There is an age old debate in acting: Do you use your own experience to create a character — essentially presenting “yourself” as the character — or is the character something outside of your experience that you create using your imagination and step into?
Both of these approaches can be limiting in their own way. The “imagination” route can sometimes result in representational acting — presenting ideas in a self-puppeting, superficial, self-conscious ways. This creates hollow artifice, and even if very skilled, an audience can “feel” something deceptive about it — that there is nothing behind the curtain. On the other hand, the “I am the character” method can create limited performances — recycled mannerisms and easily accessed emotions and actions which carry over from character to character without actually serving the story at hand. Which, after all, is the actor’s job: to use their self to serve the story, not the other way around.
So what is the solution to this problem?
When I started college at Boston University, I definitely was in the imagination camp. I was a shy kid, and I saw acting as a way to use my imagination to communicate with others in ways I couldn’t in my real life. As a result, while I let my imagination and my ideas cover my outside like a collage, my interior life was locked away safely. I would even say that I took a certain pleasure in feeling like I was “putting it all out there” while still being safely sequestered inside myself. But what I didn’t know was that very little of my rich, imaginative life was translating externally. Instead, I was stiff, stilted, and unbelievable on stage. My professors helped me to become aware of this and let this eternal shell go to the best of my abilities.
So I tried to do the opposite method, but soon ran into a different obstacle — when I thought of using my “self,” I realized the self I thought of was boring. I tended to be lead towards emoting and expressing a feeling of shame on stage, which I felt I could accurately inhabit (I had a lot of practice at this one). And my vocal work was cautious; I wanted to sound authentic, but I just ended up sounding flat. So, yeah, that didn’t work either.
Two classes made a huge difference in helping me to find the balance. One was a semester of Meisner Technique with David Demke of Shakespeare & Company. This taught me more than anything else that acting was not about “doing and creating,” but instead about being present and responsive. The other, which I’m going to focus on here, was the three-and-a-half years of Alexander Technique I took with Betsy Polatin.
Alexander Technique taught me to think of myself not in limited terms, but as a vast thing that could encompass experiences that weren’t even part of my personal biography. I realized a lot of what I identified as ‘me’ were habitual tensions — both physical and mental, which were associated with anxiety and fear. These tensions painted a picture for me of what I was and wasn’t, which I had become strongly identified with. By helping me to become aware of these tensions and ultimately let them go, Betsy erased this limited self and opened me up to a vaster potential. Alexander Technique helped in my personal life, too. I was able to be much more open, to feel new things, and to act differently with people.
When I returned to acting, a new universe was opened up to me. Instead of being restricted to imagining things that “were or weren’t me,” I realized that characters could have emotions, perspectives, and ways of moving that weren’t so much foreign to me as they were unexplored. Rather than a way of expressing a limited self, acting became for me a way of exploring a vast universe and my boundless intersection with it. Whether I was playing a blind, Welsh sea captain; a closeted, middle-aged Oscar Wilde-obsessed Irishman; or an Iranian civil rights lawyer, all of them were myself without being the same.
Betsy called this “stepping outside your habitual self.” As I have started working with Alexander Technique students of my own, I have come to think of it as helping people to work with an “expanded self” — a way of acting without the constraint of the habitual self. Through this, my students can find an ease in their acting — less of a struggle and more of an unlocking. They don’t have to force themselves there. They can just let go of their constraints and let the character come to them.
Next time you feel stuck while connecting to a character, instead of trying to find a way to find the character in yourself or create them, see what happens if you let go of whatever is keeping you from them, and expand outward, moment by moment, into someplace new and familiar.
Thoughts on what is going on in the work and the world right now. Many posts to come.