Perform nothing

February 1, 2018

Rainn Wilson and Kevin Hart make the choice that defines them as artists and performers: they stop pretending to be what they think the audience wants to see. I started doing improv a few months ago, and these 100% resonate.

From Rainn Wilson, a conversation with his acting instructor:

“Ron Van Lieu looked at me and said, “Rainn, I believe that you’re very talented. Why do you keep getting in your own way?” […]

We began to discuss what was really going on with me and I realized that underneath all my tension and bad acting was FEAR. Fear of rejection, of abandonment, of not being liked. I truly thought that if the audience was able to see the real me, they’d get bored and hate what they saw. In my acting I then amped everything up to try to “be more interesting.” This of course only made me look like a broken acting robot, filled with gestures and tension that had nothing to do with the character I was playing or the scene I was in.

We decided to let all that go. I made a commitment to “dare to be boring.” To just listen while acting. To simply breathe. To BE the character and see the world through the character’s eyes, without amplifying my performance in any way, shape, or form.

The idea of working in this manner was absolutely terrifying to me.

The next scene I performed was from Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill. I truly dared to be boring. I just sat there and listened to my scene partner, without self-consciousness, worry, or any forced indication of listening.

To me, I felt naked, bereft, unadorned, afraid. But I could tell I was onto something. Surprise, surprise, I was far more interesting to watch when I didn’t try to be interesting! Simply being and listening can be riveting if the internal life is fully fleshed out. […]

To me the key to acting is listening. You can’t believe how many actors “fake listen” when onstage or on camera. We all certainly know what it’s like when someone is not truly listening to us in everyday conversation, how strained and hollow the conversation can feel. A great deal of the time, when we’re watching actors and not responding to their performances, it’s because of this specific issue.

Most of my favorite acting moments of all time are not showy moments of bravado but simple ones, when the actor’s body, mind, and heart are filled with truth and a deep reservoir of emotion.”

In trying to “be more interesting,” he’s identifying with the desire to achieve some external outcome, that is, some reaction from the audience, instead of portraying - being - his character. He’s watching the audience instead of paying full attention to what’s unfolding in the scene – being only in the scene –, which he identifies, saying “the key of acting is listening.”

From Kevin Hart, on changing his stage name from Lil’ Kev the Bastard to using his real name:

“After the set, I asked Keith, “What did you think?” I was certain I’d impressed him with my young, raw talent, and waited for the praise to roll in.

“It was awful.”

“Awful?” In all this time, no one had said anything that direct and harsh to me—especially not an older, established comedian.

“You’re not talking about shit,” he continued. “I’m not getting to know who you are.”

“What do you mean? You just saw me. Everyone was laughing.”

“So what? People will laugh at anything. You’re doing ‘black crowd tricks,’ son. Comedy is about experimentation. You’re rehashing corny bits that have already been done and will always work. It’s TV dinner comedy: prepackaged.” His words hurt, but I tried not to show it. “Stop catering to the audience and start working on being a comedian, young fella.”

I tried to respond, but I couldn’t get any words out. I’d just beat out all the other comedians in Philly. I had to at least have something going for me.

“Now, I definitely saw some pizzazz,” Keith went on. “I saw a solid stage presence and a lot of energy. But none of that set was about you. So it means nothing.”

There’s only so much abuse a person can take. Who was this guy to come out of nowhere and tell me to change my whole act?

“You tell ’em your real name.” He slapped me hard on the back. “It’ll take you further and it’ll sharpen you up. Stay and watch my set.”

I stuck around and saw Keith perform. His entire routine was about him: his life, his point of view, his family. He told jokes about his mom and his brother, sharing insights about them that were so specific, they had to be true. Unlike me, he was very relaxed on stage and wasn’t afraid to take long pauses and let things settle. He didn’t seem to be putting on a persona so much as sharing his own personality at its best. He was right: Compared to him, I looked like an amateur who was trying too hard.

I decided that night to try letting go of my comedy name. When there are no consequences to taking someone’s advice, then there’s no reason not to test it out and see if it works.”

This requires courage. We hide behind performance, following checklists and repeating existing routines.

[Keith:] “However, you want to have a relationship with the audience, and the name you were born with is going to have more depth and authenticity than a character you made up.”

“Yeah,” I sighed. On an intuitive level, I knew that he was right. But I didn’t want to start all over as Kevin Hart and throw away the work I’d done so far.

“I can see the doubt in your eyes.” Keith grew more impassioned, leaning in a little too close. “Stop being a dummy. Your job as a person with talent is to make yourself interesting after the audience hears your name.1 Define the person who was just introduced.”

“How do you do that?”

“It’s simple, stupid. You be yourself. When they say Kevin Hart, your first words should be ‘Hey, what’s going on? My name is Kevin Hart. I’m happy to be here.’ ”

It felt like he’d just told me to pull down my pants and take a crap on stage. In fact, taking an on-stage shit would have made more sense to me. At least that was interesting and memorable. Starting out by greeting the audience like I was at a job interview made absolutely no sense. But I was willing to try it again.”

I loved that reframe (“As a person with talent, your job …”).