To be an actor requires levels of strength that are taken for granted in everyday life. To stand on a stage, in front of a camera, and exploit your experiences to become someone else requires a lot of us. A lot of courage, a lot of compassion, and crazy amounts of vulnerability. But what do these things even mean?
Behaving courageously does not mean behaving fearlessly. On the contrary, behaving courageously means acting to full capacity when in the face of fear. Courage for me is admitting my brilliance. It is allowing insecurity without judgment, and sometimes it is also not allowing insecurity. Courage for me is sometimes just eye contact. Courage for me is nurturing, is allowing myself to be there for someone as absolutely completely as I want to. Courage for me is compassion.
Compassion takes some level of courage and vulnerability. Compassion creates a responsibility for someone other than myself. I make a promise to hold your heart in my palms and ensure that it keeps on beating. Once I’ve established compassion, I cannot drop you no matter how much it scares me to be called tender. I am onstage; I am in the spotlight with tears streaming down my face every second because everyone is watching me, hoping, praying, I won’t drop you. Onstage, it is my responsibility: every line, every action, every tear. It is all mine. Because when your lungs collapse under the weight of character, you’ll need to know that I am there for you. And you will be there for me, too.
Vulnerability is the most present feeling when I stand in front of everyone and move to the rhythm of history and the memories of my past. It is the vulnerability to drop everything of mine that protects in order to share on her behalf, the vulnerability to place my forearms as art and let everyone soak me in, the vulnerability to connect. It is about relationships and rejection and perception, or at least the potential for those. Vulnerability doesn’t exist without connection.
Ultimately, I think that’s what these three ideas synthesize into — connection. There is no truthful connection without vulnerability, no deep connection without compassion, and no durable connection without courage. And there is no theater without connection. There is no art without the willful dance with fear, the tender touch towards the injured, and the bare bones of each actor. They don’t just affect theater; they create it. The three together give birth to what happens onstage.
The thing is, you can’t “practice” any of these things. You just do it. You do it until it stops being excruciating to pry yourself open. It probably won’t be comfortable. Nothing in theater ever is. It provides a display of tangible sensitivity. It plays the emotional chords in people that make them uncomfortable enough to pay attention. That is the point. That’s what makes compassion and vulnerability and courage so important. The discomfort in ourselves creates change. It plucks people apart and then it pieces them back together, more whole than they were before.
Theater and the change that theater catalyzes relies on this plucking apart. It shifts ideas and preconceptions towards the positive bias by deconstructing the things that we thought were set in stone. We can’t expect to pluck anyone else apart if we ourselves are not willing to crack. Plucking relies on vulnerability and compassion and courage. It depends on vulnerability enough to abandon the armor we feel so protected in and allow material to affect us, allow ourselves to affect others. It counts on the compassion to cradle the wounded parts of each other and manipulate them into palpable development. It leans on the courage that each of us has to do these things: the courage to shed our skin like a snake and come out stronger than before, the courage to tantalize audiences with your defenseless expression. Theater wouldn’t exist without courage or compassion or vulnerability. We as actors couldn’t succeed.