Practicing Presence

We are pretty jumpy people these days, allowing ourselves to be pulled in 20 different directions and becoming increasingly unable to focus on what’s in front of us.

Some people are proud of this, claiming that they are geniuses at multi-tasking and get so much more done in a day than most other people.

“But how much did you actually experience today?” That’s the actor’s question. It’s the experiences of your life that add up to who you are and, ultimately, what you have to offer a role.

Which brings us to the subject of presence. The word gets thrown around quite a bit by actors and teachers as if it’s just one more thing to be ticked off on a list of positive attributes for an actor to have. “Now that I am about to go into the audition, I’ll be present.”

Not so fast. Presence is not a magic cape that you drape over yourself when you feel like it. Presence is a learned skill and it won’t show up in your work or in the room if you don’t practice it in your life.

How Being Present Affects Your Work An audition is a series of moments. The actor with the brightest, truest, most connected moments gets the job. But how can you sustain a moment in your work if you don’t know the feeling of doing so in your life? If jumping from moment to moment is what you do 95 percent of the time, then that’s what you’ll do in the audition. Under pressure, the body goes to what it knows.

This is professional suicide for an actor. I see actors who get four pages of sides for, say, an argument scene. When I ask them about the emotions involved in the exchange, many can’t tell me, because they don’t stick around long enough in their real lives to find out. That’s where they get caught. Walking away or checking out is not an option in a scene, and if you don’t know the feelings that occur from being present for an entire experience in your life, chances are your focus will wane and your presence will weaken before the end of the scene. I have heard the refrain from casting so many times: “Why do actors find it so hard to stay present and involved? It’s only a 90-second scene!”

This may be a good time to ask yourself, when was the last time that you focused entirely on one thing/person in your life and were entirely present for a full 90 seconds?

Being Present in the Room Your ability to be present in the room is inextricably tied to your ability to let your work go and simply be. Your ability to let the work go is dependent on having prepared in such a way that you have nothing to doubt and everything to be confident about.

If the piece isn’t living in your body and heart, your mind will become agitated and you’ll be policing your work and diluting your presence in the room. Being present means being free to focus totally on what is going on in front of you. But if even 10 percent of your brain is thinking about how the work is going to go when you walk into the room, you’ll appear unfocused and fractured. And make no mistake, your inability to be totally present and connected to the people in the room will become an issue when it comes down to who books the job.

Presence also takes acceptance of your space. If you’ve prepared correctly, you know that your work will shine no matter what the environment, and you can now rest in the powerful knowledge that you are about to leave the room in better shape than that in which you found it.

Confidence exercises, affirmations, etc., are nothing but empty bravado if your work isn’t at a job-getting level.

True confidence is resting in the moment just as it is and knowing that everything you need is inside you and that you and your work belongs in that room and in that project.

And from this confidence comes the ability to be entirely present: nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to be—just present.

An Exercise to Be More Present in Life During the course of your day, take at least two minutes between one activity and the next. If you’re arriving home from work, don’t run into the house. Sit in the car and complete your drive before you get out so that when you enter your home, you are present for what is in front of you. Be aware of the feeling of ending one thing and beginning the next.

We know that living fully in transitions is essential in your work. So it is in life. Fully completing one activity ensures that you show up fully for the next. If you slow down and practice with this enough, you can, on a cellular level, change your default setting from scattered to calm, from weak to strong, and from absent to present.

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