Zen in the Art of Theatre

Monday, August 16

“To know and to act are one and the same.”  – Samurai Maxim

Andrew Carter (from left), Terry Hamilton and director Louis Contey during a rehearsal of “Frost/Nixon”

The final weeks of rehearsal are filled with mixed emotions. As the days progress, more challenges present themselves at a break-neck pace.  We have had an extraordinary amount of time in the rehearsal space to run through the show (at least 5 full runs) that proves both beneficial and detrimental. Obviously, learning the pace and flow of the show is invaluable. But as the repetition increases, things begin to feel more and more stifled. I struggle to maintain the work we had unearthed during weeks 2 and 3, possibly because I am now concerned with remembering which scene comes next and where I might make costume changes.

By the time our second-to-last day in the rehearsal space comes along, I am as moody and sluggish as a dog being dragged to the vet. I feel trapped in a pattern. The work has slowed and I am hitting a plateau. After the run through that night, Lou gives me a slew of notes, each highlighting the embarrassing standstill I am already experiencing: “Fight harder.” “Pick up the cues.”  “More intensity.”

I am boiling over. I leave rehearsal flooded with negativity, convinced that everything in my life is now completely off-balance. Acting in the theatre is supposed to be my sanctuary, my release. My head hurts from my furrowed brow and clenched teeth. I turn off my phone and climb into bed, desperately trying to sleep while fending off images of an unhappy director, an empty audience, a burning pile of headshots.

“The angry man will defeat himself in battle as well as in life.”  – Samurai Maxim

I wake up feeling much the same. I try to get my day started but am feeling utterly unproductive. I resolve to sleep away the afternoon.

But as I collapse into my couch, my eyes land on a book upon the shelf – a small, white tome with precise red letters: Zen in the Martial Arts. This book was required reading by my movement and stage combat professor in college. He insisted that we read this 70s-era self-help handbook regardless of our knowledge or practice of the martial arts (I took about 3 months worth of karate training when I was 6 years old.)  He felt it applied directly to the theatre arts and was a useful guide in everyday life.  I haven’t opened it since that semester nearly 10 years ago, but now seems as good a time as any.

I take the book out to my back porch, where the sky is a faded blue and the breeze eases over the railing in waves. I take a deep breath and zero in on the words. Each chapter, no longer than three pages, tells a different story of the writer’s explorations with various styles of martial arts and the life lessons his Sensei teaches him throughout his studies. We learn about the dojo — the practice space — which can easily translate to the rehearsal room or theatre – a sacred space in which to learn, practice, fail and try again. The Sensei, like the director, instructs and guides but also allows the student to make choices on his own. The use of a partner to spar with and acquire new skills is also familiar to my craft. The connection of breath to body and mind helps create focus and concentration. And knowing when to attack, deflect and act instinctively are all common techniques to the actor.

The most resonant parts of this book remind the reader that anger and haste are barricades to success; adaptation and balance are the keys to it. Again and again, these themes strike me with the force of a karate chop. I had allowed my emotions to engage in war, inhibiting me from moving forward – or more importantly, to be exactly where I am. In the moment, we theatre folk like to say. The desire to get everything just right, the pressure of performance, of being ready for opening night, of exceeding my expectations for myself and this production — all of this has been shading the truth before me.

“Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free: stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing.  This is the ultimate.”  – Chuang-Tzu

Once I finish the book (a very quick read, if you’re interested), I lay down, knees up, cross my hands over my chest, and begin to breathe.  The art of meditation, of centering one’s mind and connecting to the breath is a fundamental part of all acting training. It feels as if I haven’t truly breathed at all in recent weeks. I clear my mind of all thought except “Breathe in.  Breathe out.” After nearly an hour, I am more relaxed than I have been in months. It seems like such a simple task, but I had to focus all my energy on getting back to a positive place once again, and remind myself to BE HERE NOW.

Later that night, as we prepare for another run-through, Lou speaks to the cast about returning to that playful spirit we all had not long ago at first rehearsal. He too has sensed that we have tightened up and that the rigidness is impeding our progress. “Play, folks. That’s what we’re here to do,” he says with a smile.

Energized by Lou’s speech and my newfound balance, the run begins and the results are stunning. Each scene takes on a life of it’s own. The dialogue resonates with passion. Each actor is adding exciting new elements to his or her character, and everyone’s dedication is admirable. My instincts are razor sharp and I uncover some revelatory moments.

Afterward, the room is buzzing with excitement and the whole cast senses that we have knocked down another wall. Everyone says my scene with Beth in the airplane was electrifying. I don’t remember much except finding pure joy in talking to this new creature. She and I were just up there, talking, engaging in the scene. My mind was clear and I was reacting instinctively, without thought. I know I will never be able to recreate the scene because there was nothing planned or premeditated. It just happened. It was the ultimate.

“The mind of a perfect man is like a mirror. It grasps nothing. It expects nothing.  It reflects but does not hold.  Therefore, the perfect man can act without effort.”  – Chuang-Tzu

Andrew Carter portrays David Frost in TimeLine’s Chicago premiere of Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon. He previously appeared at TimeLine in The History Boys, Pravda and This Happy Breed.

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  1. REVIEW: Frost/Nixon (TimeLine Theatre) « Chicago Theater Blog

    […] From Timeline’s blog, Andrew Card (who portrays David Frost) reveals his thoughts regarding Zen in the Art of Theatre […]

  2. Barbara E French

    I found the play just as riveting as the movie – better because I prefer theater! Both lead actors were right on the money. In fact I think they did a better job than the actors in the movie.

    I think people are still fascinated by Richard Nixon because he was such a complex man. He had so many highs and lows. He was so far ahead of McGovern that Watergate didn’t need to happen – in my opinion. I still think he should have been impeached! Bill Clinton lied about having an affair – not an impeachable offense to me. Richard Nixon however, used government agencies to target his enemies. Also, I think he thought himself above the law and Gerald Ford’s pardon only reinforced this.

    As you can see the whole thing still resonates with me — probably because I lived through it.