, and open. It’s not chattering and offering a million opinions. It’s quiet and receptive. Your heart will also be more open, and you can more easily establish an emotional connection to the material.
By making the choice to sit still and focus – instead of running in circles – you have put yourself in control of your mind and heart, thereby making yourself open to all possibilities and on your way to an energized and creative audition experience.
Given that mediation is an experiential practice, it’s a bit difficult to write about the mechanics of it, but give these instructions a try and let me know if you have any questions.
In parts 3 and 4 I will talk more about the subtleties and nuances of mindfulness mediation practice.
In the last article in the Meditation for Actors series, we discussed the importance of having a quiet, focused mind when preparing an audition piece and we learned some basic mindfulness meditation techniques.
In order for meditation to be beneficial, you have to do it, and do it with some degree of consistency. It’s also important that your practice doesn’t feel like a chore but instead feels relaxing, nurturing, and energizing. Here are two ways to personalize your practice and make it something you look forward to doing.
First, let’s go back to the breath. The next time you sit down to meditate, experiment with your breath.
Breath in and out, focusing on expanding and contracting the chest. After a few breaths, move to the stomach and feel the breath expanding and contracting the stomach. Now, move to the nose and put your focus on feeling the breath going in and out of your nostrils. After 2-3 minutes of this, settle back down into a natural way of breathing. Note which of the three breaths made you feel warmest and most comfortable. Breathe that breath in and out for a minute or so. That will be what I call your “home breath.” Instead of just breathing in and out with no focus, you will now breathe from the place that makes you feel warm and supported – the place that connects your mind and body. When you find this breath, you’ll find you want to meditate because it feels really good to come home to your breath.
Another way to make the practice your own is to choose a mantra. In my meditation classes we choose creative mantras: words or short phrases that offer artistic inspiration. Some examples are “create,” listen,” “inspire,” and “let go.”
Assume your meditation position, close your eyes, and establish your home breath. Now, say the manta to yourself on the “in breath” and release it on the “out breath.” You can play with also saying it on the out breath as well, whatever works and motivates you to meditate. This is a beautiful way to practice right before starting your audition preparation as it provides you with a motivating, focused intent for you work. It can also be a very useful exercise to practice in the waiting room to calm and center yourself just before you go in to your audition.
Experiment with your home breath and applying a creative mantra. If you bring a sense of playful discovery to meditation, have fun with it, and make it yours, you’ll be more likely to stick with it.
Your practice has the potential to be a refuge for you and a place where you come home to yourself personally and creatively. Like great acting, the more personal it is to you, the better it will be.
And now, let’s take these wonderful practices into the audition!
So far in this series, we have discussed the relevance of meditation to the audition process and introduced some basic techniques to quiet and focus the mind and relax the body before and during your preparation. In this final installment we’ll address the waiting room.
I have heard described, and seen with my own eyes, many of the ways that the time spent in the waiting room can break an actor down.
You’ve prepared the piece at home and feel really good about it. You drive or ride to the audition excited, hopeful and energized. You walk into the waiting room oozing confidence. And then it happens: you see three actors who you believe look better for the part than you do and you start to doubt. Or, the session is running late and you have to wait for an hour and a half and your energy starts to drain. Or, there’s an actor who is loudly telling all within earshot about his latest successes and bookings and you start to second guess. All of a sudden, the confident person who walked in 10 minutes before becomes a small, tentative ball of worry and fear.
It’s time to calm down and bring some mindfulness to the situation.
Meditation comes to the rescue once again. There are many meditations that would be of value in dealing with the stresses of the waiting room. I will give you one that has helped a lot of my students. It’s called “Body Like a Mountain.”
Sit in a chair and either close your eyes or fix your gaze downward. Picture a mountain. If you have a favorite, picture that. See how big and strong and immovable that mountain is. See the birds that fly around it, the trees that grow on its face, the rain that falls on its surface, and notice that no matter what, the mountain stays still and strong. Say to yourself “Body like a mountain.”
Next move to your breath. As you note your “in breath” and “out breath,” picture the breath as the wind that blows around the mountain. See how it moves the trees and carries the birds. Say to yourself “Breath like the wind.”
Now, see the blue sky above the mountain. See how clear and vast it is and picture the sky as your mind – bright, sharp and peaceful. Say to yourself “Mind like the sky.”
Stay in your seated position while picturing the mountain, the wind, and the sky, and keep repeating, “Body like a mountain, breath like the wind, mind like the sky.”
Any smallness that the waiting room made you feel will dissolve as you link your mind and body with the power of the elements. This particular meditation also has the benefit of relaxing you and energizing you at the same time, so no matter what is going on in the waiting room and in your head, it will have a positive effect and you will walk into the audition room a tall, confident, and focused actor.
You can hear a guided version of this mediation on the Meditation for Artists Mp3 at www.wallaceauditintechnique.com.