I sat in on one of Paola Coletto’s Red Nose workshops a few weeks ago, just to watch. The performers were practicing trust falls.
I’ve led versions of trust fall games in the interest of developing trustworthiness in the catchers. But one thing I’d never thought to look for in a trust fall was the facial expression on the faller.
In the Red Nose class, Paola had the performers pair up and take turns falling backward into one another’s arms. She pointed out when a faller clenched up her jaw, or forgot to breathe, or shut her eyes. Then the player unclenched her jaw, or breathed, or opened her eyes, and tried again to fall without letting that falling feeling hijack her whole face.
Then, Paola asked the players to take turns standing in neutral while the class cheered. If you’ve ever done this, you know that it’s a confusing emotional roller coaster to be on stage without having anything to say or do.
If you haven’t done it, think of that moment between the time you step on stage and the time you get a suggestion from the audience. You don’t have a character yet, you don’t have anything you’re supposed to say or do, and your body is trying to deal with the fact that people are looking at you.
A priest recently told me that the scariest part of preaching was the time between the end of the Gospel reading and the beginning of the sermon — that is, the time it takes to walk ten feet from the side of the stage to the center of it and say, “Please be seated.” It’s only a few seconds, but it’s when the adrenaline hits, and there’s nothing to do but be looked at.
Think of spreading those three or four seconds out to a full minute, and that’s how it feels to stand in neutral wearing a red nose. It feels like falling.
Which is why it makes total sense that a player’s “I’m falling” face is usually the same as her “I just walked on stage what on earth am I supposed to do?” face. Clenched jaws, held breath, and closed eyes are coping mechanisms a player uses to shove down feelings she doesn’t want, to close off and protect herself from the audience. At least, they’re mine. And I don’t have any idea I’m doing them unless I make a conscious effort to pay attention.
It’s not as simple as relaxing your jaw. Because when you relax you jaw, you find that you’re holding your breath. And when you take a deep breath, you notice the tension has all moved to your hands, which are now balled into little fists. You release your fists, but now your hands are shaking and your fingers are numb. The tension doesn’t really go away, it just moves from one place in your body to another. By the end of one minute of this, some players are laughing uncontrollably; others cry; others have to sit down so they don’t pass out.
And then, the next class, you do it again, but you notice all of these things yourself instead of having someone else call them out for you. Once you feel them for yourself, you can play with those feelings.
So that’s the benefit for the faller: to learn to recognize that feeling so that you can manage it on stage without throwing up a wall between yourself and the audience. Or just without throwing up.