Present Presence


Somewhere in 2001…

Yet again, sitting in that awkward silence that falls in the wake of a request no one in the room wants to answer, I felt the frustration well up. We were starting yet another acting exercise or project, and everyone was simply afraid to start it off and be the first to break the ice. Anyone with the least bit of intuition could hear the silent screams of “Please, not me first,” or “I don’t have any idea what he wants me to do. I’ll probably screw it up,” or “I can’t do this.” Breath stopped. We sat, willing it so that someone, somewhere would volunteer.

Then, a hand would inevitably shoot up. What a surprise; someone has a question! Actually no, it was never a surprise. It was a stalling tactic. Not a purposeful one, mind you, but one that ate up class time and that, again, put off the inevitability of the doing of the activity off. After all, maybe if we could just understand it a little bit better, particularly what it was supposed to look like if we did it the right way, well, then, these questions and conversations would prove totally justified!

It didn’t matter; someone had to budge. Our profs had to shut us up. Sometimes one of the boys would volunteer. Sometimes I jumped up, pushed by frustration and even a little bit of anger. But also, I was pushed into the water by the reminder that I was there for a reason—to hone my acting skills. If I was just going to sit around and talk about it all day and watch everyone else, then I might as well pack up and go home. I was mad at those in my class who constantly needed reassurance and extra cheerleading to get up and try an exercise or performance. They thought the extra time they bought through conversation would magically transform their performances into the right version, the perfect version, free of error, transcendental in its performance.

They were scared. So was I, but I managed to jump into the deep, cold end of the performance pool, not knowing what I would find. Sometimes I did “screw up,” but mostly the feedback focused on the experience. I had to try to get into the water to see how my body, my mind, and my spirit would react in that particular situation. Allowing myself to free fall into the depths of doubt, to see how my intuition would guide, and how I might emerge from the experience showed me more about my abilities than any approaches before.

In these acting exercises, in these moments I took some initiative, I shifted the focus off of myself and redirected it to my environment, or the other—inanimate, yet powerfully influential—character. The experience liberated me. I allowed the form to support me, to place its hands, to step out from the ledge and know that my faith would keep me…present.

Somewhere Now…

That’s the issue: being present. I struggled with it then and continue to do so now. My faith couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t fail, but failure in and of itself would imply that there could only be one correct specific outcome. Concern about failure also gestures to a focus on the future; we were worrying about what might be. Take, for example, the myriad of projects I have scattered throughout the landscape of my house. Or even teaching as I walk into a classroom. I look at just a single project and I find myself fearful and sad, feeling defeated that “I’m never going to get this done.” I’m looking at the big obstacle and all of the things that can go wrong and get in the way of the original goal. Consequently, I slink in retreat from said pile, refusing to take just that first step toward a new outcome, a new experience. Sure, the pile probably contains some overdue…something or other, perhaps a portal into yet another project (like an endless project pyramid scheme), an outline of an idea scratched on a ripped piece of paper, and those things that I still have no idea where they should go. Really, the thought is less about, “I’m never going to get this done,” and more about, “I’m never going to get this done perfectly.

But maybe, just maybe, that pile could produce a new idea for a piece of writing. Or a new approach to take to my classroom. Or maybe I’ll unearth a picture and I’ll need to put it in a photo album, which will take me down a different path. Taking one step at a time, I might journey down a completely new and uncontrived path. Each moment of presence in the present builds a future.

One of the notes I got often both as an undergrad and graduate actor was, “You are too hard on yourself. You waste your energy beating yourself up.” I beat myself up because I was too focused on what my work needed to look like in the end. Terrified of doing or being wrong, I deflected the criticism by heading it off. While I was busy judging my cohort of fear, fear turned me against myself. Emotions pulled at me from two different directions: fear from the future and anger from the past.

I’m not in that studio anymore, but I feel those familiar feelings tugging at me. At home. At work. In my friendships. There isn’t a whole lot that looked like I had planned it. Those are the moments I feel like a failure. Today, I’m going to start again. And this time, I’ll start the exercise with a simple inhale. Open my eyes and step forward into the present.