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Acting is Easy

Ruff’s Artistic Director, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, has been on a ‘sabbatical’ of sorts out west, taking part in the Banff/Citadel Professional Theatre Program. The program has two stages – a four-week residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and then two months working on a production for Edmontons Citadel Theatre’s main-stage season. In his case, Brendan is preparing to play Romeo, in Romeo & Juliet, which opens April 5th (show info). He learned many lessons, which he plans to share with the company and put into practice this summer when he directs Ruff’s show. Here, Brendan shares one the biggest takeaways he had from the training.

Acting is Easy:

Well actually, I should say acting is easeful; though this is easier said than done. This is something that our two voice coaches, Susan Stackhouse and Alana Hawley, emphasized during my time at Banff and one of the most important lessons I took away from my time there.

As a kid I played a lot of sports in school. I was never particularly skilled at anything I couldn’t catch a football to save my life, but my advantage was that I was a damn fast runner. I pushed myself in this  always running faster, harder. The lesson I took away was that if you want to get better at something, then just work harder, use more muscles, sweat more and you’ll eventually be better. This lesson has served me well in life so far, but the problem is that I’ve also applied it to my acting.  Unfortunately it doesn’t quite translate. Acting requires quite a bit more subtlety than that. Straining every muscle in your body won’t necessarily take you to the emotional place that Hamlet requires. In fact, so I’ve found during my time in Banff, it might actually prevent you from getting there.

My early sports lessons have translated into a tendency in my acting to work too hard at showing people how “good” an actor I am. This frequently means lacing every muscle in my body with as much tension as possible. For myself, I imagine it also comes from a feeling that who I am and what I’m feeling isn’t interesting or good enough to watch on stage. The result, though, is that who I am gets buried underneath all of those over-working muscles and that is definitely not interesting to watch on stage.

Muscles protect us. If we’re getting punched or hitting streetcar tracks and flying over our handle bars, flexed muscles protect us from breaking bones or damaging precious internal organs, but on stage, protection is the last thing we want, especially when it comes to accessing emotions. The goal is always to be as naked and vulnerable as possible, so that we can react honestly and emotionally to what happens to our characters in the course of a play. I guess this is why voice teachers are always doing so much relaxation work with actors.

Brendan-McMurtry-Howlett-Headshot_Theatre

One of my big “Ah-ha” moments during my time in Banff came while working with James MacDonald and Alana Hawley on a speech from Hamlet (Act 3, Scene 4 – Look here upon this picture…). I’m sure I’m not the only actor out there who sometimes carries tension in their shoulder and jaw muscles and working on this speech was no exception. There I was, a good student hitting all my line endings (thank you James), and discovering all my thoughts, but I wasn’t connecting to what I was saying in any kind of emotional way. Instead, I was flapping my arms around and reaching my head forward like a sprinter trying to get his nose across the finish line before anyone else.

Eventually, Alana came up and gave my neck and jaw a gentle massage, releasing the insane amount of tension held there. I went back at the speech, trying to consciously release it. At a certain point in the speech, I felt my neck tense and my shoulders ride up to my ears. I took a moment and relaxed and instead of leaning forward, I stood tall and continued. All of a sudden, stuff just started pouring out of me – I was blubbering away like a baby, tears and snot flowed out of me, but I was still riding the text like a beautiful wave of words and thoughts. It was unreal. I was one of the most pure moments of connection and “acting” I’ve ever experienced and it all came from simply relaxing.

Of course, when I did the speech again the next day all that tension was back and I couldn’t summon a single tear, even if my life had depended on it. I was trying to recreate that same moment and the more I tried, working it like an athlete, the further away I got from it. I was frustrated, but James reminded me that the emotional connection is the hardest part of acting and takes an entire lifetime to develop. One of the things he likes to say is “The only thing that is guaranteed to make you a better actor is age,” meaning, the more life you live, the more experiences you have, good and bad, the more emotional reference points you have in your acting. So thank you, James. I’ll take that small victory I found in Banff and keep living my life and then Ill find my way back there once I’ve lived through enough emotionally-wrenching experiences in my life. Sounds fun, right? Can’t wait.

“Ah-ha” moments are few and far between. Have you ever had one while working on Shakespeare? What does it mean for you now?

Applications are now being accepted for the Banff/Citadell Program for 2015-apply here

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