Sunday, December 5, 2010

Chapter 21: Emotional Inner Life: Playing the Opposite

 Chapter 21
Emotional Inner Life: Playing the Opposite
Emotional states are involuntary, unless they are indulgent. 
My character is crying. My character wants the tears to dry up and leave him alone so he can get back to life as he had known it. I, as the actor, want the tears to flow freely, so that everyone will believe that I am in character.
My character is depressed. My character wants the depression to go away so he can get back to a happy life. I, as the actor, want the depression to take hold and envelop my being so that everyone in the audience will feel what my character is going through.

“But what about the positive emotions?”
All right, give me an example.

“How about love?”

Well, how about love? What do people experience as their objective when their circumstance is that they are falling in love? Can any of us remember back that far?

I remember wanting to concentrate and get back to work. There I was, thinking of her all day long, when I had a million things to do!

And then there were those occasions where my love was unreciprocated. (Okay, most of the time.) Or even those many, many occasions where I was so certain that any expression of love would go unanswered that I did not even allow myself any indulgence in the sentiment. It was not a happy feeling.

Or even when I allowed myself to indulge a little bit in the emotion, it was not a show of joy. I would pop a disc into the player and sing along to sad, sad, sad, miserable love songs. (“Every time we say goodbye, I die a little.”) If I liked anything, it was the opportunity to indulge in my misery and to feel justified, self righteous, even triumphant in my right to do so!

Which tells me that when an actor plays “falling in love,” and he gets some sort of happy, blissful smile upon his face, he has no real sense of what falling in love is.
Emotional states are involuntary, unless they are indulgent. 
In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare depicts Beatrice and Benedick who have long adored each other, but have hidden that fact successfully over the years through insults and sarcasm. It is only when they discover that the other is supposedly secretly in love with them that they allow themselves to indulge their feelings.

It is a law of physics

In order to maintain balance, every action is followed by an equal and opposite reaction. When the action is crying, my reaction is to tighten my lip, hold open my eyes, widen my nostrils, stiffen my jaw. Perhaps I paste a smile on my face so that no one will know of my sadness.
As an actor, then, the danger is in playing the emotion directly. I would have to be a pretty simple character to simply smile when I am happy, and cry when I am sad. It is, in fact, the effort that I exert to counter that smile, or that cry, that reveals to the world just how powerfully the emotion is acting on me.
1)   The audience has a lot more to follow. Suddenly there is action as an internal struggle rages within me. Rather than an “attitude” that may occupy my face for minutes at a time, an ongoing struggle plays its way across my face as conflicting impulses occupy it for fractions of a second at a time.
2)   I fool myself. As I put up the big fight, biting my lip, brushing away the tears, tensing my neck, holding back breath that is struggling to expel, and inhaling through my nose, before long the opposite will overwhelm me. I am filling myself with the action of “don’t cry,” and the crying will rush in upon me, if only to balance my system.
Cognitively, I may well know you didn’t mean me any harm. The more I work to convince myself of this, the more my being notices the struggle in the convincing. The more the struggle, the less likely the truth of the explanation.
And your emotions are your emotions are your emotions. However much we struggle against them, there they are. They hear your reasoning, and are always there, waiting, with a “yes, but…” The more you fight them, the more powerful and uncontrollable they become, even if your prevalent action is to deny that they even exist. How many times have we heard someone screaming furiously “I’m not angry!”
We don’t like for a force that is out of our control to take hold of us. If we get pushed, our tendency is to push back in the opposite direction. Even if that force is a pleasant one, our initial reaction is to resist. If we can only capture and play that initial reaction of resistance, we capture truth, or what exists as truth, onstage.
And emotions aren’t real.
There is only a process in the being that stirs us in one direction or another. It is, in essence, a conversation that we have with ourselves. A conversation that says, “I must have her, and if I won’t have her I will die…” “That’s ridiculous, I can do quite well without her, thank you very much!…” “But look! Look at her! If I can’t have that…!”
Emotions are constructs of a conversation within ourselves. We can dictate the terms of that conversation. Usually, we play victim to the outcome of that conversation. “I just love him, that’s all! There’s nothing that I can do about it!”
How do we lose an emotion? Really lose an emotion? When we actually want to stop having it, or to have something else as our emotion?
When we see the conversation in our head as something that we can choose, then we can choose new conversations. Eventually, we mourn the dead, absorb the loss, and start again. Some mourn the loss of a loved one for the rest of their life. That’s the conversation they choose. Because they feel it’s a conversation they ought to be having. They generally insist that it is not a choice at all.
Actions aimed at fighting or denying emotions, define them and give them weight and seeming reality. This is the physical manifestation of a conversation we are engaged in. And the more resistance we offer up against the emotion, the longer that emotion will stay with us.
And some of that is a lesson in life.

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