Living Well is Acting Well

“We act constantly, not because we are purposely lying, but because we have no choice. Living well means acting well. Every moment in our lives is a tiny theatrical performance. Even our most intimate moments have a public of at least one: ourselves.” – Declan Donnellan, The Actor and the Target.

The fear of public speaking is the most common phobia ahead of death, spiders, or heights. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that public speaking anxiety, or glossophobia, affects about 73% of the population. The underlying fear is judgment or negative evaluation by others. Public speaking anxiety is considered a social anxiety disorder. But acting is not necessarily public speaking, although public performances usually require some degree of vocal skills (that can be easily learned). Acting is all about living well; living a full life.

According to Donnellan, an actor reacts to the target of his text. Romeo responds romantically to Juliet because she wills him to do so. Her energy and excitement give him the motivation to respond. He climbs the balcony not because it’s there but because she sighs, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” He can respond passionately because she offers him a path to true love. If he’s doing a good job, he offers her the same passion in return (“call me but love and I’ll be new baptized”) so she can build the scene to its climax. They each support the work of the other.

Some acting theories ask the actor to go back to a past memory of love or romance to create a truth to this scene but that excavation seems more like emotional abuse than acting. A professional actor performs eight shows a week. Dredging up old emotional memories day after day, week after week, is a good recipe for mental illness, not convincing performance. Besides, an audience isn’t interested in what the actors are feeling; we want to be there in that moment overcome with emotional love. We want to experience those feelings ourselves, not watch an actor emote.

But Donnellan’s well crafted book on acting is more than just getting Romeo and Juliet to become more believable romantics. His insight on human existence is just as powerful. We all are actors (“all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”) in the story of our lives. We act as our parents’ children, as siblings, as lovers, as parents and so on. All of our careers require some degree of acting: a good worker bee, a thoughtful boss, a supportive colleague. We put on these masks because it allows us to inhabit these roles with success and confidence. If acting can be defined as truthful behavior in imaginary circumstances, living well can be defined as truthful behavior in real circumstances. But both demand inspiring circumstances of one kind or another to provoke truthful and believable actions.

In real life, just as in acting for the stage, we respond – we react – to the target of our intention. Our husband/wife/life partner doesn’t seem to be listening these days and we want them to be more attentive; we ask for some demonstration of engagement; they respond with an action, which leads to another action, and so on. Then there’s the inevitable divorce and all the legal ramifications that grow from that action. Thus is the drama of our daily lives; or hopefully not in your case.

It is the failure to live a well acted life that causes us problems. Consider difficulties you may have had at work, home, or with family or friends. Chances are someone was not acting particularly well; not behaving in a manner to which you have become accustomed; not demonstrating truthful behavior. In work I’ve done with those dealing with substance abuse, it is the inability to act well without drugs or alcohol that is so elusive for these folks. Again, this is not a clever attempt to lie or cover the truth; it is the revealing of ourselves in a context that allows us to create a truly believable social face to the world.

Maybe that’s the key to becoming comfortable at public speaking: not imagining an audience without pants (most people look  really bad without pants; that’s enough to put any speaker off their game). But realizing that everyone seated before them is just a person to whom you want to inspire to action. You’re  wearing your communication mask and looking to evoke some similar response from your audience – the target of your message – one person at a time. The anxiety a nervous and inexperienced public speaker feels in front of a dull crowd is the same discomfort an actor feels when working with a scene partner who gives them nothing that demands a reaction. Without an energetic crowd demanding something, a speaker has no target to work with and create this experience. Hence part of the reason that recent Zoom productions, with their ghostly audiences, have become such poor excuses for live entertainment. If you want to live fully, give your life partner, your work partner, your friends and family, whoever is listening – even if it’s just you in the mirror – an action that evokes a response. Acting and reacting is what makes for exciting and engaging performance on stage and in real life.

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