Emotional Inner Life: Playing the Opposite
Emotional states are involuntary, unless they are indulgent.
While we, as actors, want to create the emotion that the characters are experiencing, my character wants to avoid that emotion at all costs.
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.
I am not speaking of neurotic characters who secretly love crying and depression and want more of it. Those people are actors within their own lives. But for now we are discussing the less complex human reactions.
“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.
I may want to indulge myself in my depression, or my love, to try to amplify the emotion, but in fact, 95% of the time, I am being thrown involuntarily into a state of being over which I have no control, and as such, choose to resist.
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.
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.
When my action is laughter, I raise my hand over my mouth, duck my head, bite down on the insides of my cheeks, contract the muscles of the stomach, lift my eyebrows. I even turn down the sides of my mouth and look out from underneath my eyebrows, as if to hide my laughing eyes underneath them.
When I am upset, or angry, I try to diffuse it with uncomfortable jokes that no one else seems to find funny.
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.
If I get sad and cry… if I’m good at conjuring tears, then they come and I play the tears and I’m done. There isn’t much complexity and not much of an action for an audience to follow.
If, however, I am not so good at bringing up the tears, but I spend every last ounce of energy that I have in trying to avoid the tears… trying to stop them from coming, then two things happen:
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.
If I’m putting up such strong resistance to an action, my body jumps to the conclusion that the action itself must be incredibly powerful.
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.
Think of someone who has done you harm. And come up with all of the reasons why you cannot be angry with them. Perhaps they are older, weaker or ignorant. Perhaps they give to charity, or support a family, or do wonderfully creative things in their spare time. I suspect that for every one reason you come up with to not be angry with them, your mind thinks up two more reasons why this reason is irrelevant.
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.
One more consideration: When we fight something, we give substance to that something. We make it “true,” whether on stage or in life. We tend to resist a headache by tensing up our head, resisting any sudden disturbance to our aching brain. And yet it is the process of releasing the tension surrounding the head, allowing the headache to pound itself out, which will give us real relief.
In Driver’s Ed we learn to respond to a skid by turning into the skid. We lose traction and turn into the direction of the slide, where our wheels can gain traction again and steer us out. It is in the process of steering opposite to the skid that we turn our wheels at a 90-degree angle to all of our momentum, which makes the situation worse.
Maintain the fight and you will, as a result, maintain the emotion. By engaging in the fight we give the emotion its reality.
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!”
It is a conversation arguing over the truth of the matter. And as we argue, an essential truth is constructed. That is: that we are having an emotion.
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?
Emotions occur because we have made something very, very important in our lives. And when it moves, we move. We struggle to resist, or we struggle to have. But put another object in its place, something else to absorb our attention and our being, and emotions surrounding the first thing go away. Maybe not immediately, but eventually, acting in accordance with the more highly valued importance of this other thing, we set the first thing aside and move on.
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.
But releasing our resistance, putting another object of greater importance in front of ourselves, initiating a new conversation, changes the emotion.
And some of that is a lesson in life.