Audrey Sperano, an actor from New York City, asks: "How can an actor keep his/her work fresh? I have a comedic monologue that has become an audition staple for me (Carol's closing monologue from Sam Shepard's play 'Red Cross'). I adore the monologue, think it's perfect for me and my personality, and have done well with it in the past. But lately, it's falling flat. I feel it, and I think the people on the other side of the casting table feel it, too. If this could happen with a one-minute monologue after only a few short months, then I'm worried about performing in my new show five times a week! What are your thoughts?"
My thoughts are, perhaps, contradictory. In one sense, you may be allowing bad habits to interfere with your true creativity. On the other hand, your concern is one that even the biggest stars deal with. This is one reason it's harder to get a "name" to commit to more than a six-month run in a Broadway or Off-Broadway play.
How do we keep the material we perform regularly fresh? How do we repeat the brilliant performance we gave on opening night to avoid "second night blues?" The fast answer? You can't!
Use your creativity. You must create, not repeat. Actually, there is some repetition that is definitely called for. But you repeat the cause, not the effect. You repeat your need to do what the character does. Then you will do it, as if for the first time. It really will be new because the evening will be different, the weather will be different, the way you feel and the way your scene partners or audience feel will be different. This means that even though your character's objectives are the same, what you do to try to pursue them on any given night will, of necessity, be just a little bit different. If, that is, you are truthfully staying in the moment and not anticipating or obsessing about what you think should happen next. In other words, if you spend your time so wrapped up in what will happen in the future, you have missed your present.
Here's what can tend to happen: You rehearse the play; you work with your director and your cast. You diligently and creatively explore your various ways of accomplishing your character's objectives. You find some wonderful tasks to invest in, to the delight of your director, your cast, yourself. When you open, the audience and the reviewers love your performance. Here's where you can easily, without even being aware of it, cross the threshold and stifle your creativity by using answers that worked in the past. All of the questions you found answers to in rehearsal were legitimate questions that you really had to learn about. Now that you already know the future, why bother? But it's the asking that is active. So, you can either really ask questions or, you can act asking questions. The former is better! Questions should always be asked in the present.
In "Red Cross," your character is recounting the memory of when she was skiing. First, create the person or people that cause you to need to tell that particular story. Then, describe the experience in order to pursue your objective with this person here and now. Creating a need to recount this event from the past will help meet your objective in the present. Now personalize the reason you tell this story. If you know why the character does what she does, then ask what would make you, the actor, do that if you were in the same circumstances. After all, the things you think the character would or wouldn't do are, in reality, the fiction of the play; they really don't mean anything to you until you personalize them. Those are the basic tasks.
Think about your house keys for a moment. Better yet, hold them in your hands. Explore them sensorily. Are you bored? Well, sure! You know all about your house keys because you've been using them for years. How could they possibly interest you? Now, give those keys to a baby. The baby doesn't know about your keys. She's interested, fascinated by the sounds, the shine of the metal, the little charm your friend gave you. Even though you know all about the object, the infant doesn't. Her behavior becomes fascinating to watch, even compelling. She will rattle the keys, touch them, and put them in her mouth. She will do everything with them except unlock a door. She is questioning the object. That's what you must do, too. Find real reasons to ask, for real. Like the baby, you won't be bored. You won't be boring! Factor this idea into your preparation. Think like the character. Look at the circumstances in the play through her eyes. In life, it's our thoughts that stimulate our actions. If you start thinking like her, then it will be easier to do what she does. When you begin to get stale in what you're doing, know that that's nature's way of telling you to go back to the basic work again. Good luck!
Doug Moston teaches acting at the Actors Studio Drama School and at New York University. He is the author of "Coming to Terms with Acting" and the newest facsimile of Shakespeare's First Folio (1623). He welcomes your acting questions at Back Stage, 770 Broadway, 6th fl., NYC 10003.