Keep Two Thoughts

Personal essays

Backstage- Essay from Newsletter 90

Waiting in the wings


This week’s tempest in a teapot centered around a “New Yorker” profile of “Succession” actor Jeremy Strong.

I haven’t read the profile. I haven’t seen the show. I’m not sure I know who Jeremy Strong is - and yet it’s all over my timeline.

Perhaps that’s an issue I need to address and soon. How much of my attention is occupied by things like this.

Everyone got involved.

My favorite response was from Aaron Sorkin.

Actually, it wasn’t his response, it was how I encountered it.

Jesica Chastain posted Aaron’s response to Twitter explaining that Aaron didn’t engage in social media and asked her to post it on his behalf. That still doesn’t explain how it got in my timeline as I don’t follow Chastain either.

Anyway. Whatever you think of the man, that’s quite a feat: participating in the performance while standing offstage.

The discussion was around Strong being such a method actor that he continued to stay in character while the cameras weren’t rolling.

I don’t really care much about the specifics, but increasingly this issue of staying in character is becoming a problem for all of us.


I recently saw a video from the National Theatre of Bill Nighy talking with other actors.

He tells a story of a woman who approaches him after one of his performances to tell him how wonderful he was.

She goes on to tell him that she’s an actor as well but she’s having difficulties.

Nighy encourages her to tell him what the issue is.

She says that her drama teacher is angry with her because she’s not feeling stuff.

Nighy explains to her that this play that she saw where she thought he was feeling all sorts of things, despite what she thought when she saw him, “I can guarantee that I’m not feeling anything. I’m at work.”

So that actor you think is so nice because of what you saw of them on a late night show or heard in a podcast - even then, they’re at work.

They have objectives in the lines they deliver onstage or on camera and they have objectives in the apparent conversations they have when they are playing themselves.

Living online

This is one of the issues with social media.

In real life, at least pre-pandemic, you may go in to work and interact with a group of people. They know this version of you.

On the way to or from work you may stop somewhere for coffee and encounter a different group of people. They know this version of you - from your moods to what you’re listening to or scrolling through when it’s your turn to order to the order you place each day.

You get home and have time with your family or roommates. They know this version of you.

The details may be different in your life but there are these different pockets of people that don’t tend to intersect with whom you have these special, individualized relationships.

Even more important is you get to walk offstage in between these interactions waiting for your next entrance.

You don’t go directly from work to the coffee house. You leave work and there’s some transition time until you appear onstage at the coffee house. You throw away your paper cup once you’re done with your drink or put the ceramic cup in the bus tub and head out the door and have time before your next scene at home.

In the first episode of Offline, Jia Tolentino talked to host Jon Favreau about how this is different in our online world.

Not only is everyone trying to present the best version of themselves, but there is no respite. You’re always onstage. You’re always this consistent character you’ve created.

Tolentino describes it as an endless performance with no backstage.

This creates tension with your actual self. The self that has a front row seat to the gap between the live you live and the life you present.


Nighy talks about standing backstage preparing to go on.

He’s slouched over a bit and he’s scratching his brow.

He hear’s his cue and knows it’s almost time.

He stands up too straight. He arranges his collar. He consciously keeps his hands away from his face.

The ticks and the scratching and the bad posture - that’s the offstage Bill.

The onstage Bill stands up too tall with his hair just so and his lines delivered with the over-enunciation of a new actor.

So that’s who he becomes and then he steps onto the stage.

And the audience can sense that he’s acting.

He worries about how to stand and where to put his hands. Somehow this means that the audience notices his hands more than if he just waved them around in an exaggerated gesture.

Walk on stage and go ahead and be big. Get your hands up above your head as quickly as you can, he advises.

And yet the biggest change is actually the smallest change.

Nighy doesn’t believe less is more. “More is more,” he says. But also the less is important as well. So he makes the smallest of adjustments to his entrances.

If he’s scratching his brow just before he enters, he comes on stage scratching his brow.

He shrugs and tells the other actors that he’s talking to about acting that he knows it’s an affectation and it isn’t that important but it helped him be more real and natural onstage.

Sure, he’s at work - but you can see the man behind the actor. Shakespeare’s words now sound like words that this man you see on stage might actually say. They no longer feel like a person pretending to be someone who is worthy of speaking Shakespeare on a stage.

Nighy shows us our way forward. Instead of living online in an endless performance with no backstage, we bring who we are backstage in front of the camera and just be who we are.

Sure, we notice our hair looks weird or that our hands have been in our pockets too long.

We make adjustments, scratch our brow, and remember to just be who we are.

It wouldn’t kill you to smile a bit more either, would it?

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 90. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

See also Dim Sum Thinking — Theme by @mattgraham — Subscribe with RSS