It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? “I mean what I say all the time!” you’re probably scoffing to yourself. “What’s so hard about being an actor if that’s all there is to it?”
The difference is that when you say a sentence in real life, it comes from all the feelings and circumstances you’ve experienced in the months, weeks, days, and often minutes leading up to that moment. You can’t separate what you’re about to say from what you’re thinking and feeling, unless you’re a phenomenal liar or a fantastic manipulator.
As an actor, you’re looking at that same sentence from ground zero. Unless you had a hand in writing the material (and even that’s no guarantee), chances are you’re going to have to imagine up all of those months and minutes and actions and feelings and thoughts. Most actors are familiar with Stanislavki’s term given circumstances – a misleadingly innocuous little phrase meaning all of the work you’ll have to do to reach a point that enables that one little sentence to sound authentic.
I’m not gonna lie – for a big role, it’s often a LOT of work. Not unpleasant work (I get to imagine, play around, explore, try things out), but nevertheless, it takes a lot of commitment, thought, and time to make someone else’s words sound authentic in your mouth and to inspire the current of appropriate emotion underpinning it all.
Which is why, in some situations, it’s appropriate to borrow some ready-made emotion from your own life.
I’m not going to call this a trick, because that makes it sound cheap and cheating. Rather, let’s call it a shortcut, because you can often use the feelings of your own mind to springboard into a character’s world. And once you’re there, you can flesh out that life on its own terms.
I should note that I would never try to tackle a full play or musical like this! But in the early stages of playing with scenes and songs, or if I were having trouble connecting with something in the moment, it’s a great tool to help connect you. It’s also valuable in an audition, as there’s so little time to show them “a character” that it’s better just to show them who you are through your monologue or song. In fact, that’s what they usually ask for, particularly at open calls: “Just show us YOU, doing something you love!”
How does it work exactly? Well, everyone’s different. Some people like to pull up past boyfriends or angry grudges from childhood injustices. However, while I’ve always been wary of that kind of work, feeling that it isn’t healthy, I’ve also found that it just doesn’t work for me! My religious beliefs as a Christian Scientist emphasize forgiveness and finding peace, and so I’ve moved on emotionally from most of the junk I experienced growing up. That being said, I’m oh-so-very human, and I promise you, I am working through plenty of resentment, fear, and desire every day.
So that’s what I turn to. Whether it’s panic about my career, or frustration with a relationship, or delirious glee over a change of events, I simply ask myself, honestly, What am I feeling right now? And if there’s some situation that immediately leaps to mind as similar to whatever I’m singing or speaking about, then I work with that.
For example, in the last week, I became more aware of – and more agitated about – my stagnation regarding my performing career. Despite a number of reasons being perfectly legitimate (lots of pay-the-bills-er work, multiple church responsibilities, etc.), the fact was that I knew I was letting myself slide into old habits, and it was eating me up inside.
So in class on Monday, I saw how much I related to the song I was singing, “The Life I Never Led,” from the recent Broadway production of Sister Act (which was somehow even better than the movie, I think due to Alan Menken’s phenomenal disco score). It had been weeks since I’d been in class, weeks since I’d auditioned, and weeks since I’d really allowed myself to sing.
Well, it’s a heck of a song and full of passion, and when I hit the line, “And how, how can I go on ignoring the waste of it [my life]?”, everything clicked. It felt like my body opened up and my soul poured into the air on my cry of despair. I was discovering my own thoughts at the same time as expressing them, and it was deeply, wonderfully cathartic.
When you achieve a perfect synchronicity between your life and the material you’re performing, the result is a hair-raising, spine-tingling, gut-wrenching performance that soars through every fiber of your being. It’s what you often hear actors refer to as “being in the moment” – emotional honesty. Meaning what you say like that makes you feel more vulnerable and more alive than anything! It’s humbling and exhilarating and finished almost before you’ve had time to register it.
Those few minutes of transcendence are what every actor dreams of. It may seem a little selfish (and to an extent, it can be), but it’s also the most unselfish thing an actor can do – for that’s the honesty necessary to reach and move an audience. And that’s what we’re all in it for.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/imagesbywestfall/5093910979/”>greg westfall.</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a>