I was giving an overview of my approach to a group of students at a local acting school. Near the end of my talk, a student who had had a bit of a Strasberg background raised her hand and posed the question that gives this post its title.
As a student of the Strasberg approach, she had been taught that she needed to use emotional memory to infuse a scene with vitality and interest. Without the actor’s own experience, the scene would be devoid of feeling and therefore of interest, she apparently thought.
At that moment, since all I was doing was giving an overview of my approach, there was little I could do to respond beyond reiterate some of the points that I had already made: namely, that we all have a hunger for connection and meaningful relationship, and that what we would attempt to do was to bring that need to bear on the imaginary circumstances of the character. But I knew that, especially given her beliefs about what it took for a scene to come to life, this wasn’t going to mean much to her. All I could do was assure her that over the course of the class I was beginning to teach with them, she would come to understand what I was talking about. Trust me, in other words.
With this group of students, I was beginning with a so-called “neutral scene”. This is a familiar enough acting class assignment: students have to play a scene with no help from the text or dialogue, which was comprised of utterances such as “Okay–Please—” and “Come on!”. I have a particular way of working with the neutral scene that requires students to invent a fully developed scenario, with characters that have rich pasts and dreams for the future, and also have activities in the present situation that they can pursue independently of the scene partner. It’s a challenging exercise that takes students a few weeks to complete, from scenario generation to approval of the final presentation.
We were looking at such a neutral scene, and it became clear that a prior encounter in the lives of the characters was lacking in definition: the actors knew what the upshot of the discussion between the characters was, but not what had actually been said. I discussed with the actors at length the nature of the relationship, the situation, and the needs in question, and then asked them to improvise that past encounter that seemed to be lacking in definition. They did the improv, and the result was unexpectedly spectacular. Unexpectedly, not because the actors in question weren’t good, but because in my experience such improv explorations devolve into expository exercises, in which the characters explain the circumstances to each other, rather than really pursue from each other. But for whatever reason, that was not the case this time. The confrontation in the scene was painful and involving, in the way that the situation, a fight between best friends, should have been.
I sat for a moment, thrilled at what the students had done, and then I turned to the woman who had posed the question about where the emotion came from, and asked her where the “emotion” had come from in this case. The woman nodded her head, and then answered that it had come from the actors’ understanding of what was happening in the scene. She had understood that it was entirely possible to do compelling work WITHOUT recalling an episode of her own life, but beyond that, that drama was about relationship, about what was happening between people, as much as it was about what was happening inside anyone.
In my experience and in the approach presented to me at Yale, clear and compelling descriptions of the circumstances and needs in a scene are the main fuel for the actor’s work. I do teach transference, a technique for using relationships from the actor’s personal experience to help clarify the nature of the relationships in the script, but this is a technique for preparation, not a rehearsal or performance technique. And I think of transference, if not as something supplemental, at least as secondary to the process of really coming to grips with the circumstances and finding a strong, immediately-gratifiable need to pursue. Transference can amplify an actor’s investment in another character, but without the channels of need and desired outcome to pursue to direct this investment towards, that investment is like an idling engine: full of power, but not going anywhere yet. And often, I think the power of clear, sharp accounts of circumstances, desired outcomes and needs are underestimated: their power to ignite a scene, to imbue it with urgency and vulnerability, is seldom understood. Even as I demonstrate this power in my class, again and again, I find that students often take a while to fully absorb this power and its implications for their work as actors.
“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes.)…And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”–Ludwig Wittgenstein