This week I had a rehearsal for Michael Pesce's Old Fashioned Piano Party (tomorrow! at the Laurie Beechman Theatre). It was the first time in awhile that I've gotten to work on my material with a director, but it will not be the last (so help me God). There is a reason the theater is a collaborative art. To wit: One must separate the actor's* mind from the character's mind. It is easy to conflate the actor's sense of risk, challenge, or stretch, with the character's sense of risk, need, or drive... and they are two very different things.
I'm a hard worker. I practice (singing) pretty much daily, and I'm always reaching for the next level of technique and vocal finesse. My dance teacher in college, from whom I first really learned about harnessing the moving energy of the universe, used to talk about dancing on the edge of the turnout. (For you non-dancers, we're getting technical here -- balletic turnout being "the basis on which all ballet movement follows" - thanks, Wikipedia). It was the safest place to be, he argued, because I would always be working toward turning out even more, and I would end up dancing on the expansive direction of the energy rather than gripping muscles at a certain "place".
And so it is with singing, and acting, and basketball and everything else. I took that idea and ran with it over the years, until I no longer trust that the easy is worthwhile, because I can't feel the edge. I've learned that the riskiest place has the most payoff, especially for the audience. But risky for whom exactly? With all my time of late in the practice room and the recording studio I've gotten into some of those feels-so-good-eyes-closed-now-listen-to-THIS vocal gymnastics that smack as rather masturbatory in a theatrical setting. Can I release and stretch into this new technique enough to make a "better" sound than I could yesterday? Sure, that's a risk - for me. But for the audience, who didn't hear me sing yesterday and probably can't tell the subtle difference between the two sounds anyway, who cares?
This all came up in rehearsal because we've been playing with changing the key of one of the songs I'm singing on Sunday. There are two workable versions, and I've been singing the lower key (C) for years, so over the past few weeks I've been getting the higher one (a big old step to D, sparkling D, beautiful D) into my voice. And it sounds lovely in the practice room, I don't mind telling you. But then the director showed up, and we started prodding around into the story and the character and why am I even singing the darn thing (besides loving it as I love few other pieces, because that's about ME, isn't it, and now we are talking about the character), and suddenly this new edge of technique is out the window and pitches are everywhere and I'm in tears. "I can't sing it... and SING it," I blubbered. Guess I haven't grown into those size-D shoes just yet.
So we do it again, in C, and there it is. It's fine, and better than fine. It's not as sparkly, and I don't feel as edge-of-my-turnout, but the objective eyes (and ears) in the room tell me otherwise.
A beautiful performance on the edge of a mountain is still the same performance if you move it back five feet to solid ground. Just because I may feel more risk on the edge of the mountain - because there is a very real chance that I could fall and hurt myself - doesn't make it better. In fact I am freer when I am certain I won't - can't - fall, and I can think about what I want to say and how I want to say it instead of wondering if that F# will come out the way I want it to.
And so I am grateful for directors, and objectivity, and the trust of the rehearsal room. Living on the edge and taking risks and leaping to find my wings doesn't mean that every performance has to be the Next Big Challenge. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if the actor is truly that stretched onstage, it does herself AND the audience a disservice. They are not here to see if I win or not. They are here to see if the character wins or not. I may sing like a diva, but it ain't all about me.
*I considered saying "performer" here instead of "actor" - after all, the singing is half the equation. But after writing this post I am comfortable - indeed, resolute - sticking with "actor". When asked over the years what it is that I do, I have always said I'm an actor first... until lately, when I've started throwing in "actor/singer" or even sometimes just "singer" or "theater singer," depending upon the company. But lest I forget again: the storytelling is the point, the acting is the point; the song is how we express it.
This post was originally written for gregcicchino.com.