Embracing the Unexpected and Abandoning Perfection in Acting

EMBRACING THE UNEXPECTED AND ABANDONING PERFECTION IN ACTING

KISS at Beloit College • Alex Burkart, Director

My blog has been quiet for awhile.

But my life has been anything but.

Eleven months ago, I learned a previous mentor of mine would be taking a semester-long sabbatical from her teaching position at Beloit College in WI.  Beloit has a bit of a sentimental value to me, as it was the location of my first professional acting job, back when an SPT theatre had nested itself in the small black box theatre located on Beloit College’s campus.  I had been looking to take a job in higher-ed, and so I applied; and I received an offer; and I was incredibly excited.

A couple of weeks later, I received an urgent call from my wife, which was led with a series of “Oh my Gods…” (how many exactly is hard to pinpoint as she was rushing through it all so fast) and then she delivered a second bit of life-changing news: she was pregnant.  I was again incredibly excited.  AND incredibly terrified.

As my wife and I began to piece together our very complicated puzzle, including a health care plan that only covered doctors in Los Angeles County, and the truth that my wife’s employment and prospective employment (she’s an actress) tied her to the city, we realized that we would have to do something incredibly difficult: a long distance pregnancy. 

This idea of long distance pregnancy forced me into a series of visions: most of the time it was me astronomically charging up my credit card to pay for a last-minute flight, running down the terminals of LAX, shoving people out of my way, fighting for an Uber, rushing to the hospital, and arriving just in time to welcome my first-born into the world.  I was lucky it wasn’t nearly that dramatic: but as a trained actor it’s very easy to get caught up in these imaginary “what ifs.” 

Alex, Emily, and Olive Burkart • Picture by Miles Szanto

But we worked all of it out.  I traveled back to Los Angeles as much as possible.  I welcomed a beautiful baby girl into the world (Olive Alayne Burkart), and continued to travel back and forth: determined to not miss a single significant moment of a life that was already moving way too fast.  I continued to teach my classes at Beloit College, loving every minute of it, and being incredibly grateful that I had understanding students and that I was able do something I love.

And now I’m at the end of it all.  Wrapping up my classes at Beloit, and counting down the days until my family is reunited (hopefully for good this time) on the same front. 

But this entry isn’t about me rambling on about my life.  It’s supposed to be about a simple life lesson; one that I continuously forget, and one that if embraced, can also make us better artists.  That lesson is: life is never how you expect it to be.

One of the biggest struggles I had (and continue to have) with my art is the amount of perfection I strive for.  It often leads to calculated performances, which in every respect are correct and decent.  Every reveal is in place, every turn, every discovery, every beat- but sometimes they never transcend above a simple “good”- when what I really want (and I’m sure everyone wants) is “great.”  This perfection, you see, is holding me back.  And time and time again I see it holding students back as well.  The desire to “do it right,” the desire to “please;” it goes against… well it goes against life.  And that’s because life isn’t always about knowing where every reveal, turn, discovery, and beat is.  It’s about this element of the unexpected: it’s about us giving over to the ride.  It’s about learning that you got a terrific new job, and that your wife is pregnant, and that you have to do it long distance, all in the matter of months.

There are questions I get asked a lot: “how do we rid ourselves of our desire for perfection?”  “How do we get caught up in the steam of an imaginary present?”  The answer is that we stop trying, and we simply start playing.  Our brains and bodies are wired to respond in the proper ways (if you actually believe in what is going on).  You do not need to “show” everyone all the amazing bookwork you did to prepare for a part (which of course you still have to do!); you need to simply trust that all of that labor is now a part of your world.  And if you trust it, your own self will know what to do with it. 

Teaching this “trust” is a trying experience, as the actor won’t understand the beauty of it until they can feel it.  And even then, they often at first feel as though they aren’t doing enough.  And this is because for so long they have been playing an out-of-tune violin, one that is tuned to “show, show, show” rather than “be, be, be.”  And until they can get used to the “be, be, be” it will feel as though they are playing the wrong notes, because they have become so accustomed to hearing it that other way for so long.  But I can tell you as an audience member, that if an actor can simply “be” they will pull me into their work, and I will become enthralled with their performance.  And I see not an act, but I see life.  And I also notice, that once the actor accepts this less-than-perfect way, they will start to surprise themselves in a very positive way.

Perhaps another way of tuning to this sense of “being” is to embrace the moments where everything goes not according to plan.  To embrace the messiness of it all, and learn to look at ourselves as less than perfect, but completely human individuals: one that exists (rather than shows) the world how exactly calculated we are.  Perhaps if we can tune our own lives to this way of thinking, it will also tune the way we capture humanity on the stage and in film.

I’m looking forward to being a father.  I hope to be terrific.  I know I won’t be perfect.  And because of that, I know the experience will be thrilling: and always in the moment.