Grace and Acting

“Grace is not fighting, but cooperating with something larger than yourself. Think of the ballerina…and gravity.” I heard this idea a few weeks ago in a podcast done by
Rob Bell, and I had this overwhelming need to write it down. The very next day, another definition of grace went ahead and slapped me in the face. It was from a yoga video: “Grace is the way you move.” Later that week, I was beating myself up for not being able to do a dance I learned because my body was tired. I decided to take a break for a day and give myself time to heal. When I got back to the dance it felt great, and a close friend said to me, “all you needed was some grace.” Three definitions of grace, all different from each other. Or so it seemed.

But I am bewildered by all of this. To be honest, I had never really given the notion of “grace” a second thought–I always assumed it had something to do with being beautiful– never stumbling. As a tall, limby ballet student, I was often told I “had grace,” which was perplexing because outside of class, I couldn’t have less (I run into walls and accidentally injure myself constantly). Maybe a suit of bubble wrap could make me graceful on the reg. But I get the feeling I have been sorely mistaken for most of my life about the idea of grace. Of course there is much more to it!

What I’ve noticed is that these definitions of grace have a common thread: movement. “Cooperating,” “the way you move,” taking a much needed break– these are all actions in some respect. An action requires movement. Therefore, grace must need some kind of movement in order to manifest. The movement I’m thinking of here can be physical or metaphorical. For example, a person can move physically by walking through a room, mentally through their thoughts, or emotionally through healing after a tragedy. So, it’s clear that the ballerina is moving because she is dancing, but on a greater level, she is moving in a way which opens up her inner life to allow grace into her dance. The same can be said for yoga because the goal is to remain open and aware in order to receive higher energies into your body. And with my final example, I needed to step back from my own dance lesson in order to make some room for grace. More specifically, my stepping back was because I needed something that I wasn’t giving myself, but that grace could give me, love. We invite grace into our lives with this simple movement– a simple opening up. A simple allowing of something bigger than yourself to flow through you and create change. Now it makes a little more sense to me how grace sometimes graces us with its presence…when we finally let go of what we’ve been holding onto and ALLOW ALLOW ALLOW.

The three definitions represent three important parts of what grace needs to exist. You must cooperate (like the ballerina), take action by moving (like in the yoga video), and love (like I learned to show myself). Grace needs all three parts– cooperation, action and love. These are the basic principles that set grace above other, pedestrian movement. Grace is divine. It is an unspoken agreement to coexist with something higher and greater than ourselves. And while I recognize that my three example definitions of grace are not the only ones out there, I believe all definitions of grace share the basic principles I have expressed to a degree. So let’s work with this new meaning of grace: the active and loving cooperation with divine forces beyond oneself. And because I’m an artist, everything I learn about the world always applies to my art. So I want to apply this idea of grace to acting, and see where it goes.

Grace plays an integral part in the actor’s use of the subconscious onstage. The subconscious is the unreachable 95% of hardwiring in the human brain. Put more simply, we can consciously control about 5% of our brains, but the rest is all subconscious. It is the mysterious void that makes us beautifully irrational–and human. In other words, it can be considered “something larger than yourself,” a force greater than you, but with which you can cooperatively collaborate. And how wonderful that it is always close by– it is always inside you, waiting to be unleashed. When acting is honest and deeply researched, an actor finds the ability to let go and allow the subconscious to do the work of responding in a natural, human manner to the imaginary circumstances of the play. The actor’s true accepting of this larger, uncontrollable part of her brain creates an inner life so complex and human, that it can’t possibly be contained or repeated. This is the kind of work compels. It reaches audiences on a deep level–in their subconscious. We need grace in order to be able to play with the subconscious. We need to move on some level in order to engage it, cooperate with it once it begins to take over, and love what it produces because our judgement and analysis will send it away. This process takes an incredible amount of allow and courage on the part of the actor.

It takes courage to trust in the unseen, especially the unseen of what’s inside your own mind. In my life, I have always been afraid to release control of a moment onstage because I don’t know what would come from that 95% of my brain. I was afraid it wouldn’t reflect the person I want people to think I am. So I shut it down for most of my life until I began to explore this idea of grace. And let me say that it has been a crazy wild ride to see what the hell I come up with when I get out of my own way. It’s so much more fun when I can back up and watch what happens. If only I could do it all the time, but like anything else, allowing grace to step in takes practice.

A great mystery of our art occurs when all of the actors on stage create, on a subconscious level, the invisible line of the play. This is when every actor trusts their subconscious to do the work, and all subconscious expressions align with the superobjective of the play, which coalesce into what feels like a driving force, or a jetstream line through the air. It’s entirely invisible, but you feel it in your bones. I speak from (minimal but intense) experience, this is theatre magic. To me, it is the manifestation of true presence as an ensemble; true cooperation with the invisible forces of the world of the play combined with the invisible force of the subconscious…true grace.

This experience is what taught me that grace has a presence, or a spirit of some kind. I don’t know the right word for it yet, but I know grace is not something you see…it’s something you feel. Think of that ballerina– she appears to be floating on a planet where gravity should be pulling her down. She has no strings attached. However, it is possible to feel the presence of that with which she is cooperating. We can feel the spirit of grace when we watch her. We become surrounded by it, and are emotionally moved when we leave the theater. If we could see the strings, it wouldn’t be magic.

And so we can also be moved by grace. We move to allow it in, and it moves us if we let it. And if grace has the ability to move us, that means it always has the ability to cause a reaction in other beings. This means, in basic terms, that one person’s movement moves others. And isn’t that exactly what we need to make compelling theatre? Think of what makes up a play: various complex forces (characters) acting and reacting off of each other’s actions and reactions. It’s a constant game of tennis. So grace is essential to our profession, or we have no theatre.

Let’s let the magic in and see what happens.


Mantra: I will open myself to grace and let it lead me.


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