“The leap, not the step, so it makes the experience possible.” –Heiner Müller
Every creative act involves the leap into the void. The Leap has to occur at the right moment and yet the time for the Leap is never prescribed. In the midst of a leap, there are no guarantees. To leap can often cause acute embarrassment. Embarrassment is a partner in the creative act – a key collaborator. If your work does not sufficiently embarrass you, then very likely no one will be touched by it. You cannot pretend to be someone, but rather become someone fully. If one is not touched by the brashness of what is expressed through you, then, as Gertrude Stein remarked about Oakland, California “there is no there there.”
In the case of a mediocre performer who executes mindless imitation, the discomfiture of the original creative moment is missing. In search of authenticity, one cannot expect to find security and safety inside inherited forms, plays, songs or movements. What’s necessary is to rekindle the fire inside of repetition and be prepared for a personal exposure to its effects. Be prepared to be embarrassed.
“Acting is half shame, half glory. Shame and exhibiting yourself, glory when you can forget yourself.” – John Gielgud
Usually we think of embarrassment as self-consciousness, shame or awkwardness. But the etymology of the word suggests other useful possibilities. It first appeared in 1672 and derives from the French embarrasser, which means to entangle, obstruct or trouble; to encumber; impede, to make it difficult or intricate; to complicate. Embarrassment, in this sense, means to hinder, complicate and impede.
I like to think of embarrassment as an obstruction we encounter that helps us clarify our mission. Can we welcome the entanglement of engagement? Can we allow our sense of authority to be challenged in the encounter? When you grapple with something that is just out of your reach, you find yourself entangled in something that you haven’t yet mastered. Embarrassment is a teacher. A good actor risks embarrassment in every moment. There is nothing more thrilling than to be in rehearsal with an actor who is willing to set foot into embarrassing territory. If you try to avoid being embarrassed by what you do, nothing will happen because the territory remains safe and unexposed. Embarrassment engenders a glow and presents and dissolving of habit.
The enemy of art is assumption: the assumption that you know what you were doing, the assumption that you know how to walk and how to talk, the assumption that what you ‘mean’ will mean the same thing to those who receive it. The instant you make an assumption about who the audience is or what the moment is, that moment will be asleep. Assumptions can prevent you from entering new and embarrassing territories.
If you manage to question your assumptions, you will find yourself instantly, childlike, face-to-face with new sensations. Even the people around you, untamed by your assumptions, will suddenly seem fresh and full of potential. In the midst of all this new territory you get inspired, you get defeated, you feel embarrassment.
When in doubt, when you are lost, don’t stop. Instead, concentrate on detail. Look around you, find a detail to concentrate on and do that. Forget the big picture for a while. Just put your energy into the details of what is already there. The big picture will eventually open up and reveal itself if you can stay out of the way for a while. It won’t open up if you stop. You have to stay involved but you don’t always have to stay involved with the big picture.
While paying attention to the details and welcoming security, while walking the tightrope between control and chaos and using accidents, while allowing yourself to go off-balance and going through the back door, while creating the circumstances in which something might happen and being ready for the leap, while not hiding and being ready to stop doing homework, something is bound to happen. And it will probably be appropriately embarrassing. Rise to it!