In psychology, emotion is often defined as a complex state of feeling that results in physical and psychological changes that influence thought and behavior. Many professional actors I work with admit that this never happens to them whilst performing. Emotional things do happen, yes, but not emotional identification with character. At any rate, not in performance. It may occur briefly as part of the rehearsal process, however, not onstage in front of an audience.
This raises a number of vital questions doesn’t it?
Let’s have a look at the first question from my last blog.
Why is the actor in performance not experiencing inner emotional alignments with the character being portrayed?
In a bit of luck, I had lunch with my friend, well known London-based Australian actress Frances O’Connor (The Missing, Mr Selfridge, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Conjuring 2), who is currently in Sydney filming the groundbreaking ABC series, Cleverman, created by Ryan Griffen, and we got the chance to discuss this very topic.
Being a fan of Fran’s work, and after recently witnessing her harrowingly truthful performance in The Missing, I was excited to ask her what she thought about identification with character emotion when acting and what she thought about using personal choices to align herself with the character’s emotions within the given circumstance of the story.
The first thing she said was,
“The best actors I know and work with are really good at ‘pretends.’ They love it and were probably really good at it in the playground, or in their room, or garden at home.”
I wasn’t too surprised by her first response. We had a laugh about it and shared personal anecdotes about playing “pretends” as children.
A bit later, over a cup of tea, Frances went on to clarify that in certain moments and only when necessary, she substitutes personal and emotionally impacting choices to become deeply involved in emotional scenes on film. Subsequently, she repeated her caveat, that she did so only when she felt she needed to, and that most of the time during a scene, she identified with the other actors as actors and worked to affect them moment to moment stating, “I’m not playing the idea of characters.”
I asked, “If not character empathy, what is the actor actually experiencing?” To which she responded,
Well, a lot of the time it’s all encompassed in my imagination. I like to connect the imaginative to something real, something I can see, feel, and use. I play ‘pretends’ like when we were kids! It’s dress ups – the only difference as adults is our professional focus and concentration. It is only necessary to have enough belief to feel.
She told me about the above key concept for her and how it is clarified in a book she likes to dip into when working on a gig: Notes to An Actor by Ron Marasco. This is a good book for professional actors, as it offers simple practical advice without the gobbledygook guru nonsense. It gives the actor a feel of being at the coal face, like getting notes from a good director.
In the book, Ron Marasco talks about acting emotion and I really like his take on it. His ideas resonate with me on a deep level, so thanks to Frances O’Connor, I’d like to share the bit about believing in the reality of the work . . .
Actors worry about how much belief they need to have in the imaginary circumstances of the play. They sometimes feel a kind of artistic guilt about it and wonder, “Am I believing enough, or am I just a faker?” It’s a fair question.
Exactly how much belief should you have? When you look out the stage window to say the line about the cherry orchard that your character is supposedly seeing, should you really see a cherry orchard appear, like a mirage? Or do you just see what’s really there – the potbellied stagehand who’s preparing the next cue? And if you see more stagehand than orchard, does that mean you are not a good actor?
The answer is very simple. You only need enough belief to make you feel. Don’t worry about how vividly you imagine something, because it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s enough to generate emotion for yourself. That’s all.
Any actor who tells you he or she completely believes in the circumstances is either a liar or nuts. I have never heard of an actor playing Hamlet who was so convinced he was dead at the end of the play that he forgot to get up and take his curtain call.
Read In Depth: Ron Marasco for more.
Yoshi Oida in his great book The Invisible Actor tells the story of a Zen master who likened humans to puppets held up by strings. At the moments of birth and death these strings are drawn tight or suddenly severed. When people die, he said, the string is cut and, with a sound the puppet collapses. It is the same for actors when performing onstage. You are a puppet held up and manipulated by the ‘strings’ of your mind. If the audience see the ‘strings’, the performance isn’t interesting. Although you need to maintain powerful concentration at all times, during action and during stillness, this must never be visible; the audience should never see you concentrating.
As you reflect on what you have learned in 2016, remember to keep on acting and making art in 2017! I wish all of you and yours a happy and relaxing holiday, and hope you return in January feeling motivated and inspired about all the possibilities that 2017 will bring.
P.S. I’m thrilled to share that earlier this year I played the title role of Asher Lev in the play “My Name Is Asher Lev” at The Eternity Playhouse Sydney, today we have notice we have received a prestigious theatre award nomination.
The 2016 Taffy Davies Memorial Award for the Most Outstanding Independent Production
My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok starring John O’Hare, Tim McGarry & Annie Byron Dir: Moira Blumenthal.