Straddling Both Sides of the Fence

The Whitewashed Fence from  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer  Spring 2013

The Whitewashed Fence from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Spring 2013

This fall I am straddling both sides of the theatrical fence: I'm directing and acting. I am directing A Christmas Carol in celebration of our fifteen anniversary (it is now our tradition to perform Christmas Carol every five years), and I am acting in The Mousetrap with Northampton Community College.

Being able to act under a director other than myself is a wonderful experience. I take notes at each of the rehearsals on techniques that he uses to help draw out the actors, things he emphasizes, and any other interesting tidbits. But it's also good to be going through many of the same theatrical battles I see my actors experience during rehearsal. Dear friends, you are not alone in your struggle. Mrs. Gerdes fights them too.

I've had two rehearsals so far: the read through and an experimental blocking practice. Both times I've had to fight being self-conscious, a big problem for actors. Both times I've to fight against the crushing fear of making a mistake, a huge acting problem. Both times I've succumbed to trying to impress my fellow actors and my director. The pursuit of impressing others is one of the most debilitating issues an actor can have. These are all things I try to help my students overcome, things I didn't realize how much I still deal with until I got into acting again.

I had one rather embarrassing moment where the director asked me a question about my choice. He was trying to help me think through it and come to a stronger decision instead of simply telling me, "do this." I knew what he was doing. I'm a director; I know how to prod an actor into thinking. With all my vast experience it should have been very easy for me to take the suggestion he was giving me. Instead I tried to defend myself. I did it with tact, sort of, but it was still an outright defense of my choice. Why did I do that? Not because I was convinced my choice was better. I knew his suggestion would be stronger, and it proved to be so when I ran the same lines with the more decisive action. No, I didn't defend my choice because I believed in it. I defended it because I was embarrassed for having made a mistake (which was not what the director was implying at all). I defended it because I had this overwhelming need to prove what a good actor I am, an actor who never makes any mistakes. The unfortunate truth is that if you are an actor who never makes mistakes it means you are never trying anything interesting. You're a robot on stage mechanically performing the same rote actions, lines, and blocking each rehearsal and every performance.

But I digress. It is because of how often I work with my own actors on these issues that I was able to quickly recognize that I was stifling my ability to be present and respond authentically. This of course sent me through a brief cycle of frustration that I wasn't beyond being self-conscious, fearing mistakes and wanting to impress the world with how amazingly glorious I am. (No, I am neither dramatic nor egotistical, and I am absolutely never sarcastic.)

After a few deep breaths I began to take my own advice. I reminded myself that my worth is not determined on my performance. I don't need to earn acceptance. I don't need to impress anyone. I claimed the truth that I am fully loved, accepted, and worthy in Jesus. Repeating that to myself helped settle me. Then I was able to focus on the people I was acting with,  to look forward to developing relationships with them, getting to know them, and working off of them instead of fearing being disliked. As a final step, I was able to exchange the fear of making a mistake for the excitement about the amazing gift God has given me in working with a director who can see my acting in a way I can't and who is there to help me.

I share all this to encourage us actors who struggle with self-consciousness, fear of mistakes, and trying to impress others. It's a battle, and I think it's a re-occurring one. Our temptations as fallen humans is to find acceptance outside of God, which is one of the reasons why I still have to fight against make theatre all about me. (For instance, Players of the Stage is not my theatre. Something I have to remind myself of often.) My soul is still not convinced that I am complete in Jesus. I know it's true, but my heart rebels against resting in that, preferring instead the angst of seeking rest in the approval of man.

This is part of why I love theatre, because it rebukes my desire to find worth in others and my desire to be worshiped by others. I am not able to act well when I am focused on myself. I am not able to worship God well if I am focused on myself, and I am in no way able to love others well when I am more concerned about me than them.

The other day in my Bible reading I read this verse:

...true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.
— Romans 2:29 New Living Translation

I thought about my rehearsal antics when I read it. I know I am still a far cry from being able to say I don't seek praise from people, but I can rejoice in saying that I can see that God is moving me away from that. Even the fact that I was able to be aware of what was going on so quickly is a testament to the Spirit's work in my life. My prayer for me, and for all my actors at POTS, is that we'll be able to practice turning our focus upwards (towards God) and outwards (towards people) as we practice our scenes, and that we'll grow in desiring the praise of God over the praise of people.



Dare to be a Daniel

We're studying Daniel this year in my women's Bible Study. On September 10th we gathered together to discuss the first chapter of the book where we find a story about Daniel refusing to defy his conscience in regards to the foods he should eat. He was a Israelite captive of the Babylonian empire, a nation that worshiped other gods and did not revere Jehovah. One of the things that struck us about the passage was how Daniel showed concern for those who differed with him. He knew the servant's could be beheaded if they deviated from the King's prescribed diet for the captives, so he asked to be allowed to he eat what would glorify his God for a trial period. If he was noticeably malnourished after the completion of ten days, he would submit to eating the King's food. 

How does this relate to theatre?

It got me thinking about my time as a theater major at Northampton Community College. I was constantly on guard, waiting to have to defend my standards and fight to preserve my convictions. I've known for awhile that I displayed a lack of faith and a lack of appreciation for grace during my years at NCC, but I've often clung to the thought that I had dared to be a Daniel (as the old hymn exhorts us to be). In studying that passage, I realized how far from the mark I was.

I'm not saying I shouldn't have held to my convictions. I'm saying I should have been more loving in the way I held them. During the Bible Study I shared this revelation with the group, and how I wished I had cared about the people around me. I didn't have to worry about anyone being beheaded if I refused to say or do something, but I should have cared about their dignity, about sharing my concerns with respect for their craft, and I should have taken care to have spoken without judgement or pride.

Looking back, I think a simple (but difficult) change in posture, tone and attitude would have made me more in line with Daniel's example and, more importantly, with God's command to speak the truth in love.

It's important that all actors know themselves well and know their standards. For those of us who are followers of Christ, we need to spend time examining are standards against scriptures, and then seek to stand by those convictions with grace, humility, and love. The easy course of action would be to stick to Christian theatre and avoid such conflict, but I dare us all to be Daniels who move in our culture, knowing that God loves the world and that we are wretched sinners saved by grace.