Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas
Letter to Ashley
Scene4 Magazine-inView

March 2012

Dear Ashley:

Your question has been on my mind often over the past few months.  I have to admit that years ago I might have asked the same question.  After an exercise to remove excess tension, you wondered why such exercises left you ready to sleep and not "energized."  Why did this happen?  Particularly since I and other movement teachers suggested such exercises would remove the blocks to energy, thus making you feel more energized.  Were we liars?

It's impossible to know what sensations another person feels.  We can describe it, but at some level we are in the quandary left us by the Absurdists.  Communication can be very challenging on some level.  We can't be in each other's minds and bodies.  Often this is a blessing.  But there are times when it would be helpful to leap inside another person for just a nanosecond to double check sensations and feelings.

Let me explain how I came to understand what I think might answer your question.

One of the first times I performed was in front of a little church in Iowa.  Being a good reader as a small child – reading aloud being a talent more prized in a child of that age in that time – I was given two verses to read aloud as part of a Christmas program.  I was proud of my being given this special privilege. The other children only had one verse. I alone was trusted with the two. But I forgot which slip of paper I had put in which pocket.  I had a 50% chance of getting it right.

I got it wrong. 

I knew that I had made a mistake that "ruined" the program.  I recall tears and shame and upset.  But not enough to keep me from trying again. My pride at being thought a good reader with a good voice was enough to bring me back to feeling pride at being chosen to play the scarecrow in a play called "The Scarecrow and the Girl" in the 2nd grade.  It was a little play in our reading book about a scarecrow who was saved in some way through the love of an honest girl.  As I recall little Jaunita planted a small kiss on my cheek.

In those long ago days when girls were still creatures to be chased on the playground until they chased you back, it was still a thrill when I did get that little peck on the cheek. 

I can't say that I've ever been nervous about coming to a performance. Excited, yes, but not nervous. Or, at least, not what I conclude nervous might be like as a feeling.

I think there are many things that kick start our adrenal glands. I think generally that surprise can get the glands to pump some juice.  And I think that many actors find themselves slightly surprised to be in front of a group of people – audience and/or film crew.  Suddenly the juices start to flow.  And it should not be a shock to find out that adrenaline can make a body feel energized.  It helps the body to run or stand and fight.  Either choice takes great energy.

What is energy?  There are different kinds, but in junior high they taught us that one kind of energy was the potential to do work.

You can do work while pumped up on adrenaline.  It has happened.  More than once I've said that I hate opening nights because most opening nights are about it being opening night and not about doing a show.

But all of that kind of energy that we sometimes associate with performing isn't helpful energy, in the end.  It can feel like energy, but its use can mostly leave the performer feeling spent.  Acting mostly out of excitement can unnecessarily tire the audience.

So what kind of energy are we looking for?

Think of that time.  It was probably at night.  Maybe at twilight, maybe in the dark.  You were with a person with whom you're very close.  Maybe two very close people.  And you spoke in the dark.  It's something that teenagers do that their parents forget that they did.  It's a conversation that reels out over hours and feels like only two minutes have passed.  In that period of time it feels as if your souls were joined in an attempt at mutual understanding that grownups would never understand.  And it left you energized.  You might have been exhausted at the end of that conversation, but you were still energized by it.

That is what we're looking to replicate.  That sensation.

You see, most plays are about people who are very close in some way – families, marriages, close friends.  Plays are about people you should normally know quite intimately. On the other hand, you're acting with Hank and Madge who you barely know.  So the trick is to find ways to get to that energy state of being "at home" in your body with other folks and in front of other folks without the adrenaline kicking in.

That's tough.  Some people never get there.   

So when you get into rehearsal, don't forget your warm-ups. Yes, warm-up your voice.  That's your "money-maker."  And warm-up your imagination.  But do what you can to get the falseness out of your body.  If you can "fool" your body into thinking that everything is normal and you're fine and no one needs any adrenaline today -- thank you very much – nothing unusual happening here to excite the "flight/fight" response; then you'll be ahead of the game.

I hope I've answered your question.  It's a good question.  You had the guts to ask it, which I never did.  I just tried to grapple with it.  And so no one had the opportunity to try to answer it for me.

At least that's what I think today.  It's likely to change by Wednesday.

Best wishes,
Your teacher

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©2012 Nathan Thomas
©2012 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
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March 2012

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