An Acting Coach’s Fool-Proof Plan To Get Out of Your Head

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“I’m in my head!”

This is the cry heard from actors everywhere when they know they aren’t doing the work they want to be doing. It’s a phrase we hear—and use—constantly, so it’s worth taking some time to think about what it means and when it’s cause for alarm.

Over a century ago, Stanislavsky identified self-consciousness as the eternal enemy of the actor. In being aware that as actors, we’ll be watched and scrutinized and evaluated and judged, we cast a critical eye on ourselves and render all kinds of judgments of ourselves as we perform: “That was terrible.” “I look stupid right now.” “I didn’t do that as well as last time.” This noise from our own heads is bad enough to endure, and even worse when it knocks us off balance and prevents us from doing what we know perfectly well how to do.

The cure for getting out of our heads is strong technique. Any acting technique worth its salt will help us identify things to focus on that hold our attention and reduce the noise that being in our head produces to a background murmur.  

But acquiring technique isn’t something that can be done overnight. So what to do about being “in your head” in the meantime as you put in the hours in class and in rehearsal honing craft? How should you cope with the infernal din that being in your head produces in the meantime?

The main thing to know is that although the noise in your head can seem very loud, it may not be having much of an impact on what’s showing up in your performance. Think of a duck moving on the surface of a pond: It appears to float effortlessly, not disturbing the placid surface of the water, not exerting itself as it moves across that surface. But underneath the surface, the duck is paddling furiously. It’s all effort, but none of that effort is visible.

It’s a bit like that with being in your head. Of course, if the noise in your head is too great, it will likely disturb you and cause you problems as you attempt to go through the scene. But most of the time, that noise—loud as it seems to you—isn’t actually showing up in your work at all. Your basic ability to speak and move is carrying you along and as annoying as the noise in your head can be, it probably isn’t impacting your performance at all.  

So the near-term solution while you’re working on developing your skill as an actor is to try to accept that that noise in your head will be a fact of life for the foreseeable future and to give it as little notice as possible. The less you pay attention to it, the less chance it will affect what you are doing in your work and the better your work will be.  

And again, the real solution is strengthening your craft. But in the meantime, the more you can disregard the noise your head is inevitably going to produce, the better off you will be.

*This post was originally published on Dec. 10, 2018. It has since been updated.

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Andrew Wood
Andrew Wood is a graduate of the MFA Directing program at the Yale School of Drama, and he has a Ph.D. from Stanford University in literature. In 2004, he founded his acting studio in San Francisco, and expanded it to Los Angeles in 2008.
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