On this Independence Day, celebrated in my native country, I'm joining everyone all over my adopted island as we celebrate England's football victory last night over Colombia. And no...I ain't calling it soccer anymore.
Last night was the UK's Day of Independence from the bondage of fear, self-doubt and pessimism. It all came down to a 'penalty shootout' - and for my American friends let me describe it: the score was tied 1-1 (it's stinking hard to even score one point!), and England and Colombia had to break the tie by playing a highly ritualized, solo performance where each team selects five players who then each get one attempt to kick the ball into the net from 12 yards, while the goalie is trying to block their efforts. A simple task.
Reframe this through the acting lens: you're playing a 'do-or-die' scene with one other person...to an audience of several hundred million people spread out over five continents.
Going into it, we all new that England had before never won at penalty shootouts in the World Cup. So how did they do it this time?
And what does this have to do with acting?
OWN THE PROCESS
England's football coach, Gareth Southgate, a modest, focused individual, instilled this mantra into his players: 'Own the Process', which according to Sam Wallace, chief football writer at The Telegraph means: take control, take your time, impose your own personality and skill on a relatively simple task, warped by pressure. He learned this in a very painful way as you'll see below.
For the actor it can mean: For any audition or acting job, do your homework, score your scene and leave nothing to chance, because as Michael Caine said:
It may sound like a contradiction, but you achieve spontaneity on the set through preparation of the dialogue. The film actor must be sufficiently in charge of his material and in tune with the life of his character to think his character’s most private thoughts as though no on were watching him - no camera spying on him. The camera just happens to be there.
Michael Caine, Acting in Film, page 3
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE - in innovative ways
Guess how Mr. Southgate (although I met him at a dinner party I wouldn't presume to call him Gareth) trained his players to stay cool during penalty shootouts? ...by relentlessly kicking the ball in the net? Yes, but also by having them putt on the golf course - with their fellow players jeering at them! This allowed them to see it in a different perspective.
So often we actors get mired in the literal: how can I play this character when I've never murdered anyone? As the England players learned, you can liberate your performance with a 'substitution', as acting practitioner Uta Hagen would say. You can't imagine murdering Desdemona? What about acting on the urge to murder a mosquito biting you during a hot summer day?
All of acting is a substitution, so never tire in your dogged, persistent search for the substitution will make your performance come alive.
LEARN FROM MISTAKES
Mr. Southgate learned this careful method of training his players in an excruciatingly hard way. In 1996 he himself missed a penalty shootout during the World Cup by being ill prepared. But he gained the knowledge that "when something goes wrong in your life, it doesn't finish you."
To young actors reading this, you may think that each un-successful audition and each shattered dream is the finish -- it is not that way at all. I can say myself that every crushing failure in my life, every broken dream has given me life insight and compassion. It's all gold dust for learning to be a better person as you develop as an artist - so keep looking at it with the long view.
Just think about the amazing man who failed spectacularly on the world stage in a way that we can't even comprehend - and then spent the next twenty years processing this, learning from it, and rectifying it by passing it on to the next generation in such an inspiring way.
Come on England. Happy 4th of July.
Bryan Bounds is the founder and head of education of the American School of Acting, an independent conservatory where young artists learn cutting-edge acting skills for the 21st century in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.