Does this photo make you feel something? That’s me on a hike in Sequoia, and I remember the feeling of standing there, above the clouds, with the cold wind on my face and all the world stretched before me. It gives me a thrill of joy and hugeness to see this, to remember that moment.
There is a style of acting known as Grotowski. Now, it’s a whole complex system of digging and following your natural feelings and I’m not going to go into all of it, but I will share with you budding actors and writers out there what I took from my study of it. What worked, and still works, for me, on the stage, and on the page.
Here’s how I first discovered it. I was working with an actor who was playing a Mob boss. The director wasn’t happy with the way he was entering the room for the scene. He told him, “More arrogant!”
Now, that’s all very good and well as a direction, but it isn’t the kind of thing you can emotionally play. Yet, the actor thought for a moment, left the stage and entered again. This time, his entire body language was transformed, his head was higher, a secret smile played on his lips and he stood with utter confidence.
I was stunned at how fast he’d made the change. The director said, “Wow, okay, what did you just do?”
“Oh,” the actor replied, “I just imagined a warm tropical breeze blowing on my face.”
Wow is right. Think about it. Take a moment to imagine the sensation of a balmy breeze lifting the hair around your face and caressing your body, relaxing your muscles with it’s perfect temperature and see how it changes your body language and stance. That’s the day I started using exterior sensations to create attitudes and emotions.
Cut to a moment in a film when I’m doing my sixteenth take and I’m waiting just inside a door knowing that any second, someone will come through it and kill me. Mind you, no one will in this take, they’ll shoot that later, so I have to create the moment. As the camera rolls, I imagine a large hairy spider at the base of my spine. I can feel all eight of its tiny claws clasping my skin. As the director calls ‘action,’ I imagine it beginning to move, crawling, slowly at first, up my spine. Then as the moment comes when I ‘react’ to the door flying open, a moment that will be shot later, I imagine the spider scuttles up to the base of my neck and sinks in its fangs. I shudder, scream, and pretty much lose it.
Pretty good substitute right? I mean, if you give it a moment, you will physically feel something that you are imagining fully. For actors, we keep the interior dialogue silent, and show the emotion.
For writers, it’s the opposite. We show the emotion by writing the interior dialogue. “She sat, petrified, as though at the base of her spine, a black widow was testing it’s fangs over her tender skin.”
Or some such. See? works both ways.
The best acting, of course, is a combination of so many things. I have a friend who was one of only two in his entire class graduating with a masters in acting. During the final exam/performance for the professors, the other actor broke down and started to sob. “I can’t do this.”
The professors invited him to sit down and asked what was going on. He said, “I can’t do it. I’m supposed to be connected with my eyes, ears and body, I’m supposed to be ‘in my spine.’ I’m trying to remember my history, my choices, my sensory work, and the character’s intentions. Not to mention the vocal placement, dialect, etc. I just can’t do it all at the same time.”
Out of the dark theatre came a voice. “You’re not supposed to do all of that at once. No one could. The point is to have done the work, have those techniques available, and then let go and let it all come through.”
The actor raised his tear stained face to the silhouettes in the dark and said, “Oh.”
Fortunately for my friend, the other guy had gone first. So he was spared making the same mistake.
We try all of these methods, some things work for us, some things don’t. We all ‘connect’ differently. Some in our eyes, some in our ears, some in our bodies. I’m more physical. It suits me. Think of an aggressive person who gets in your face. You might cross your arms or take a step backwards, that’s being connected in your body, almost anyone would tense up. An actor who thinks it’s tough to not react at all, is not connected physically. We’ll do more on this next time.
The point is, learn it, try it, use what works. Don’t be afraid to go there, and don’t be afraid to throw it out. Writers, did you already make that point? Do you really need to do it with four more metaphors? Cut it!!
That’s what my first editor, a fabulous woman named Amy Peirpont would have called, “Too purple.” I learned a lot from her.
So keep all the feeling, make big choices, and don’t be too purple, maybe a shade of soft lavender would be best for this book-character-role.
But no matter what, feel the wind on your face, and smile.