Firewalking & Acting

(Originally posted May 16th 2013)

In 2000 I signed up for a firewalking workshop. My grad school had ended three years earlier, I was slowly working as an ‘instructor’ and so I was going from school to school across the UK to teach students and parents of all ages. So driven by the fear of being called a phony, there seemed a greater responsibility on my part to really know what I was talking about. And yet ‘talking’ had never really been the hard part for me. I needed to ‘walk the walk’. And what more harrowing ‘walk’, than a firewalk?

The firewalking also seemed emblematic in a very narcissistic way. Walking across fire and hot coals was, and still i,s a form of ‘truth trial’ in cultures across the world. As a teacher, I said to myself, my responsibility was to teach ‘truth’. And actors are constantly searching for ways to be ‘more truthful’. So why not use a time-honored, centuries old system for truth telling like walking across fire?

I also knew someone who had done the firewalk. They actually ran the educational consultancy I was working for. His recounting of the experience was apocryphal – he’d been a secondary school teacher for years, then became an advertising guy… and then had a huge consciousness shift. After fire walking. He returned to education, this time teaching teachers how to teach better as well as teaching students how their brains worked and so how to learn more effectively. Being the greedy little narcissist that I am, I wanted a story like that to justify becoming a newly-minted teacher myself. So I signed up.

The workshop was supposed to take three days. Knowing that, my brain invented an itinerary, even though no actual itinerary had been forwarded to us. In my mind, a three day firewalking workshop would culminate in the firewalk. On day three. So you can imagine my surprise that as I registered on day one, I was handed a legal waiver to sign and told “you’re walking tonight.” It was 3pm. The panic was physical and immediate. How I didn’t soil myself is still something of a mystery. But I signed the waiver and waited to see what would happen.

The workshop began with 4 hours of intriguing, arresting and interesting material about the brain and how humans make decisions. I took notes. Nodded my head a lot. But couldn’t help but notice a distinct lack of skills related to walking across fire. Specifically. It wasn’t until 9.00pm that evening, half an hour before we were supposed to walk, that we got ‘the knowledge’ to walk across fire. And then, at 9.30pm, we paraded into the parking lot where rows of burning coals lay between the slightly ominous array of ambulances, presumably a ‘precaution’. At 9.42pm it was all over – I was standing barefoot in a parking lot trying to figure out how to get back to the seminar room we came from to pick up my bag to go home.

What happened in the half hour between having no firewalking knowledge and firewalking continued to rattle around in my head long after the workshop. Particularly as it pertained to acting. It seemed particularly significant that professional actors for the stage are called half an hour before a performance, the same allotted time to learn how to firewalk. And the more I have taught acting since that workshop, the more I think I have arrived at a way to make the experience relevant to an actor. There are five ‘rules’:

  1. Generate a physical/vocal state
  2. Look higher than the coals
  3. Control your inner dialogue
  4. Strut, don’t run
  5. Wipe your feet when you’re done

Rule 1: Generate a physical/vocal state

Walking over coals hotter than your home oven usually gets is daunting. It instantaneously elicits fear, which tenses and shocks your body. Therefore, the firewalker needs to warm up and prepare their body for the shock of the hot coals. The voice is used in tandem to exercise the whole instrument towards one daunting and seemingly impossible feat.

This seems fairly intuitive to any actor who has to walk in front of a couple of hundred (or thousand) people. For those who have had a lot of training, you know how powerful the right warm up exercise can be to your performance. Even if you are not singing or dancing in your show, warming up your voice and body readies the instrument for the impending shock on your system. Apparently, firewalking is no different. For our walk we actually created a physical ‘trigger’, comprised of an action we created and associated with succeeding. We then attached a word (spoken passionately) to that physical cue and repeated it until the first step onto the coals.

My actor-nerd brain became peaked at this idea, surely as a way of avoiding my possible impending barbecuing. But this specific preparation sounded a lot like the Michael Chekhov work I had been exposed to. This specific technique all lay in physical manifestations of metaphors. Instead of an abstract idea of a character’s ‘action’, Chekhov insisted the performer needs a physical sensation of that action. So actors would create living sculptures of their actions (often with lines from the text) as a way to warm up for a scene.

I’ve come to rely on the Chekhov work for just this reason – the ability to make real the interior choices of an actor. It’s also a much more effective way of assessing your own choices. An actor can stare at their script and their choice to play “to insist” on the page. And they can even convince themselves that’s what they’re playing. But the Chekhov work confronts the actor’s intuition with the choice. Does the choice ‘read’, in other words : does it affect your partner? Or is the choice only intellectual, and your own body cannot find a way to follow through with it?

Rule 2: Look higher than the coals

When you play sports at school, there are a lot of social rules and constructs to navigate. The one I remember most particularly is that ‘injury’ is not something to indulge in. And as school sports is highly competitive, it is usually ‘high stakes’ for whoever is playing. So it is not unusual for a kid to only realize upon returning home and finally looking at the injury to actually feel any pain. Seeing something frightening (like a personal injury) is paralyzing, and can even induce the body to go into shock.

Going into shock would be a very bad thing when walking across hot coals. But also when walking onstage. Many actors (and very experienced, good actors) have been racked with stage fright throughout their careers. It is a horribly debilitating condition that is also an entirely revealing one. Because debilitating fear is the manifestation of the perfect foil to the actor’s fundamental purpose – to ‘act’. And even if ‘performing’ isn’t the problem, an actor can have equally debilitating fears before performing (self consciousness with a choice, insecurity around the language of the play, thinking they are a ‘phony’, etc).

In firewalking, one solution offered was not even looking at the problem – look slightly higher than the problem. The fact of the situation is clear and irrefutable : the coals are hot, and can burn you. Looking at them confirms this ‘reality’ to your brain, which then braces itself for inevitable pain. By not looking at the coals, though, gives your brain a different focus ( a high stakes distraction, if you will), and almost fools you into ignoring the coals. It’s like the self-helpy cliché says: “Aim higher, because even if you miss the moon, you’ll still hit the stars”.

Rule 3: Control your inner dialogue

This is the biggie. Imagine the scene : you’ve been learning how to firewalk for half an hour. You’re told it is now time to “do it”. You walk barefoot into a parking lot filled with the smell of smoke. Burning lines of hot coals fill the lot, along with the flashing lights of Ambulances (just in case). People around you are chanting, clapping and generally ‘psychic themselves up’ for the experience (Rule 1 above). Behind each line of coals are lines of people ready to walk. No more than 10 per line of coals. When it comes time to assign you your line, you are at the very front. 9 people behind you, equally nervous, needing you to start and give them hope. You step up to the line of hot coals. You’ve got your physical/vocal prep (Rule 1). You look higher than the coals (Rule 2). But then the heat of the coals hits your face. Your nose actually burns a bit, instantly neutralizing Rules 1 and 2. Then you hear others’ screams, but don’t know exactly what they are (Success? Failure? Cheerleading for someone else?). You now need to take the first step, but are overwhelmed with new last minute obstacles.

This is when your inner dialogue will save you. No matter what the new reality is, you now need to control your own mind and not let it fall prey to the thousands of other distractions that will overwhelm you and undermine your choice. So what should that dialogue in your mind be? Well, what is theopposite of ‘hot coals’? Often people say ‘ice’! But ice is uncomfortable to walk on, too. And sometimes skin can stick to ice, which would really suck if you were walking over hot coals. Instead, “cool moss” was a great inner dialogue. It is short, sensually specific for your frightened brain, and most importantly, when you take your first step, your brain can scream “cool moss, cool moss, cool moss, cool moss, cool moss, cool moss, cool moss, cool moss…”  LOUDLY inside your head, drowning out the other voice in your head screaming “Im burning! This hurts! It’s all over!!!”

The real lesson here for the actor is that final and essential component to stepping out onstage and serving your play is actual denying a large part of reality. Your brain has to leap the mental fence that keeps reminding you that you are wearing clothes that aren’t yours, you’re pretending people aren’t watching and that you’re about to enter a space with fake real life. Instead, you have to insist to your own brain that this IS a real life, and need to act truthfully within it.

Rule 4: Strut, don’t run

When I have told people that I have walked on hot coals, the first response is usually “you must have run, right? That way, the coals don’t have time to really burn you.” Some really dodgy physics are then quoted to justify this response. But quite the opposite is actually true. If you run on cylindrical objects, guess what happens? You roll and slip. Which sucks. That really sucks when the cylindrical objects you are slipping on are hot coals. Instead, you need to walk calmly and surely, like a kind of ‘strut’.

Good for an actor to remember. ‘Effort’ is something we all use in the creation of our work, but when it is time to share that work, the effort needs to be hidden. Does anyone really care how ‘hard’ we have worked? Is that why people go to the theatre – to witness and reward how many rehearsals you’ve had? No. An audience wants to watch you do something incredibly hard, in an incredibly effortless way. A calm tightrope walker is more compelling than a tense one. A tense tightrope walker also tends to be a falling tightrope walker…

Rule 5: Wipe your feet when you’re done

Surprisingly, many firewalkers make it across the coals without injury, only to get burned after the walk. Stray embers can get caught between the toes and when the walker changes their physical/mental state back to ‘real life’, the embers can suddenly catch the walker’s brain by surprise, destroying the inner dialogue and causing a nasty burn. To help prevent this, we were all told to wipe our feet on the mat as we finished. Assistants would spray our feet with water as we did this to extinguish the embers.

How many actors do you know who need to ‘let go’ of their work once it is done? And not only they get burned by that, but anyone who gets too close to them, too. Any actor harboring mental, physical or vocal remnants of their performance is effectively carrying burning embers around in their toes, and its only a matter of time before it’ll burn them. Actors have literally been driven crazy by not dropping their performance work. Actors have been driven to addiction and self-loathing by refusing to leave their work onstage, onset or in the rehearsal room. Better to wipe your feet and extinguish it.

Last July, 21 people got burned in a seminar hosted by the same guy who taught me how to firewalk. The ensuing ridicule and dismissal for Tony Robbins was as inevitable as it was swift. It must have been terrifying for those who were injured, and equally confusing for those who were not. The incredulity I went through after completing my firewalk was as intense as the fear before doing it. I have never checked my feet so often in my life, especially as we were all ‘in state’ (as Mr Robbins describes it), so screaming was still everywhere around me. And the Ambulance lights were still running. I couldn’t actually tell if some people were hurt or not, because I was in state myself. However, 10 minutes after I finished my firewalk, I was paying for parking and driving home. 30 minutes after the walk I was having my feet inspected by my girlfriend at the time. Neither of us quite believed it.

The experience still serves as my principal lesson for confronting potential danger by overcoming fear. The fear of stepping onstage is not really much like that of a firewalk, at least when looking at it rationally. But every actor is dealing with fear of performing on some level. And fear is incredibly useful, because even at low levels it modifies behaviors and holds you back. After all, it thinks it is protecting you. But that kind of protective measure is holding back a performer from exploring the character, and in turn their own talent. It also builds a wall inside the actor which will lay out endless justifications for why they work the way they do. Which is often cases just a justification for not exerting the necessary effort into changing and adapting to a character or situation they are ultimately afraid of. So maybe a little more firewalk preparation is the way to go….