Last week, I wrote about eating on the cheap – an extremely useful skill for an aspiring actor, and yet one which easily applies to the life of ANYONE looking to conserve funds. I will continue down this same path for the next few posts, presenting lessons learned while acting which might still be of interest to non-actors. You know who you are. If you are reading this, presumably you are profoundly bored and killing time, completely lost and looking for help, insatiably curious to your very core, or you are related to me. I will try to stick to topics of interest to all. That said, I reserve the right to rant on non sequitur subjects at any time. This is my site; I pay its bills. If I want to drive off road, this metaphorical jeep is mine to command!
Today I would like to talk about surviving (and even thriving) when faced with repetitive tasks. As a stage actor, I have had ample opportunity to wrestle with this subject. Many jobs require you to do the same sorts of things over and over; however, this is pushed to extremes when you perform a show for weeks and even MONTHS on end. In the theater (if you are fortunate enough to be working), you LITERALLY do the exact same thing every night in precisely the same order. This can get old quickly. And, unless you make efforts, the experience can be hellish.
My first brush with this was back in college, when for inexplicable reasons I was hired as a “disciple” (code for CHORUS MEMBER) in that well-intentioned, arguably lackluster musical, Godspell, a hippie-ish retelling of the Gospel story. This was the summer after my Freshman year of college. I had never performed in a musical before, and so learned to sing and dance (cough, cough – kind of) from the ground up during the 2-week rehearsal process. This was a bus and truck tour show, funded by my university’s department of admissions, and we performed the show 44 times in 3 states. It was a completely surreal experience for me, fresh as I was to the concept, and the drudgery of it was lost in the general newness.
I collided violently with the real GRIND of a long-running show the autumn AFTER college, when I accepted my first longer contract. As the leaves fell and fall turned to winter, I performed that first show, The Confession, 76 times. It was rough. My current record stands at 97 performances, though this is peanuts compared to the numbers put up by performers of year-round touring shows or Broadway. All told, I have broken the 50-show barrier 15 or so times. And yes, it gets easier.
In college, you perform a show three or four times – possibly as many as eight times if the show sells well and they add a second weekend. There you perform always in the first flush of nerves, ever fueled, whether you know it or not, by the rush of adrenaline that comes with fumbling your first few performance out before a gathered crowd. What awaits you behind the bend, when you have been running a show for weeks and weeks, is the real WORK. When all thrill is gone, you must still present the same product.
I’ll cut to the chase. What I eventually learned, after years of foolishness, was that repetition is a gift. It gives you the ability to seek out the BEST way of doing ANYTHING. Rather than fighting the nature of a repetitive chore, you can embrace the fact that you HAVE done it before. You can learn from past mistakes. You can trim the unnecessary. You can reach for EFFICIENCY. Pare your actions down to the fewest possible moves. What is the easiest way to get to where you’re going? What moments NEED effort? Focus on those. Am I breathing before I speak? IT IS UNBELIEVABLE HOW MUCH YOU ALWAYS NEED TO REMIND YOURSELF TO BREATHE. And know this - there is a fierce joy to be found in carving out the best version of a thing.
At this point, let me rush in with two qualifiers. Yes, “best” is an indescribably subjective word. And yes, it is essentially unattainable. You will never REACH “best”. But you can improve immeasurably by reaching FOR it.
What I have discovered, after years of blighted ignorance and woe, is that it takes till the third weekend of a show for me to really ENJOY it. It is not until THEN that I have made enough mistakes to see those mistakes for what they are and correct them. It is not until then that I am familiar enough with the flow of the evening to RELAX.
This does not just apply to the world of theatre. I have found the same rules apply to any work I have done, be it yardwork, bartending, customer service, or whatever. At my current day job, I unload and then reload sound equipment and supplies into carrying cases. (I do other things, too, but let’s focus on a simple example.) I COULD simply throw equipment in there any old way if I wanted. But I choose not to. Instead, I take care. I am (slowly) figuring out the perfect way to fit each thing in its assigned spot, learning the best order in which do each thing. I am getting faster and faster at it. Each time it is easier, and each time I do it better.
When your goal is to figure out a better way to do each task every time, your brain stays engaged. The end result of all this striving is that you wind up with a product to be proud of. Rather than simply going through the motions for ever diminishing returns, you are choosing to polish your performance, whether that be onstage or in life.
So that’s my advice, whether you asked for it or not. Faced with a boring, repetitive task? Make it a game. Look for the BEST way to do it. As my mother always told me, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
And remember to breathe. Always breathe.