Thanks to the likes of The X Factor and The Apprentice, you’ll seldom find anyone who admits to giving less than 100% to everything they do these days. More often than not, people will promise to give 110%. (Don’t do this. If you’re going to offer more than your entirety, why offer just 110%? Why not 199%? Why not 600% Why not infinity %? Also, unless you are twins or a time traveller you can’t give me more than 100%.)
(…if you are a time travelling actor who honestly can give me 110%, please contact me. Rehearsal scheduling for time travellers would be so much easier.)
But I digress. The point is, everyone promises to give their everything to, well… everything. I never believe it. It’s a great thing to strive for, but let’s be honest with ourselves. Everyone has off days and slack moments. Sometimes life events happen, sometimes you’re sick, sometimes it’s been too long since your last day off, sometimes it’s just last thing in the evening and you’ve been working hard and you’re simply knackered. We can work through these things, we can still be productive, but honestly, in those moments we’re not giving 100%.
However, there’s another reason why people frequently fail to give their all and it’s easy for us to lie to ourselves about it: fear.
Let me make a confession – I am terrified of drama games. Even now, every time I do repetition or take part in any of the games I use, my heart pounds. Throughout countless auditions and the acting classes I took part in during my course at Mountview, I have always found them a trial to be endured rather than an experience to be enjoyed.
This is why I am only an actor in cases of emergency, and why I have immense respect for actors. Delivering a good, connected performance is something I find horribly exposing. Few roles make that kind of vulnerability worthwhile for me, which is why I express myself through writing and directing instead. They’re also exposing, but in a very different way.
Of course, directing still involves drama games. But it involves running drama games, which puts me in a much less angsty place. And I choose the games I use with care. I hate seeing them used just for the sake of it, as a way of filling up time, to tick the box marked “warm-up” rather than to achieve a particular goal.
Among the games I regularly use (not including line-learning games) are:
- Dance Around Like A Fucking Idiot: Pretty self-explanatory, really. I put something loud and daft on the stereo and only bad/idiotic dancing is allowed. I use this immediately after our main physical warm-up, which is stretchy and dreamy and full of deep breathing. It wakes everyone up again and reminds them that they have permission to be silly.
- Squiggles: I draw two identical squiggles on the wall. Two people turn the squiggles into pictures. They only have 30 seconds to do it, then it gets rubbed out and a new round begins. This gets people working imaginatively and doesn’t give them time to stop and think about what they’re doing.
- Blind Samurai: Two players are blindfolded and two ‘swords’ are placed on the floor. The aim is to find a sword (or both swords) and hit your opponent with it (they’re soft). Whoever achieves this wins. This gets people listening, paying attention to how they use their bodies and to the clues that let them navigate the room even though they’re blindfolded. It also gets people in touch with their ruthless side, which is handy for scene work – I sometimes get people to play in character.
To be honest, there are my three main games. Everything else is just stuff I come up with in response to a particular need. But no matter what the game, it doesn’t work unless the players throw themselves into it wholeheartedly.
The thing about games is that they’re designed to decrease your inhibitions. Dance Around Like A Fucking Idiot (and yes, the full name is important) is specifically intended to make everyone involved look stupid. This isn’t something I do out of a desire to humiliate people. I do it because my greatest fear – I suspect many people’s greatest fear – is looking stupid. Sacrificing my dignity is something I’ve always struggled with, and I see many other people facing the same issue. So you know what? Let’s just take out collective dignity and smash into smithereens.
I’ve been using this game for a couple of years and most of the time it’s extremely effective. Actors bond quickly by dancing together, they feel liberated because there’s no pressure to dance well, it gets their energy levels up and they have fun. But every so often I come across someone who won’t immerse themselves in it, who tries to dance well or who simply stands on the sidelines making a half-hearted attempt. In those moments I sympathise, I really do, because that’s what I do.
However, while I understand the reluctance to make oneself look stupid, I also understand the necessity to do it. If you can’t let go in a game, can you let go on stage? Perhaps – but I doubt it, and so will anyone else watching you. Workshop auditions, particularly drama school auditions, are largely about finding out whether you can let go. If you can’t, you’ll be dignified but uncast.
An actor who holds back during games doesn’t only cheat themselves of castings, they also cheat themselves out of the benefit of the game. Every time you force yourself to let go, the act of letting go becomes a little easier. Every time, it’s another reminder that no-one is going to point and laugh at you because actually they’re too busy concentrating on what they’re doing. The only way to become good at letting yourself go is to do it as frequently and as wholeheartedly as possible.
It seems strange to advise people to work hard at simply letting themselves look stupid, but I don’t know many people who couldn’t use a reminder. In a world full of actors who were always that geeky kid who didn’t quite fit in, where we’ve all spent so long being told to tone it down, sit nicely and generally behave ourselves, it can be difficult to reconnect with your Inner Idiot. But getting over that fear is an essential part of an actor’s development, and until you do it doesn’t matter how hard you work at everything else – you’ll still be cheating yourself of the benefit of games. Give in, have fun, trust and maybe someday you’ll even enjoy it. Let me know if you do, since I’ll be working on it too…