Four Acting Lessons from Costa Rica

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Pura Vita!

I recently returned from a quick weekend trip to Costa Rica! My dear friend and I decided at the beginning to make an effort to let go of the stress and grief in our lives, and to really truly relax. Easier said than done. Of course, we tend to remain students of Art wherever we go, and after all, if our end is “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature…” no better place than Costa Rica! Here are some acting reminders for myself from this weekend. I hope they help you too!

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1. Be where you are.

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Be where you are.

It’s the first lesson of improv: “Yes, and…” It’s the first lesson in scene study: “know your given circumstances…” It’s a major mantra in the happiness movement: “Be where you are.”

I  have always been obsessed with butterflies, and this past Saturday I was mesmerized by these different stages of the metamorphosis and the application to the actor-singer.

  • On the left is the brilliant jade-colored pupa, who has hurried up to wait in her chrysalis and is currently undergoing transformation. Growth and differentiation…all these interesting choices occur within the chrysalis. It’s an obviously internal and private process. Pupation may last weeks, months or even years…she can even fall into dormancy until the right season.
  • The gorgeous malachite butterfly in the center, having emerged from her chrysalis, is sitting on the empty shell in order to expand and harden her wings. Every few seconds she will pump her wings, and any moment she is going to take off.
  • Notice the empty exuviae, or remains of the chrysalis-exoskeleton. It’s a reminder of what she had to go through, to grow through, and I hope we look to these souvenirs with gratitude. Of course, it’s not really an interesting choice to play a chrysalis. It’s an empty exercise to play “the end”, so it’s helpful/stronger to imagine your or your character’s development at an earlier stage.

Accepting your given circumstance always expands, not limits your options. You become interesting when you completely “buy in” to the immediate circumstance of this exact instance of your character’s life. You become exciting to be on stage with. Offstage you’re a joy to be around, and you are a valuable colleague. If while analyzing your career tract you are aware, mindful, and present to your current reality, you will be less susceptible to jealousy and depression. Mindfulness adds a sense of wonderment and even wanderlust to your journey.

Life gives you plenty of time to do whatever you want to do if you stay in the present moment. -Deepak Chopra

Incidentally, don’t feel like you need to lay out and defend every “choice” you have made as an actor or a person. Oversharing is an easy trap to fall into for actors and musicians, so if this is a habit for you, consider this: when you really own your choices and tether them to a profoundly deep part of yourself you become a miraculous story and so much more than a flat stereotype.

 

2. Peace is dynamic. Passion is loud.

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Peace is dynamic. Waterfall at La Paz Waterfall Garden, Costa Rica

“Rainforest Waterfall” is a setting on my white noise machine, which I turn on to relax, meditate, or otherwise “zone out”. In still-shot photography it looks so peaceful here, even serene, but in reality it is exhilarating, almost overwhelming to stand close to a waterfall. The roar is so loud that you have to rely on hand gestures to communicate to your companions. The violence of the falling water vibrates in your blood, and fills you with a rush of adrenaline.

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It’s good to remember to give your characters loud passions.

My happiest, most peaceful internal moments have usually been when I am incredibly busy, scrambling from one thing I love to another. My heart is noisy and I feel like I am bursting with life, vibrating with passion. It’s easy to play a happy, serene, or peaceful character as if she were a wooden bowl in a still life, but then what you get is “static”…you get “white noise”. It’s good to remember: give your even your quietest characters loud passions.

 

3. Focus is patient.

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Focus is fierce, but it is also patient and expectant.

Among the truly amazing animals at La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Wildlife Refuge is the jaguar, and I watched these two adolescent female jaguars being fed. Instead of dumping the meat in front of them, the keeper would place the food in difficult-to-reach spots in the enclosure, high, low, and make them wait a minute or so for the next bite. We got to watch the predator in training and it was fascinating. Between bites, or when her sister was enjoying her capture this jaguar would crouch and wait. Her eyes would never “go dead” and she maintained a relaxed aliveness even when the scene was not about her.

You see where I’m going with this. You have to keep your relationship with your onstage others (and your offstage desires) taut, alive. Conflict is where the drama lives, and the second you stop caring you stop being honest; your character’s integrity becomes dim and your audience stops caring as well. Focus is fierce, but it is also patient and expectant.

4. Mystery is exciting.

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Mystery is exciting. Laguna Botos at Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

In the southern part of the Poas Volcano is Laguna Botos, a beautiful crater lake surrounded by impressive tropical cloud forest. It last erupted 7,500 years ago and is now considered dormant. For the most part it behaves like a sparkling blue lake but sometimes the water gets heated for several degrees by volcanic heat and turns grey.

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Secrets under the surface. Laguna Caliente at Poas Volcano, Costa Rica

In the north is an active crater with Laguna Caliente, one of the most acidic natural lakes in the world. The bottom of the lake contains a layer of liquid sulphur. The size of the lake is variable – sometimes 165 feet deep, but sometimes it disappears entirely. The temperature of the brine is 70°C but can rise up to over 200°F.

The diversity of colors of the lake is fascinating. It might be emerald green but some three hours later grey-whitish. Sometimes rafts of brilliant, yellow sulphur are seen floating in the lake. As if this is not spectacular enough, Laguna Caliente often experiences impressive geysers. This is caused by the magma reaching the water – extreme heat instantly transforms the water and acid into explosive steam and the lake blows up in a giant fountain.

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I have a secret. I am beautiful. I am beloved.

When I was a kid, I loved the Red Skelton and Esther Williams movie, Bathing Beauty (1944). There is a scene where Red Skelton has to be part of a ballet class where there are all these girls in Swan Lake costumes, and he is also wearing a Swan Lake costume. The ballet teacher is telling him how to be a dignified woman, how to walk as a ballerina. She says to him, “You have to say to yourself, ‘I have a secret. I am beautiful. I am beloved.’” It’s hilarious and touching and made a huge impression on me. Candidly, I think of this scene before almost every audition or social situation where I am feeling very nervous or insecure…I actually write on sticky notes and put on my mirror or say to myself:“I have a secret, I am beautiful, I am beloved.” This is simple, silly, and powerful. So try it sometime.

Secrets that are alive under your skin give you color, it’s not just in your costumes and mannerisms. If your own mysteries or made-up secrets tint your reactions and motivations, you will bring a fresh unpredictability to your characters that is quite engaging and works as well for comic characters as dramatic leads. And if you have ever witnessed a secondary character or ensemble member completely steal the show, this is exactly what that actor has done. So build up an arsenal of secret inner thoughts, specific and private circumstances, so that the discoveries you make onstage are bursts of unexpected color and power.

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Guarde la Calma

I hope you enjoyed some of my lessons from Costa Rica! Have you ever found acting lessons in your travels? Share!

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