An Actor’s Guide to Preparing Emotionally

An Actor's Guide to Preparing Emotionally_550
Photo Credit: Ally Aubry 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.
Almost all the great actors and directors at the Group Theatre (1931-1941) who went on to teach the next generation put great emphasis on Emotion and Emotional Preparation. The necessity for Truthful Feeling became the hallmark of American acting training in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
It was Lee Strasberg’s belief, held till the end of his life, that the golden key to this verisimilitude was Emotion Memory, also known as Affective Memory. The actor recalled some intense past experience, summoned up the sights and smells of that memory, and with it all the emotions involved. S/he then used that recaptured emotion for the character s/he was playing. Sandy Meisner, Bobby Lewis and Stella Adler disagreed violently with Strasberg about how to achieve the sort of emotional fullness they had all observed in the great Moscow Art Theatre players who had toured the USA in the 1920’s.
All these methods, useful as they are, do not really prepare the actor for what is about to happen to him or her once s/he enters the scene.
Meisner, Adler, Lewis and others in the Group Theatre felt that this endless digging into past traumas was both unpleasant and painful – ultimately counter-productive as it often made the actor hysterical and unfocused on the role. They looked instead for other means of Emotional Preparation. Meisner eventually advocated fantasizing and daydreaming, Adler absolute belief in the imaginary circumstances. Whatever their technique, all of these great mentors de-emphasised Affective Memory, but emphasised the need for emotional fullness summoned up and held onto before entering the scene.
An actor can certainly use this and any technique to recreate the inner life of the character. Some actors prepare elaborate diaries and scrapbooks, write biographies, recite inner monologues. Others concentrate on what happened to the character five minutes before the play or scene began. And yet all these methods, useful as they are, do not really prepare the actor for what is about to happen to him or her once s/he enters the scene.
No matter how vivid the inner life of your character is, how deeply you feel his/her circumstances, the actor’s ultimate task in dramatic literature is always to DO, not FEEL.
This doing might be as simple as “I want to borrow a cup of flour,” or as complex as “I want to find out who killed my father.(Hamlet)”
Dramatic action does not begin at step 4 of the BAU, i.e., a REACTION to what has happened in the past. It always begins with Step 1: INTENTION.
Before entering the scene, the trained actor focuses on deciding what s/he must DO NOW to accomplish his/her super-objective. This specific intention is always married with a physical execution, usually speech and/or movement, which is Step 2 of the BAU or REALISATION. The choice the actor makes is always personal in that it reflect his/her individual point of view of the character’s behaviour. The more original the choice, the more heightened the verb of action the more powerful the performance.
The actor doesn’t enter prepared to FEEL; s/he enters prepared to DO.
Note from Prof. Palmer –at this point, I have to add that I don’t really care whether you start at step 1 or step 4. Both are essential to good acting! I honestly don’t see how you can act on an intention without being prepared emotionally; at the same time you can’t act the emotion – you must act an intention
From work by By Norman B. Schwartz (with permission)
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