Thoughts on Acting
This has been on my mind a lot, lately; obviously: because I’m in a play, and surrounded by actors, all of whom are engaged in their “processes.” For the non-actors out here, “process” is extremely important to actors. There are fights about what is a good “process”–though everyone generally agrees that process is unique–we kind of jealously guard the methods we use in our process, too.
I once read an interview with Alan Moore in which he talked about the creative process, and how so many writers don’t like to talk about it as though it’s a real thing, but a kind of magic thing; he attributed this to writers not really understanding how they do what they do, and fearing that close scrutiny would spoil the whole thing.
Anyway, so that’s a trouble that we have in establishing exactly what’s going on with actors onstage: actors are superstitious in the first place, and in the second place many of them think there are things that science can’t understand, which throws a monkey-wrench into the act of trying to understand something.
I like science, and here’s why: human beings are terrible at understanding things. I mean, really: we’re shitty at it. This is a list of logical fallacies; these are things that, if we left everything up to our caveman instincts, we would just assume were true all the time. Look at that list! It’s long. Our brains are imperfectly-designed engines for apprehending the universe, and that imperfection yields flaws in our reasoning. We invented science precisely to obviate this fact.
So–I’m getting to my point, hang on–one of the things that you hear actors talk about is “energy.” Getting energy from the audience, giving energy back to the audience, the transfer of energy, emotional energy, &c, &c. There are a lot of actors that get into feng shui or tai chi or reiki precisely because of this thinking, in fact.
If you ask them, “How do you know that you’re getting energized by the audience”, they will tell you they can feel it. And that’s interesting, because I’ll definitely agree that I can feel something when I’m onstage and I’ve got a lively audience, and that feeling is manifestly dissimilar from when I’m onstage and I haven’t got an audience.
But what is this energy? Are we burning extra calories when we’re onstage (well, we are doing work)? How do those calories transform into a transmissible form? It’s plainly not heat that the audience is feeling, that gets them excited, because then they’d just be excited every time it gets hot out. Are there magnetic waves that are propagating from the actor to the audience, that they’re somehow receptive to? We can call an actor’s performance “electric”, of course, but this is a metaphor–there is no actual electricity in the room.
Now, let’s consider what happens the first time that you go onstage, and you feel this “energy.” You feel something, anyway, right? But you’ve got no real frame of a reference for it, because the circumstances under which you feel it are unique. Someone tells you that you were getting energy from the audience, and you conclude that this must be what getting energy from the audience feels like. And why not? It’s got to be something. In the future, when you experience the thing again, that’s what you call it.
And because you call it “energy,” you start talking about it the way that you talk about other kinds of energy. In particular, you talk about it in terms of transfer, because that’s what energy does–it moves from one place to another. So, when I say, “No, I don’t think there is any energy transferred,” it’s easy to mistake what I’m saying; when I say this to actors, usually they think I mean, “You didn’t experience what you experienced,” which is obviously false. But what I’m really saying is that “this is a misleading metaphor to describe what you’re experiencing.”
What if, instead of talking about getting energy from the audience, we talked about getting information from the audience? Or about a kind of resonance, or sympathy. That is: we know that people respond emotionally when we see emotion. The information about the emotional state, conveyed through typical means (onstage, usually visual and auditory cues; sometimes olfactory ones), reaches the audience. They respond emotionally. And, because their responses prompt their own cues, however subtle, and because the actor is right there with them, the actor receives information that results in his or her own reaction.
The practical effect is the same, obviously: actors and audiences respond to each other. But the difference in the metaphor yield different approaches in understanding. Using the resonant information model, for instance, there’d likely be nothing interesting about Reiki.
More than that, though — I think there’s something about the idea of energy transfer that suggests an implicit value of emotional truth. That is: since energy is passed from actor to audience, the stronger the energy of the actor, the stronger the response of the audience. Often, therefore, the assumption is that a “real” emotion in the actor will produce more energy.
And, certainly, why not? That genuine emotions take a physical toll on the body, and therefore represent a significant expenditure of energy is manifest.
But this is only true if we’re really talking about energy. What if we’re talking about information? Is a genuine emotion a more powerful force than a “fake” emotion?
If I may go back to one of my initial theses: it’s worth noting that human beings are really terrible at understanding things. We don’t recognize “truth” just because we see it — indeed, the history of our species is the history of an animal that does everything within its power to avoid recognizing the truth. The “truth” of an emotion is then unlikely to be compelling, since it’s not “truth” that we actually see.
Instead, what we perceive are many visual and auditory cues — some are, no doubt, quite small and subtle. Filling oneself with a genuine emotion is likely to fill out all of those tiny cues, but it’s problematic on a number of levels. Firstly, onstage, it makes you more likely to forget your lines, or accidentally hurt someone doing a fight, or cause you to “break” (i.e., start laughing and be unable to stop) when you lose the thread of the emotion. Secondly, it invariably makes your emotional responses closer to your own, personal responses, rather than the responses of your character. Not everyone gets angry the same way, for instance; but if you use your real anger as a substitute for the character’s anger, then every character you play is going to get angry the way you do.
The question, I suppose, is one that we must answer scientifically: that is, BY EXPERIMENT. It’s hard to create a controlled experiment, but it is theoretically possible that an audience that is not informed of which actors are using the affect of genuine emotion and which actors are using particular effects of emotion could be question regarding the actor’s believability.
If we are to say that it’s important that emotional states onstage be genuine, then the first thing we must do is establish: can audiences tell the difference?