One of the most common things I see in actors today (especially on stage where it is tantamount to death) is the predisposition to being comfortable. From leaning onto one’s hip to putting hands in their pockets, sitting or leaning on anything they can get their hands onto, or crossing their legs in the middle of talking to a grieving mother about having run over her 2-year-old son, everyone is obsessed with being ‘comfortable’. I can only surmise that this is a pendulum swing from the overwhelming anxiety and over-identification encouraged in our modern culture with our jobs, which is no truer than when it comes to acting. Our tendency to over-identify and feel the stakes of social rejection in front of others is a natural tendency to be sure, but the extent to which it's dominating our mental lives is pathological.
That being said, the other side of this does not mean that we should be comfortable when we're telling stories. Should Biff, in Death of a Salesman, be comfortable when trying his hardest to convince his Father Willy, essentially, to give up his entire worldview that he knows will end in his suicide or at best self-motivated heart attack? Should Hamlet be comfortable when he's deciding whether or not to kill the king and at the same time contemplating the worthiness of his own life? No, we should not be comfortable. These are high stakes games we're playing. What we need to be is engaged. This doesn't mean there can't be ease, for us as the performer. There can be. A truly adept performer can find the ease through their craft but it is a process of letting go. Letting go of the unnecessary tensions that aren't helping, but this doesn’t mean letting go of all the tensions (including the useful ones) so that they end up looking like a walking jellyfish.
Time for a Metaphor
Performing in this way should, at it's best, feel like riding a roller coaster (I hazard to define what acting should 'feel' like, as how does one define something so subjective? But here we are). When you're riding a roller coaster there is an underlying (or overlying most of the time) feeling of extreme anticipation or ‘exhilaration-anxiety’. I join those two words together, as the sensation we experience seems to occupy both at the same time depending on our perspective. The feeling can be interpreted as one of extreme excitement for what is to come or an overwhelming fear of and sense of impending doom (encountering the unknown) or somewhere in between. But what's important to remember with acting, like riding a roller coaster, is that you chose to do it and are choosing to do it.
When you're on a roller coaster you're not particularly concerned with how comfortable your seat is. It's not very high on your list of priorities, or at least for those who love roller coasters (as you love acting), you don't find it to be a significant deterrent to the activity itself. You might be concerned with the essential physical safety of the ride (and emotional perhaps if you have a history of trauma that might trigger PTSD like symptoms or unhealthy flashbacks), but apart from these logical precautions, the emotional, psychological and sensory exhilaration is the entire point of the exercise. To seek ways in which one could make a roller coaster less scary and more comfortable seems counter to the entire point of the matter. The same is true of acting.
When riding roller coasters, we develop over time a tolerance of what might initially be a seemingly intolerable emotional experience. It's uncomfortable, adrenaline rapidly pumps through our bodies, our awareness is heightened, our sensations of nerves comes keenly into focus. Yet over time, we come to tolerate these sensations.
Let me also say a word on tolerance in the way I mean it. Although one might assume the word is synonymous with ignoring, it is not. To truly tolerate is to turn towards experience and accept it. It means to engage with the experience directly. To put it another way, it is not the same as when someone is clearly suffering from intense emotional pain and they say "I'm fine", trying to pretend what's happening isn't happening. It's equivalent is more akin to the same situation with the person instead saying "yes it hurts but I intend to stay with it because it's here whether I ignore it or not". One way is delusion, the other is awareness. And as we've outlined previously and will discuss more in the future, awareness is the key to acting.
Start to cultivate your ability to tolerate those uncomfortable situations and emotions, then and only then will you be able to handle the Olympic like feats you see of those performers you admire. So if you're serious about acting and getting the most out of it, stop trying to be comfortable; strap in and hold on, we're going for a bumpy ride.