What Do You Want?

What do you want?The actor I was directing was just saying his lines. There was no feeling, no thought, no sense of character. The only thing I could get out of his performance was the sense that he was afraid he would not remember his lines. He spoke too quickly, his sentences ran together without pause. I knew the feeling… I have been there many times.  He was afraid if he paused he would forget what line came next.

Actors learn that one major key to a good performance is knowing what your character wants–its motivation. If you don’t know your lines, you can’t play the scene with the true intent of the text. Instead of wanting to achieve the objective of the character, you are completely obsessed with remembering your next line. And anyone watching the play will be able to tell.

If acting were just memorizing lines and being able to repeat them, it wouldn’t take much talent or skill to be accomplished. But acting is so much more than that. In training actors we emphasis the importance of owning your lines–knowing them so well you don’t have to think about what comes next. I tell actors you can’t act until you know your lines.

In an earlier blog I talked about the importance of knowing “who you are,” a key question for any actor playing a role. But equally important as knowing who you are, you need to be able to answer the question: What do you want? This is true for the play in general but also for every moment the actor is on stage. The big picture may be to defeat the villain or to win the affection of the princess, but it also applies to every little moment on stage. If you need to move from one side of the stage to the other, you need to move motivated by a reason that the character understands.  When the actor speaks, he needs to understand why he is saying what he is saying. He needs to know what he wants.

Acting–good acting–is a reflection of real life. I sometimes wonder what my life would look like if I took the time to actually stop and think about “what I want” as I go through each day. I think most of us may have it figured out on the big scale. We want to be happy, to make a decent living, have a good marriage and loving family. Some aspire to fame, fortune or adventure. Some to make the world a better place and work on the cutting edge with a sense of calling in faith and service. We may know what we want in a big picture sort of way. Some of us are moving forward and achieving our objectives.

But sometimes I think I may be living my life a bit like that actor I was working with. Struggling to remember my lines. So obsessed with just getting through the day that I may have lost sight of the big picture. I need to be reminded of “what I want” and move forward with the proper motivation to achieve my objective.

What about you? What do you want?

Who Are You?

Who Are You?For a number of years I toured with a professional theater ministry. One popular sketch we performed was called “Who Are You?” A man on the street would be repeatedly asked that question. First responses were followed with obvious answers like the man’s name but the questioner persisted with the simple question causing the victim to struggle for a better answer. He would give labels: father, son, husband. Then he would struggle for more answers: his job, his race, his religion, his citizenship, his political party.  Still not satisfied the questioner repeated, “Who are you?” Finally the man answers in frustration; “I don’t know who I am.” The questioner then says: “Now we can begin!”

As an actor, discovering “who you are” is also where you begin and is a big part of the job. The script may give you a brief description, but usually not enough information to really create a character. “A successful salesman” might be all the script tells you, but as you work through the script you may discover a salesman who is struggling to keep pace with a new, younger generation of employees, a man whose marriage is failing and who spends a hour at a local bar before returning home from work. Now we are beginning to get a glimpse of this guy, but really just a tiny glimpse. There is more to the guy than those tidbits and the actor’s job is to flesh it out… to make it real, to get inside the guy’s head and figure out why he is threatened by the new employees, what is wrong with his marriage, what his favorite drink is at the bar and how many of those he has before going home. Sometimes as an actor, you may feel you know more about a character you are playing than you do about yourself. It can be safer to ask those really tough questions about a fictional character than to answer those same questions about yourself.

I have been contemplating my own life lately and asking that “who are you?” question again. Life changes tend to do that to you. Sometimes I coast on those surface labels: husband, father, Christian, actor… those tell you a little about me but it doesn’t tell you everything. And some of those labels are evolving. New labels, like empty-nester, soon to be grandfather, guy who gets the senior citizens coffee at McDonalds, are becoming more prominent.

There is a famous adage that has been going around a lot the last few years: “You are who you are when no one is watching.”

That can be a jarring reality, and one that I am not always comfortable with. If I am being totally honest, I don’t always like that guy. Sometimes the “me” that others see is more who I want to be than who I really am. I want to be that guy on my Facebook page where only what I want you to see is posted. The me that I am when no one is watching can be lazy, envious and sometimes thinks thoughts that are too much like the bad guys I play on stage.

Who am I, really?

Truth be told… the truth that I cling to when I have those moments of doubt and confusion about my identity is found in the way that God sees me. Only through the filter of his mercy and grace does my life really make sense at all.

What do you think?

Who are you?


It happens.  Actors, singers, speakers… if you do this work often enough, you will have those moments when the unexpected thing catches you off guard.  Sometimes it’s something totally outside your control, a baby cries, the lights go out, or the elderly man in the 3rd row has a heart attack (true story). The seasoned performer learns to pause or power through depending on the situation.

I’m not acting!

I have a long list of those unexpected moments.  The ones I hate the most however are those moments that are seemingly “in my control.”  This would be the forgotten line (daydreaming again!), the pants ripping out (wardrobe malfunction), or the missing prop (that I forgot to preset on the stage).

I had a new one catch me off guard this last weekend. I was suffering from a bit of post-nasal-drip and was having a hard time getting the voice to work properly—trying to avoid the constant throat clearing that accompanies this annoying little ailment. This is not a new thing for me, and I am used to powering through, and usually find that once I hit the stage and start talking, the symptoms go away… a mystery or a miracle… take your pick.

I’d just begun my performance of Not The Way I Heard It, and was about 5 minutes into the presentation when a bit of “drip” found its way down the wrong pipe. I desperately needed to cough! Being a professional this was a big “no-no” and also knowing that I was wearing a microphone only an inch from my mouth a cough would result in an ear-splitting sound effect that was clearly not in the script.  I tried a muffled throat-clearing and that wasn’t working.  I tried to power through, hoping that by speaking I could clear out the offending slime… All that came out was a whisper of my normal voice… clearly I was in trouble.

Fortunately the scene takes place in a doctor’s office, where I had already established the character as ill (carrying a handkerchief and blowing my nose).  Also fortunately I had water on stage—something I have been doing regularly ”just in case” for all my performances. The acting code requires that you deal with the unexpected “in character,” so I made the character act like he was having hard time speaking (no acting required!), suppressing the cough, I went to the water and drank. It took a few drinks and a few failed attempts at speaking before I was able to get the voice back.  I had to fight the urge to cough for about 10 more minutes into the performance but by God’s grace was able to power through.

After the performance I apologized to a few people for my voice failing me… their response, “I thought it was part of the character.”  Which was the best thing you could have said to me at the time.

What about you?  Do you have a story to share about dealing with the unexpected in front of an audience? Anybody have a cure for post-nasal-drip?

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