Years ago, watching T.V., I came across an interview with Michael Caine on Parkinson, the long running UK talk show. In this interview he speaks passionately about the adage, “Use the Difficulty,” which he has used and shared throughout his life.
He likes telling the story about how he heard the phrase, apparently, and repeats it often in interviews, including a 1992 Fresh Air interview Terry Gross in which he said,
“Well, I was rehearsing a play, and there was a scene that went on before me, then I had to come in the door. They rehearsed the scene, and one of the actors had thrown a chair at the other one. It landed right in front of the door where I came in. I opened the door and then rather lamely, I said to the producer who was sitting out in the stalls,
‘Well, look, I can’t get in. There’s a chair in my way.’
He said, ‘Well, use the difficulty.’
So I said, ‘What do you mean, use the difficulty?”’
He said, ‘Well, if it’s a drama, pick it up and smash it. If it’s a comedy, fall over it.’
This was a line for me for life: Always use the difficulty.”
From an interview with National Public Radio’s Terry Gross on her program “Fresh Air,” November 17, 1992, collected in Terry Gross, All I Did Was Ask: Conversations with Writers, Actors, Musicians, and Artists (2004)
Here is a youtube video of Caine telling the same story ten years later on Parkinson. Yes, he’s very charming.
What I love about this is how Caine instinctively adapts a theory of acting into a theory of life, essentially equating creative practice with life itself.
For Caine, “Using the Difficulty” means that one responds to the obstacles that life throws at us by performing a spontaneous creative act.
The producer’s explanation, “if it’s a drama, break it; if it’s a comedy trip over it,” suggests that there are many different ways to “use the difficulty.” In the context of the theatre, the playwright and director determine if the play is a comedy or tragedy. But in life, we are both actor and director. We may not write the script, but in choosing how we respond to difficulty, we set the tone of the scene.
Revisiting this idea raises my spirits tremendously during a time in my life when I often feel powerless in the face of certain obstacles. For me, “using the difficulty” is powerfully life affirming; it says that whatever the adversity, we can always work with it creatively.
Caine’s favourite piece of wisdom is equivalent to the golden rule of improvisation: the ethos of “Yes, And” popularized by the Actor/Writer/Teacher Del Close. Both depend upon assuming an attitude of acceptance towards what is happening right here and now.
This does not, emphatically, mean that you approve of or condone the obstacle before you, but that you’ve simply realized that it is in fact real and that you have a decision to make. Will you pick it up to use as a prop? Will you turn it into locked door? A shelter? A battering ram? Will you trip over it for comedic or tragic effect? Ultimately, you get to interpret its meaning and choose your next move.
In making these choices, we make meaning of our lives. We may or may not have control over the difficulties we encounter, but we always have a choice in how we respond to them. The circumstances we find ourselves in may be absurd, unfair or just plain wrong, but when we “use the difficulty” we affirm our freedom to act as conscious co-creators of our story. And, in doing so, we make an art of life.