I’ve spent my fair share of time building sets and working run crew. When surrounded by fast-moving set pieces, people carrying heavy objects, and other moving parts that could easily hurt you and others, you learn very quickly the importance of getting the f*ck out of the way.
I’ve also done my fair share of performing, and I’ve even done a little directing. In time, I’ve discovered that knowing when it’s time to just get out of the way is in fact the most important skill any theatre artist can develop.
Physically, mentally, and emotionally, sometimes the most important thing you’ll do on stage is just f*cking move and let the others do the work they’re there to do.
A lot of people are initially drawn to theatre by the allure of being a star. Many young performers enter with an ego and a chip on their shoulder, and they unfortunately often blossom into adult performers with even bigger egos and even bigger chips on their shoulders. The stereotypical theatre kid, with their giant personality and the insatiable need to be the center of attention, is a lasting stereotype because it’s often more true than we performers would like to admit.
When everyone is vying for the center of attention, they don’t usually manage to share it. What happens instead is a fraught emotional (and sometimes physical) competition to one-up and steal attention from each other. A room full of “class clowns” is not, contrary to what you may believe, the most fun room you’ve ever walked into– it’s a trying test in patience.
This raises some spectacular problems in performing circles. Performance is really all about knowing when you are and aren’t important– even the most active lead in the most demanding show will find themselves taking back-seat roles in some scenes. In music, a piece’s focus is constantly shifting– no one instrument or voice part usually does all the “talking.” (And how boring would it be if they did?) Instead, you get a dynamic experience wherein many different storytellers work together to create one cohesive whole. If they were all merely speaking over each other, the story would never be told.
Theatre is perhaps the most literal embodiment of this metaphor: Many performers come together to tell a cohesive story (or set of stories). When everyone is preoccupied with being the best or most interesting character on stage, they lose the ability to create such cohesion.
Therefore, all performers must learn, preferably at a young age, how to just get out of the way.
Sometimes this is a strictly physical and practical rule. With limited wing space, performers need to know when they are and aren’t needed directly on the sidelines. Performers need to develop a sense of physical awareness as much as emotional awareness, lest they be run down by a fast-moving set piece or a stage manager on a mission. They also need to learn how to get out of the way on stage, not just in terms of making way for blocking action, but also how not to draw attention to themselves at inappropriate moments. (We’ve all seen a show where a cast member hasn’t understood this idea and makes an outrageously distracting nuisance of themselves.)
Perhaps more crucially, performers must also learn how to get out of the way mentally. In other words, they need to put their desire to be the center of attention aside so they can form a cohesive unit with the rest of their cast. They must find the moments where they are important and absolutely own those, or else they’ll be inclined to treat every moment with equally inappropriate levels of energy.
Getting out of the way mentally is not only of dire importance for creating a cohesive performance. It’s also necessary for learning and growing as a performer. When an actor believes they are the best person in the room, they won’t be able to learn from those around them. In a setting as uniquely competitive and interpersonally connected as the theater, there is always something to be learned from those around you, and anyone who fails to take advantage of this fact will quickly fall behind their peers.
If you can’t get the f*ck out of the way, you’ll find it that much harder to step into the spotlight.
This is where being able to get out of the way emotionally becomes so dire. It’s one thing to understand that you can’t be the center of attention at every moment and another to really accept it. Understanding that there is always something to learn from those around you and that it’s not only okay but preferable not to be the “best” in the room is really just step one. Accepting this fact and learning to love it rather than just live with it is crucial for your long-term mental health as a creative. Actors who struggle to internalize this may find themselves trapped in cycles of negativity and jealousy rather than anything productive.
Actors aren’t the only ones who should take this message to heart: everyone involved in the theatre process must learn their place. If the designers overstep their boundaries, other aspects of the performance run the risk of being overshadowed. If the director refuses to let the performers do the work themselves and constantly butts in, their actors will never be able to flourish.
We all have a job to do, and it’s for the best that we all just do that job.
In other words, everyone needs to just get the f*ck over yourself, already (but in a positive, uplifting way).
Knowing when to get out of the way is absolutely crucial for every aspect of performing. A production lives or dies by the performers’ grasp of this principle, and the performers themselves face the same fate.
If you internalize one major philosophy about performing, let it be this:
Just get the f*ck out of the way.