Using and Misusing Emotions in Acting

Using and Misusing Emotions in Acting_550
Photo Credit: Joe Shlabotnik via cc
We are delighted to republish Prof. John Palmer’s ‘Theatre Briefs’ series, Actor Hub hope you find them as useful as we have.
This series of short essays about acting is reprinted with the kind permission of Professor John P Palmer of London, Ontario, Canada. He wrote these ‘Theatre Briefs’ for use by students and fellow actors during classes and rehearsals. Where he has relied on material from others, they are cited.
At no time in this examination of the Intentions of Ratso and Joe in ‘Midnight Cowboy’ have we attempted to analyse their emotions, and for an excellent reason. The mistake many beginning actors make is to list feelings in the margins of their script- ”Sad” “Sadder” “ Angry” – as if in performance one could summon up these feelings on call. Stanislavski cautioned us that actors who turned their objective minds to this task “Here’s the moment where I get mad” usually only produced an illustration or indication of clichéd emotion. He advised us to concentrate instead on executing the subjective Intentions of the character in the moment; in doing so, he predicted that genuine emotion would be “lured” to the surface through concentrated physical activity.
Jack Nicholson once said: “(I don’t go into a scene saying) this character should be sad. I go in knowing he wants this, and the environment is that, and this is how he’s going to approach the problem, and I try to make it even more important than it would be to the character, and that creates feeling. Whatever feeling my trying to achieve this end creates, that’s the emotion.”
Your character’s “wants” are your specific Intentions moment-to-moment; “the environment” is usually the obstacle(s) keeping you from getting it (often another person, sometimes a place). “Approaching the problem” is how you realise your intention. “Making it more important” is what Michael Shurtleff means when he says
“Your intention should never be a casual desire; it must be a matter of life and death.”
If we examine the scene analysed so far, we see that Ratso first dismissed his friend Joe’s generous gift of medicine and clothing, earned with the money of Joe’s first score as gigolo, because Joe bought them instead of stole them. Joe, with his usual naiveté, reassures his friend that they will soon be rolling in money. Ratso apologises and confesses to his friend that he is worried to death about what will happen to him if he goes the hospital. After this confession, the author then describes Ratso’s and Joe’s actions
(Ratso is trembling so violently that the soup slops over. Joe takes it, lifts Ratso and carries him to the bed. Scowling, alarmed, Joe places the medicines on the bed beside Ratso and picks up his hat)
Joe’s intentions here are clear: “I want to GET HELP ASAP.”
Joe realises this intention by physical activity: picking up the medicine on the table and going for his hat. KS’s contention was that if the actor attempted to execute these physical actions truthfully — placing the medicine beside the sick, picking up his hat — as the character would in the urgency of the moment, emotion would come as a consequence of this truthful action, and without the actor having to think about it. KS also contended that in performance, every time the actor re-experienced this moment physically night-after-night, action would trigger emotion.
8Joe:“That should hold you till I get back.”
(8. Intention: “ I want to REASSURE”)
9Ratso:“Where you going?”
(9. Intention: “I want to CONFIRM my suspicion.”)
9Joe:“Joe: Gotta get a doctor.”
(9. Intention: “I want to INFORM.”)
10Ratso:“Don’t be so dumb.”
(10. Intention: “I want to INSULT or INTIMIDATE”)
10aRatso:“No doctors. No cops. You ain’t gonna send me to Bellevue. Once they get their hooks in you you’re dead.”
(10A: Intention: “ I want to REITERATE my fears.” “ I want to CONVINCE him that I am right”)
10bRatso:“Don’t be so goddamn dumb.”
(10B: Intention: “ I want to INSULT him again.”)
10Joe:“You’re sick! What in hell you gonna do?”
(10. Intention: “I want to REMIND him of his condition.)
11Ratso:“Florida. I just get to Florida I’ll be fine.”
(11.Intention: “ I want to OFFER a solution”)
11Joe:“I can’t go to Florida now!”
(11.Intention: “ I want to REFUTE that suggestion”)
You’ll notice that in this rapid volley of dialogue, the intentions changed line – to – line. No two actors will realise these intentions in the same way; hence the creativity of the trained actor is never inhibited by this sort of careful analysis before and during rehearsal.
How you as an individual actor attempt to REASSURE, INFORM, REMIND, and REFUTE will be entirely different in execution than any other actor. In the same way, the actor playing Ratso may have the same intentions as another playing the role — To CONFIRM, INSULT, CONVINCE, REITERATE, OFFER — but within the confines of this carefully worked out design or roadmap, he is free to execute these intentions in any way possible. He may shout, whisper, move around the room, sit still, speak slowly or quickly, mumble or articulate his dialogue exactly as he (or his director) chooses. Whatever the final choice, the essential intentions remain the structure and the underpinning that supports the actor’s improvisational creativity. As Sandy Meisner said:
“How you do what you do is your character.”
To that I would add:
“And your characterisation will never be anyone else’s.”
As in any well-written dramatic scene, we have now come to an impasse between characters. The individual hidden and previously unexpressed Super-Objectives have surfaced and clashed: Ratso cannot ESCAPE to Florida if Joe, who wants to MAKE IT BIG, refuses to take him there. When this happens in a scene, we have reached what has been translated from Stanislavski’s writings as a beat, a major shift in intention, a conflict to be resolved, or not resolved by end of scene.
The beat is a major and often explosive shift in colour, but, as we have seen, a performance is not made up exclusively of these great shifts. An original characterisation is really constructed of hundreds (thousands?) of minor and major intentions, each truthfully realised by speech and movement in the moment, moment-to-moment. The skilled actor does not just enter the scene revved up and full of intense emotion, praying that s/he will somehow be inspired in an improvisational manner. Instead, s/he prepares for performance by creating a design or roapmap of intentions [the next brief].
As we do not drive with a roadmap in front of our face, neither do we need to consciously and objectively tick off these changing intentions as we move through the scene during performance.
How do we learn to do that?
The great cellist and conductor, Pablo Casals, once told his orchestra, “Gentlemen, now that we have learned the notes, please forget them.” By consciously and painstakingly stringing together the diversely coloured beads which are the intentions and realisations of the scene, we are giving our objective (actor) self time to memorize the precise notes of the actor’s score. By doing this at home and in rehearsal, we aid ourselves by creating a state of understanding which makes it possible for the subjective (character) self to relax and “forget” the notes.
In actual performance, our character Self always appears to dominate, but if we really look carefully in the wings, we will observe that our Actor Self is always there, score in hand, should we need it.
From work by By Norman B. Schwartz (with permission)
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