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Practicing Presence

Pure Presence

We are pretty jumpy people these days, allowing ourselves to be pulled in 20 different directions and becoming increasingly unable to focus on what’s in front of us.

Some people are proud of this, claiming that they are geniuses at multi-tasking and get so much more done in a day than most other people.

“But how much did you actually experience today?” That’s the actor’s question. It’s the experiences of your life that add up to who you are and, ultimately, what you have to offer a role.

Which brings us to the subject of presence. The word gets thrown around quite a bit by actors and teachers as if it’s just one more thing to be ticked off on a list of positive attributes for an actor to have. “Now that I am about to go into the audition, I’ll be present.”
Not so fast. Presence is not a magic cape that you drape over yourself when you feel like it. Presence is a learned skill and it won’t show up in your work or in the room if you don’t practice it in your life.

How Being Present Affects Your Work

An audition is a series of moments. The actor with the brightest, truest, most connected moments gets the job. But how can you sustain a moment in your work if you don’t know the feeling of doing so in your life? If jumping from moment to moment is what you do 95 percent of the time, then that’s what you’ll do in the audition. Under pressure, the body goes to what it knows.

I see actors who get four pages of sides for, say, an argument scene. When I ask them about the emotions involved in the exchange, many can’t tell me, because they don’t stick around long enough in their real lives to find out. That’s where they get caught.
Walking away or checking out is not an option in a scene, and if you don’t know the feelings that occur from being present for an entire experience in your life, chances are your focus will wane and your presence will weaken before the end of the scene.

I have heard the refrain from casting so many times: “Why do actors find it so hard to stay present and involved? It’s only a 90-second scene!”
This may be a good time to ask yourself, when was the last time that you focused entirely on one thing/person in your life and were entirely present for a full 90 seconds?

Being Present in the Room

Your ability to be present in the room is inextricably tied to your ability to let your work go and simply be. Your ability to let the work go is dependent on having prepared in such a way that you have nothing to doubt and everything to be confident about.

If the piece isn’t living in your body and heart, your mind will become agitated and you’ll be policing your work and diluting your presence in the room. Being present means being free to focus totally on what is going on in front of you. But if even 10 percent of your brain is thinking about how the work is going to go when you walk into the room,
you’ll appear unfocused and fractured. And make no mistake, your inability to be totally present and connected to the people in the room will become an issue when it comes down to who books the job.

Presence also takes acceptance of your space. If you’ve prepared correctly, you know that your work will shine no matter what the environment, and you can now rest in the powerful knowledge that you are about to leave the room in better shape than that in which you found it.

Confidence exercises, affirmations, etc., are nothing but empty bravado if your work isn’t at a job-getting level.
True confidence is resting in the moment just as it is and knowing that everything you need is inside you and that you and your work belongs in that room and in that project.
And from this confidence comes the ability to be entirely present: nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be—just present.

An Exercise to Be More Present in Life

During the course of your day, take at least two minutes between one activity and the next. If you’re arriving home from work, don’t run into the house. Sit in the car and complete your drive before you get out so that when you enter your home, you are present for what is in front of you. Be aware of the feeling of ending one thing and beginning the next.

We know that living fully in transitions is essential in your work. So it is in life. Fully completing one activity ensures that you show up fully for the next. If you slow down and practice with this enough, you can, on a cellular level, change your default setting from scattered to calm, from weak to strong, and from absent to present.

Another essential component for presence grounding the body and steadying the wild mind.

A grounded body and steady mind are your foundation. It doesn’t matter how amazing your technique is or how great an actor you are, if your foundation isn’t strong, it won’t sustain your work and it all will come tumbling down.

To begin with, the mind is not your enemy. It has jobs to do and it wants to do them. The issue is that some of its jobs aren’t very beneficial to the creative process. That’s OK. The wonderful thing about the mind is that it’s pliable—you can train it to behave in ways that support you as an artist.

One of the primary functions of the mind is to protect you and to keep you safe. Good. You’re still alive, so thank the mind for that. One of the ways it protects you is with the fight, flight, or freeze mechanisms located in the reptilian chamber—the oldest part of the brain. Auditioning, because you are in a new environment and in front of strangers, seems dangerous to the reptilian brain and the flight mechanism can kick in big time.

In order to be free to let go and share the amazing work that is stored in your body and heart, the mind needs to know that it can release control. Here are a couple of ways to help you do that:

Breath/Mantra

The first thing you need to do is steady the mind. A good way to begin is with the breath. The mind is tremendously receptive to the messages that it receives from the breath. Breathe shallow and the mind will sense danger; breathe deeply and the mind begins to release its grip.

Breathing in a way that is specific to your needs will send the message even faster: Breaths emanating from the stomach help with feeling large and expansive; chest breaths help you relax; focusing the breath on the solar plexus opens the heart; and concentrating on how the breath feels traveling in and out of the nostrils increases focus. I went into greater detail about these breath types in the meditation blog post.

You can increase the power of the message to your brain by attaching a mantra to the breath. I think it’s a great idea for all actors to have a creative mantra—one word that describes you as an artist and what you aspire to become. Take your time finding it and if you want have a couple, go ahead. You never know how you may feel and what your needs will be.

Inhale deeply from your chosen body area, gathering the mantra into your mind/body. At the top of the inhale, say your mantra and then exhale it out into the world. The action of breathing your mantra into your body will steady the frantic and overly vigilant mind, letting it know that all is well, you are safe in your creative space, and it can take a break from guard duty so you can be free to feel, to create, and to fly.

Intent

Now that the mind is steady, it needs know what to focus on and nothing focuses the primal monkey mind more than a clear intent.

Energy follows attention — it’s that simple.

If you are unclear as to what you’re paying
attention to, the mind will become agitated and spray energy all over the place. This is one of the primary reasons for being nervous.
Intent acts as your director through the audition process. Have a conscious intent for every moment leading up to the audition. Make your intents strong and also kind to yourself (you don’t need to put yourself under more pressure than you may already be feeling).

Make intentions to have fun, to create, to share, to connect, to surprise. Make an intent for your time in the waiting room so that your attention doesn’t get hijacked and so that you stay focused and positive. Make an intent for the person/people in the room, and make it generous—“to make their day better, to lift their spirits, etc.” This sends a message to the mind that there is no threat, and that there is no one it needs to keep you safe from because you are in charge and watch it loosen its protective
grip.

I assume that you have an intent for your work, so commit to that during the reading and then make an intent for how you leave the room as well. Working in this very conscious way keeps your mind focused on the immediate job at hand so that all of your energy flows forward in support of that job/intent. Conscious intent will also make you appear clear, strong, and on purpose through each phase of the process— qualities that are essential to you getting the job.

You can try this conscious intent exercise in your daily life and see how it works. Start before you even get out of bed and see how many you can establish during the day.
Your mind is establishing the intents that it wants you to have without you even knowing it, so why not establish them consciously so that they benefit and enrich your life the way you truly want them to? You’ll also get 10 times more accomplished and have so much more energy, if you always know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Your intents determine not only the course of your days and the outcome of your work, but the direction of your life as well.
Over a life time of auditioning you’ll make hundreds of different creative decisions and hopefully bring numerous rich colors to your work. The one constant through all of your audition experiences will be your mind and body. They will always be where the decisions and colors will originate and be housed. Only when the mind is steady and
the body is grounded will the effect of those decisions be profoundly felt and the colors be vividly seen.

Here’s another way to practice presence and get your listening and observing muscles in shape at the same time. Take a one day vacation from speaking.
For that day, speak only when you feel you absolutely need to. The rest of the time, listen. Just listen.

Feel what it’s like in your body to truly absorb what is being said to you through the three sense doors: mental, physical, and emotional. Feel the peaceful strength that comes from being completely present without the pressure to think of something brilliant to say. Tell your friends what you’re doing so they don’t have you committed, but let go of the struggle of getting everybody to understand what you are doing. Enjoy being different and just listen to them.

I have had some of my students do this “day without speaking” as part of the Life of the Actor course I teach, and it has greatly improved and energized their work. Here are five of the benefits.

1. Stronger choices.

When you get used to the feeling of being silent, one of the things you notice is that when you do speak, you tend to be very strong and specific.
After spending a day with next-to-no speech, you become familiar with how to express a range of feeling with just a few words, which is the very definition of a good audition.
When you’re working on a piece, you can tap back into that feeling of clarity when making your choices and more easily find the sharpest most effective way to convey your feelings. If all you do is talk all the time, your mind and body have no way to reference this job-winning specificity.

2. Deeper knowledge of your emotions.

Many times, the reason we talk is to escape
our feelings, but as actors, you need to lean into and learn from them. Meryl Streep has said that when she is working on a character, she spends a great deal of time exploring how the character lives in their silences. By doing a day without speech, you will have the opportunity to see how you live in your silences—making it easier to bring those feelings to a character. When you are quiet and you really stay with your emotions and let them breathe, you experience all of them.

Having a conversation about how you feel isn’t the same as truly feeling. Putting words to feelings before they’re fully felt makes you vague and unclear. Being silent and abiding with what you’re feeling will inform your speech and your work in powerful ways.

3. Stillness.

We all know that being still is essential in an audition, especially if you’re
being taped. If you haven’t explored your choices to the point that they are rooted in your body, your stillness will look frozen. However, if you have experimented with truly feeling your emotions through the three sense doors before speaking, your stillness will have emotional power and energy attached to it. Also, because silence is normally a fairly still experience, the stillness required in an audition will feel more natural and less
manufactured.

4. Brighter reactions.

Film and television are not mediums of speech. They are
mediums of reaction. For the first 30 years of its existence, film had no sound. The stories were told on the faces of the actors, and even though we now have sound, this is still—to a great degree—true. One of the main things you hear about actors that don’t book is that “there isn’t enough going on behind their eyes.” A day of silence is a great reactive work out. With no pressure to speak, you can really focus your emotional, physical, and mental energy on what is being said and feel the reaction on those same three levels.

During your next audition, you just may find that you take that extra split second to absorb the words being spoken and let that potentially job-getting reaction play out on your face and behind your eyes.

5. Presence.

Silence is a great way to deal with the temptation to anticipate. If you
know you’re not going to be speaking, you’re more apt to really hear what’s being said as opposed to jumping ahead to your response. This rooted quality is presence— staying in each moment as it occurs, with no thought as to what is coming next. If you spend some time practicing with staying silent, the next time you’re in a fast-paced and frenetic audition room, it will be easier for you to remain calm and be rooted in your
body. Whether speaking or silent you’ll be centered and be less likely to get whipped around by the manic energy in the room, and more apt to bring a confident, strong presence to that room. This sense of presence will also strengthen your work, as well as strengthen the confidence of everyone watching you.

Silence is a wonderful teacher. I encourage all of you to try “a day without speaking” and see what the benefits are for you. The result could make a job getting difference.

~ Craig Wallace