When working with clients I often speak of the Three Act Structure that I believe is contained in the arc of every Human Action. It is my contention that Theater and Film use this structure because they are replicating a natural process; reflecting back a great truth about the human experience of engagement with real action. This is why we take such delight and can even undergo profound catharsis at the viewing of staged drama. Theater shows us that which is perhaps the essential nature of our humanity – the ability to take conscious action and the impossibility of control in regard to the result of conscious action. I believe the playwright Samuel Beckett may have described the Three Act Structure of Human Action best with his famous quote. “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
Act One is “I must go on”! Whether it’s cleaning the closet, writing a screenplay or starting a new business, any initial impulse of true creativity is often imbued with a sense of great enthusiasm and visions of grandeur. “This is going to be great! What a unique idea for a screenplay – a time traveling robotic unicorn who saves the universe – Yes! When I accept my Academy Award I’m going to wear a leather tuxedo! I must get started on the script right away – I feel this is something I must do and nothing shall stop me!” So one sits in front of the computer, opens a new file and begins to take notes on the Brilliant New Idea. What happens? More then not, the aura of clarity and optimism begins to almost immediately dim and recede while a new pattern of thought immerges – “Wait…robotic time traveling unicorn? That’s the lamest idea ever! What was I thinking?! And even if it was a decent idea – Who am I kidding? – I’ll never finish an entire screenplay – I never finish anything.” But then, at our great moment of despair, another chain of thought dramatically enters the inner fray – “Ya know…maybe this is the wrong time to be writing a screenplay. What I should really do is focus on that idea I had for my own web design business! Yes, that’s it! And I’ll begin tomorrow!” I call this phenomenon “First Acting”, and it can be a powerfully addictive habit. We experience the emotional/psychological “high” of the First Act, the delectable euphoria of a New Idea and want it to never end so we keep seeking new First Acts instead of entering into the natural darkness at the gateway of the Second Act – “I can’t go on”.
We often get to the precipice of “I can’t go on” and then abandon our action entirely, retreating towards the titillation of a new First Act. The tendrils of Doubt and Hopelessness, a sense that “All is lost”, “What’s the point?”, “I don’t even want to do this frigg’un thing anymore!” – some version of this will always occur during the Second Act of any given action – It is an organic and needed part of the action!! Our call is to not run from the demonic onslaught of self-conscious “Oh, what a rouge and peasant slave am I” fragmentation, but to Accept and Go Through It – become one with the Void by actively entering it with no real hope for salvation. This Second Act journey is almost always a process; a series of minor retreats, fortifications and painful recapitulations of the Doubt Engagement we thought had been mastered. Eventually, through an alchemy of Effort and Grace, we find ourselves at a real level of active acceptance and are able to truly “go on” – the Third Act.
The Third Act reminds me of a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indiana has to step off into a great chasm, having blind faith that an invisible bridge will catch his foot. We are faced, to a greater or lesser extent, with our own Holy Bridge every day. This bridge that will provide safety, guidance and entry to the Next Level cannot be seen, felt or even imagined – we are given no evidence that the bridge exists, yet, like Indiana, we must willingly place ourselves into the viscous maw of Fear and Failure by STEPPING FULLY INTO REAL ACTION. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, sometimes apparently seconds before the impending final fall, some modicum of Actual Security manifests beneath our feet. This manifestation is a “result”, but we shall come to see it is never, thank God, the exact result we longed for in the First Act. It is something more beautiful, necessary and profound then we could have ever imagined when we began the cycle of action.