Friday, October 14, 2011

Reflections on Acting - Part II

At this point, the next question might be: "Where does that emotional flow you need in order to give life to a character come from"?
By now, I think it is clear we are not referring to an emotion coming from the thrill of being performing. We are referring to Othello's jealousy, Hamlet's chagrin, Henry Higgins's chauvinism, Blanche Du Bois's destructive impulses and disordered mind. How can I produce such states without being Othello, Hamlet, Henry Higgins, or Blanche Du Bois? Not being Hamlet means that I have no idea what it feels like to have my father killed by my uncle, who has then married my mother, thus creating a   perverted and almost incestous bondage.
Someone might ask, "Why not simply act?".
Acting, like, pretending I am someone I am not and deceive people who pay a ticket into believing that what I am displaying are true feelings even though they are not? No, I am not going to do it. The world and real life are full of deception already. By no means will I convert to it. "Acting" would mean using a whole series of stereotypical actions and ways to express the human condition which, in fact, have little to do with the latter. It would all result in a sterile and bleak representation of life, or rather an act of mockery agaisnt life itself that does not fall into my purpose and interest.

Back to our question: where does the emotional flow come from? How can I reproduce it in a given moment? This is where Stanislavsky comes into play. I just have to dig into myself, like rummaging into an old trunk that for thousands of years has been passed down from generation to generation and, as it crossed the centuries, has gathered within itself - and has become the container of - all the psychic and emotional states of humankind. I said Stanislavsky, but I meant to say Jung. Let me not talk about Jung here, though*. The importance of Stanislavsky, however, was in proposing a method to bring all this seemingly abstract and conceptual hubbub to the practical context of the performance.

To finally complete the answer, an emotion cannot stem from a fictitional character; I will look in vain when I try to feel the way someone feels if I have never been through the same or similar experiences. What I can do, instead, is ask myself: "How would I feel IF I were put into that specific context**" which, in this case, is a merely fictional one? Here is a good start. A hypothesis always implies a real possibility. It does not matter how absurd the hypothesis might be; there is always a minimal possibility that it might happen, and this is good in terms of our purpose. If we have a bit of sensitivity, it will not be too hard to come to a rational as well as a theoretical answer.

* I will deal with Jung and his theories, Freud, psychoanalysis, psychology, and their role in the art of acting in a few months, upon completing and revising some written material I am working on and some research I have been conducting.

**As Lee Strasberg pointed out in A Dream of Passion, Stanislavski was highly unsatisfied with his theory of the "magic if", as he called it. The theory was incomplete and could be applied successfully to many but not all contexts. Strasberg suggested a completion to the "magic if" theory, which will be dealt with in some future articles.  


  1. Hi Jacopo,
    I've heard that your emotions can be real if they come from a real place. For instance, some actors say that when they need to cry they think of something extremely sad therefore real tears well up. You're right, emotions cannot be feigned. That's why great actors have been awarded Oscars for their amazing performances, one that got their audience enthralled and connected.

  2. Yes, they do. Each actor has their own strategy. After researching, experimenting, and working on the character they know what makes them cry and what doesn't, so they use it. It's usually something that belongs to the actor's own past though, or something that directly affects them emotionally. Personally, I wouldn't feel like crying thinking of Jesus on the Cross; some other actor would, though, probably.
    Acting is an interesting psychological experiment! One actors need to be careful with though.

    You never miss a post! Thank you my friend.

  3. Hi Jacopo - I just wanted to thank you for getting in touch! My blog is more of a study blog for my degree course rather than a blog about acting...but I am sure we can share some ideas. I will follow yours with interest. Even from reading your recent article and spending a little time in NYC earlier this year, it's interesting for me to observe the differences in attitudes between British and American actors. We are mostly very lazy (!), very few actors go to classes or engage in further training after drama school...they just learn on the job. I think that is slowly changing though in a very positive way - there is always more to learn, and practising your craft in a class scenario means it's safe to experiment and make mistakes. Look forward to reading more of your stuff.

  4. Dear Stephanie,
    Thank you for commenting. I really appreciate your feedback.
    I study at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. There are very few American actors there though. Most of us are European, including the UK! I actually find nothing wrong with learning on the job. It probably calls for more sensitivity and intuition. I'm one of those myself, learning on the job, but I decided to study a bit more because of some aspects I needed to develop and refine in terms of character preparation and emotional expression.

    Great, follow me, I post every Saturday! I'll come by and read your posts too!