This isn’t an academic essay. If it were I would track down the book whose anecdote I’m about to tell. Instead you’ll have to trust that I’m not making it up, and that ultimately it serves a point.
The anecdote involves a famous French actor, well, a long time ago, for our purposes lets say it was the early 1800s as you’ll see it doesn’t really matter it’s time-period as long as it isn’t recent, say after the 1880s when Stanislavski started working things out. Have I lost you yet?
The famous actor in this play had a stirring emotional monologue where he was mourning for someone (again, it would be useful to have the source and play but it doesn’t really matter.) At which point, the actor started to cry real tears. When he got off stage, and the play was finished, he gathered his company and said, in so many words:
“I’m sorry, I won’t ever let that happen again.”
What had happened, if I recall, is that the actor had just suffered a loss in his life, and the content of the monologue had triggered something in him that made him cry. He was crying the tears of the character, but also his own. Somehow, he had done something so wrong that he must apologize to his cast!
So what is this upside-down acting world?
Inherent in every actors journey is their desire to cry real tears on stage/on film. Actors often feel ashamed if they cannot, or if they use the Joey Tribiani trick and start plucking hairs or worse yet, use a menthol stick! Isn’t Denzel Washington the greatest actor of all time because of his “Glory Tear?”
Well, nowadays one can’t help but to separate good acting and bad acting as acting that is felt and experienced and acting that is merely demonstrative, the kind of acting that is artifice, indicated, dare I say it — technical!
However, in this French actor’s time, the art resided almost entirely in the technique. Not only in the technical grasp of the language, its rhythms and poetry, something we can relate to nowadays with something like Shakespeare, but also in the expression of an emotion through learned expressions and gestures.
To give it a present day context, you can find it in the historical traditions of Italian Commedia-del-arte, Kabuki or even Japanese Noh theatre. The point is not to put yourself into the art, the point is to carry forth a tradition that requires painstaking dedication to a time honored tradition that is passed on. Pantalone, the old man character of Commedia traditon walks a certain way, even talks a certain way and diverting too far is not encouraged.
If that’s the point, its understandable that to do the opposite is frowned upon, its a kind of narcissism in a way, a disrespect to the tradition, an anti-thesis to well, the way to do things!
So I set all this up to say that perhaps our acting tradition has gone a little too far in the other direction.
I was reminded of this by an actor working in my class encountering a challenge that I have faced myself. That challenge — a panic attack.
Panic attacks, as some of you may know, can be triggered suddenly. While they may be creeping up on your unconscious, their onset can be sudden and horrible. They invade your body and put you in state of primitive distress. You feel like you’re dying sometimes, you can’t get a good breath in. Everything is closing in on you.
Now the difficulty if everything is coming from within is that to arrive at such an altered state is a tall order. In a way, if the scene is leading up to it (for context I’m talking about the character of Pale from “Burn This” by Lanford Wilson) then all along the way there’s a part of the actor, a more conscious part, unlike the character who is blindsided by the panic attack, that is kind of always thinking “okay, remember I’m leading up to this panic attack, okay, here we go, only a few more lines…do I have enough built into this? Is it going to be believable?”
Is it possible? Of course. Is it the only way? Not at all.
This is where abandoning the tyranny of only working from within might be a good idea, and this is where we encounter how demonstrative acting has a truth too, one that can be as beautiful as the personal, method-built acting that has dominated our acting world ever since Stanislavski entered the scene.
Action, or acting from with-out, or outside-in is a part of our lived experience too.
Our teacher once shared with us, that on a physiological level, action precedes emotion.
The bear appears. You run, then you’re scared. Not the other way around.
It doesn’t feel like this is alway the case, but with primitive emotions, we are far more mechanical than thoughtful.
This feels incredibly against what so much of our acting training tells us.
I had a different teacher once who told us — “don’t do anything until you feel like doing it.” I got his point, or do now, but what if I never felt like doing anything? If I took that advice when I was about to go on-stage in a full on depressive episode, I might never say my first line, I might just stand there frozen in the wings. How would I become Brando then?
I bring up Brando because he’s the quintessential modern actor. Or at least, was. Everything seems to be coming from a deep pool. He mumbles because that’s who he is. He seemingly withdraws (or stays neutral) instead of leaning forward. We’re still seeing his descendants carrying forth what they believe was the ultimate purity of his craft.
But what dear reader if you can take that too far?
In conclusion. I’m all for acting from within. That is how I work too after all. I do firmly believe however that there is something to be learned from that which we’ve run so far away from — technical performing craft.
I realize you might be wondering — what should this actor who is having a panic attack be doing then? Well, its not that complicated. If you simulate or “fake” the symptoms of a panic attack, you’ll quickly find that you start to feel the psychological effects of it. The same can be attributed to forcing yourself to laugh hysterically — you’ll soon find that it can actually make you laugh. Or even crying — I usually find a combination of being rooted in the grief combined with just hurtling yourself into the act can do the trick. It all depends on how you’re feeling — for that day when you’re absolutely not feeling it and you go for broke with technical ability, at least you’ll know there’s a French actor in the heavens looking down on you proudly.