Crossing the Threshold: Imagination & Concentration for the Actor
What is a threshold? Historically, a threshold was the place where someone entering a house would stamp their feet to get rid of the dirt, mud, or snow on one’s shoes. People’s homes were generally one room and tracking mud into the house would have made life miserable for everybody.
Today, the word “threshold” has come to mean not only a doorsill, but also a boundary from any one place to another, a gate, a doorway, an entryway. It not only means a boundary from one space to another, but it also can signify a beginning point of a place in time like crossing the threshold into a new age. Finally, it can mean any point where a physiological or psychological effect can be produced. For example, one’s threshold for pain or affection.
In our work as actors, all of these definitions can be deeply meaningful. We all have these things called “lives” outside of the rehearsal room, theatre, or set. Acting can be deeply personal and if we are not careful, we can mix our real life with the artistic lives of our characters in ways that can be unhealthy and unproductive.
Think of a painter who is preparing to do their work. The painter must prep his space and himself for work prior to beginning or else they risk getting paint on their clothing, the floor, the walls, and other things that they might need to keep clean and paint-free in their regular lives. Painters tend to have work clothes specifically for their work. They may lay down a tarp so that they don’t get paint on things they don’t want. They prep the canvas and use brushes that have been cleaned and are ready to use.
When the painter is finished for the day, they must change their clothes, wash the paint off themselves and their utensils, and make sure that they are not tracking the paint into other rooms. Ask any painter, and they will say that this is a necessary part of their work.
Acting is similar to painting in this regard. Our body is the canvas. I have to take care of the canvas because it is the foundation on which an actor’s art rests. The texts we use are the brushes. The brush may be refined and delicate like Shakespeare or broad and wide like comedic farce. The paints an actor uses are our feelings and psychology. If we are not careful we can track our paint in and out of our artistic lives which can negatively effect our work.
If I am angry at my parents, for example, and I track that anger into my rehearsal for the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet, it will certainly impact my choices and may lead me astray causing me to make choices that are inappropriate for the scene.
Even if my character’s emotional life and my own correlate, it may still lead me astray as the intensity I feel in one may differ from the intensity I feel in the other and suddenly I am not living truthfully in the world of the play or movie, but simply rehashing the day’s events in a way that is not productive either artistically or personally.
For the actor, it is best to have a clear delineation between the world of the play or movie and our personal lives. The focus of our work should be the imagined world of the character, not our real-life issues and personality. Chekhov felt that it was a crime to limit the actor within the limits of their personality. He compared that kind of acting with being an enslaved laborer rather than an artist. Always at the command of our own ego rather than being free to live fully as our character.
Crossing the threshold into the world of the character is a kind of ritualized activity that preps the mind, body, and imagination for that day’s work. When you cross the threshold as a group at the beginning of each rehearsal, you build a sense of ensemble and connectedness that can boost your work in amazing ways. When crossing the threshold as an individual, you increase your powers of concentration and imagination and prime your body and mind for the work at hand.
The most important value of Crossing the Threshold in my view is that it helps enhance the feeling that the space is both safe and sacred. We, as artists, are quite prone to self-judgement and criticism. We can be so afraid of making a “wrong” choice in rehearsal or performance that we keep ourselves from making strong and committed choices or sometimes any choices at all. We want to leave that fear of judgement from both our piers and ourselves behind and live completely truthfully in the imagined circumstances of the play or movie.
I begin the practice of crossing the threshold immediately in my very first class and many of my students look at me like I’m crazy. This can be a foreign concept to many people and what I say is this:
We are beginning by imagining something is there that is not actually there. Imagination is the foundation of the actor’s work. Actors imagine things are true that are not true all the time. Whether it is an imagined relationship, a fourth wall, or the absence of a camera, actors must learn to focus and concentrate their imagination usefully.
The second reason we do this exercise is that one of the things we do very naturally as artists is to criticize ourselves and others. We are quite good at it, in fact. But as artists, this tends to hamper our creative freedom and individuality. We can’t worry about that while trying to better ourselves as artists, so this exercise is intended to ritualize an atmosphere conducive to our work.
After a surprisingly short time, you WILL come to depend on crossing the threshold in your acting.
And it’s true. The crazy looks disappear over a surprisingly short time and my cast or class almost always remind me if I forget to do the threshold exercise at the beginning of our session. On the occasion that we all forget, they mention that something felt off for them. Doing some version of the threshold exercise really helps to prime the space and the actor for their best work.
I’m not sure if I can totally explain it fully except that ritualizing and physicalizing a threshold activity just plain works. It builds our capacity for imagination and concentration. Chekhov felt that art wasn’t really possible without concentration. And that a refined creative imagination is the basis point for any actor.
So, I am going to go through a group threshold exercise and an individual threshold exercise. At the time I am making this video, I realize that the group activity is not really possible. I am positive that it will be possible again at some point in the future and I recommend this activity as a wonderful opening activity for your first rehearsal back. In any case, if you are a teacher or director, do not be afraid of doing this activity with your class or cast at the beginning of every session. If you are a director, try to include the stage manager and any other crew as well.
Lowering the Ring: Opening Class and Rehearsal Threshold Exercise
First, gather your students or cast and ask them to form a large circle.
You need to make clear that they need to try to form a perfect circle as much as they are able. This is to emphasize to the students the importance of Form in their work.
For the first several classes or rehearsals, I say the following. I don’t think it’s necessary to say this in its entirety after the first few times, but it’s fun to revisit every few weeks or so, to remind the actors of the imagery.
Everyone look up. Now, using your imaginations, I’d like to invite you to look past the lights, past the ceiling, past all the floors, past the attic, past the roof, past the clouds, past the atmosphere, past the moon, past mars, past venus, past the all the planets, past the sun, past the milky way, past all the different galaxies, to the very center of the universe. Now, you might see the tiniest golden dot in the center of our universe and you might also notice that it’s moving very quickly towards us. Do you see it speed towards us past all the galaxies? Oh, it’s moving fast now, faster than the speed of imagination, past the edge of our milky way, past the edge of our solar system, past Neptune, past Mars, past the Moon, and our atmosphere. Past the clouds, and our roof, and through our ceiling. Now, you probably noticed already that it’s not such a dot anymore, but a golden ring of light that just happens to be the exact same diameter of the circle we formed in class today. You might also notice, that that ring of light is still connected to the center of our universe so it’s really kind of a long tube composed of light.
Now, this curtain of light needs our help to bring it down to the floor, so let’s everyone in unison reach up to welcome the light in our hands. We should do this altogether so if you’re ahead of everyone, please slow down a bit and if you’re behind everyone, please speed up.
Good. We have it now, so let’s bring it to the floor. Slowly and carefully if you please. This light is very delicate.
Good. And now look, the light has dropped through the floor, through the basement, through the center of the earth, out through china, past the clouds and sky and moon and sun and planets and galaxy and, because the universe is the way the universe is, it’s now reconnected itself back to the center of the universe.
Now let’s look at this light. It’s ok to touch it if you like. See how it sparkles. Oooh, it feels warm. Let’s all put our hands in it. Do you notice how that feels. Doesn’t it feel good? Practice putting one arm at a time in this waterfall of light. Do you notice how the arm inside the light feels warmer than the one outside? Let’s wash our faces in this light. Do you see how it changes each other’s faces?
Now, whenever you like, there really is no rush, feel free to cross the threshold into the ring. Doesn’t it feel good in here? It feels so free and good and right. Now, take this light and rub it into your skin. Everyplace that you rub the light into on your body should feel totally awesome and free and easy.
Now let’s look at the borders of the ring we left. Everyone, let’s pull those borders to the edges of the room so that no space in the room isn’t covered with the ring’s light. Spread your arms wide and carry the threshold to the walls. If there someplace you can’t reach then you can radiate from your Ideal Artistic Center to those spaces covering them in golden light. Go ahead and stretch that ring right to the walls.
Turn around. Does the room feel different to you? Good, then we’re ready to begin.
Again, as you continue to do this for each class, the need for you to narrate should
become less and less. The important thing is that the movements remain relatively the
same. You can speed this up as you deem necessary to cover the material you intend for
that day’s session. Sometimes I take 5 minutes with this exercise and sometimes this exercise can take only a few seconds. Remember, it is the ritual of activity that will automatically prep the actor for the day’s work.
At the end of the class, I say this:
Ok, now it’s time to put the ring back where we found it, in the world of imagination and inspiration. So, let’s form that perfect circle again. Now, let’s open up our backspace and pull the ring in through our Ideal Artistic Center back to our circle.
Good, now everyone bend down slowly and altogether to pick up the ring.
Good, now let’s say goodbye to the ring.
The class in unison lifts the ring and gives it one final toss to the sky. This ensures that each class ends in an expansion.
Now, let’s go over an exercise you, as an individual, can do to cross the threshold
The Doorway: Individual Threshold Exercise
Wherever you need to, someplace to the side of the room or offstage, imagine that there is a door in front of you.
Imagine that this door is the entryway into the world of your character. Make it as specific to the world of the play or movie as possible. Sometimes it may be a large wooden door, sometimes a sliding door, sometimes the door of a cage, but whatever comes to mind, do not judge it and try to visualize it as clearly as possible.
Know that when you open that door and step through it that you will be in the world of the character. A safe space where you are free to perform without judgement of yourself or others.
When you are ready, open the door, step through, and close the door behind you.
When you are finished working or taking a break, don’t forget to step back through the door into the real world and close the door behind you. It’s important that you always keep a clear delineation between your world and the character’s world.
And that’s it. Two exercises designed to improve your concentration, imagination, feeling of the whole, feeling of beauty, feeling of ease, feeling of form, sense of atmosphere, as well as much, much more. As you continue to work with this, you may find that doing this right before an audition has a calming and focusing effect. You can use this in many aspects of your daily and creative life, and I have found this really works for me and the people I work with.
One more thing, I have used this exercise with all levels and age groups. Just like acting if you believe in the ring, your students will too.
Hope it works for you too.
Let me know what you think in the comments.
And I’ll see you guys later.