It’s damn tough improvising Shakespeare. Especially when the floor’s where the ceiling should be.
“Did you say ‘rah-lah-mish-mah-sha-dai-du-rim-de-roff?’” my fellow actor asked after we were safely offstage.
The punishing, frozen crouched position I needed to hold for several minutes probably didn’t help matters. Nor did the next morning’s shady diagnosis of “labyrinthitis” I received from a Berkeley physician on Telegraph Avenue.
“LABYRINTHITIS” he doctored. In other words, I got dizzy.
All I know is, I was delivering my first speech as Regan in “The Tale of Lear” at Berkeley Rep and headed toward the final line. Suddenly I saw the floor do a 180 and what little I could see of the black house ceiling was where the floor should be. I quickly dropped a hand to the rusted-metal stage covering to steady myself.
Apparently I stayed upright but my line didn’t. It came out like my scene partner echoed. Gibberish. But in rhythm.
“At least I kept the verse going!” I highlighted, attempting a comeback. I had managed to honor the energy of the scene by keeping Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter intact.
That incident scared the hell out of me. Really. It was damn hard to go on the next night, and the next. It’s tough to describe the panic I experienced. Heart-stopping? Breath-strickening? How about mind-blowing?
For, honestly friends, it’s the thought that I blew Shakespeare that keeps me from wanting to return to Shakespeare. Or to the live stage at all.
I was reminded of this as I talked with a friend this week about their communication skills. They related a situation that haunts them to this day. In his case it was a presentation Q & A scenario that leaves him mentally paralyzed when even thinking about doing another talk, small group or large.
Teacher, colleague and mentor Steve Pearson, a “movement for actors” guru, now professor at the University of South Carolina, introduced us MFA’s to the “Oh No Barrier”. It’s the part where you’re doing something physically and you realize you can’t do it, are about to go too far and face a sticking point. That’s when, at the point of potential failure you mentally or out-loud say “oh no”. It’s that specific place in doing a sit-up, for example, where you think you can’t get all the way up.
Me and my friend both have Oh No Barriers from something that happened quite a bit back. These moments are real, specific, happened in front of others and could even be called traumatic.
I’m wondering if you might have one of these in your life? Something that’s produced a “hitch-in-your-git-along” as Andy Griffith would say?
Tension is the Actor’s biggest physical enemy. Doubt is the mental one. Our Oh No Barrier presents itself in both. To move through it, we must:
- Confront it. Acknowledge its existence. Go there, even when we can’t stand going there.
- Try it again. The ol’ “get back on the bicycle” discipline that many of us went through when learning to ride.
- Breathe through it. Man, our breath can really help us. Working through the Oh No Barrier means consciously breathing through it, as deep in our body as we can.
- Laugh at it? Really? What’s funny here? Well, maybe we can chuckle at our silly human selves and help let some of the angst go.
I got a brief video audition together recently and what did I do? Shakespeare! Ah, some progress in taking the steps above. My friend’s approach? TBD, but here’s hoping I can help him attack his next opportunity and breathe through the Oh No.
Awareness of the Oh No Barrier is the first step. No doubt if you have one, it’s there reminding you every now and then. Next, it’s turning “oh no” into “OH YES”!
Your stage. Your performance. And working with and through the Oh No, you’re on!