We’re Not Evolved to Handle Acting Well

They say acting is not therapy, but it can be very therapeutic. Since our bodies are our instruments, we encounter all sorts of issues with it, and that can create the opportunity to address human and personal issues that have plagued us, sometimes for years, or thousands of years.

Let’s take nerves, for example, something to which almost all of us can relate. What are “nerves”? What is nervousness? It’s the body’s response to a threat, known as the “fight or flight” response. When your mind encounters a threat or perceived threat to your physical or emotional wellbeing, it causes stress, experienced in the body as the release of the hormone cortisol, called the “stress hormone” in addition to adrenaline.

Your body starts to take action to protect itself. Your blood rushes to your muscles and they become tense, ready for action, making your body feel shaky. Your heart rate increases, causing your body to burn oxygen more quickly. That’s why you find yourself having to breathe in places you never needed to in rehearsal.

Your eyes dilate and you get tunnel vision, or hyper-focused on what you’re directly looking at. It becomes harder to hear. You get dry mouth and it’s harder to cry and produce tears as your body tries to conserve hydration. 

This is the body’s miraculous, evolved response to help save your life from saber-toothed tigers and bears and the warriors of a hostile tribe. It had no way of knowing that, after thousands of years of this response system serving and protecting you, it would get in the way as you fear judgment and failure in an audition for a dog biscuit commercial, or a play about cats, or a one line co-star audition to play a grocery store cashier. “That’ll be $9.95, sir” (as you shake in your boots in a small office in a trailer).

What I’m saying is, the acting industry and experience is entirely foreign for our bodies. We’re constantly asking it to do weird things, like lie, and feel things that aren’t really happening to you, and willingly put yourself in emotional and physical danger. That’s why you have to be really good to your body, like giving a dog a treat for obeying a command.

And that’s another weird thing: We are not our bodies. If you lost an arm, you’re still you. The same goes for your eyes, your face, even your heart. So what are you? I guess your brain, and maybe a soul, depending on your spiritual or religious beliefs.

We constantly find our bodies not doing what we want them to do. So, really, we are like horse riders, and our bodies are our horses. Most of the time your body goes and does what you want it to do, but other times it’ll tire out or freak out, and you’ll find yourself on your ass. (No disrespect to horses or their riders. I don’t know much about either, but I like the analogy.)

Understanding that, learn to work with your body, not resist it. If it feels nervous, don’t make that wrong. Frustration only occurs when you resist what is happening. Learn to be like water, adapting to the circumstances without resistance and focusing on what you can do and can control. Every time I feel nervous, I’ll literally talk to my body out loud, saying things like, “Hey, man. I get it. It would be really nice if you could relax and work with me, but if you don’t, I understand and I’ll still love you.”

I guess what I’m saying is that you need to give yourself a break. What actors do is not easy for our bodies to do. That’s why it takes so much time, hard work, preparation, and training to make it an instrument that we know how to play. And unlike a piano or guitar, each body is a completely different instrument and may not work the same way as any other.

So, each of us is a glorious mystery, a beautiful paradox, living at a time in human history where we’re lucky to piss ourselves in a room full of strangers instead of in flight from a pack of wolves.

There. Doesn’t that make you feel so much better?